Freedom of expression can strengthen our social bonds, even when we disagree. Here's how to do it.
"Self expression feels good–and it's good for you, too!"
With exceptions like vicious gossip or negative rumination, self expression can be an incredible aid for developing clarity, exploring ideas, generating insight or self-awareness, resolving conflicts, and strengthening your social support network.
Our current climate of cancel culture has curtailed freedom of expression. Many people are afraid to express something that others may dislike; or they may feel extremely threatened just by hearing others disagree. This can trigger social anxiety for some, or anger in others– perhaps even a combination. This is somewhat understandable: Anger is a natural reaction when we feel our boundaries have been violated, and anxiety is a common reaction when we fear our boundaries may be encroached upon. This means that the threat of cancellation can make the stakes (and emotions) extremely high when we have a different perspective than a friend, neighbor, coworker, or anyone else with whom we might have a casual conversation.
Given these challenges, it can be tempting to stifle your words in order to avoid any chance of conflict or cancellation. To a certain degree, moderating our self-expression depending on our current social environment is a wise and considerate thing to do (for example, your choice of topics and mannerisms are hopefully different at your office party compared to your late night outing with old friends). However, too much stifling of your words can decrease your self-awareness, your social connections, and the many other benefits to freedom of expression already discussed. This is why we need to practice communicating and listening carefully during disagreements --this is much healthier than constantly stifling ourselves or others!
If you would like to practice building your own freedom of expression and encourage others to speak freely around you, you might try a technique called Reflective Listening.
Start by choosing a partner. Explain in advance that the first person will make a short point (no more than 1 minute long) and then the second person will repeat the point back. The second person will make sure to use a calm rational tone that conveys respect and/or compassion for the person who spoke first.
Step 1 will be repeated until the person who spoke first feels like their point was heard and understood clearly. Sometimes this happens on the first attempt, sometimes it takes a few. It is essential that the speaker doesn't talk more than a minute at a time, otherwise it can be very hard for the listener to fully recapitulate the point. There's no shame in using a timer if anyone finds it helpful. Some people like it because it helps them develop self-awareness about how much they're asking the other person to comprehend at once; and other people like it because it actually encourages them to speak a little longer than they normally might. However, if neither person feels the need for a timer then there's absolutely no need to use it.
Next, the speaker and the listener switch roles and repeat the exercise– this time the new speaker making his or her own independent point or reaction to be recapitulated by the new listener. For the listener, it can be helpful to take in a slow deep breath while you listen– but no need to do this if you're already feeling relaxed. Keep repeating Steps 1-3 till both sides feel heard.
Reflective Listening helps:
Diffuse arguments and decrease misunderstandings.
Slow our thought process, and keep us from jumping to conclusions about what the other person might be saying.
People to relax because they know they will be heard.
In the heat of the moment, disagreements can feel especially personal or threatening. This leads to an increase in what psychologists call hot cognition– hot cognition has its benefits, but one of its drawbacks is that we can stop listening too soon, or send signals of escalation that we didn't intend.
It is in your best interests to keep a strong social support network that includes a diversity of viewpoints. This is much easier -- and more fun-- when we know how to communicate our thoughts as well as listen to the ideas of others, even when we disagree. So why not find a friend who sees things differently, share this article, and invite them to try it together? You could find yourself with a deeper perspective, a closer relationship, and enhanced communication skills that will serve you well no matter where life takes you!
If you have ways that you like to handle these concerns by all means let me know!