Polarization in our families, workplaces and communities has become so commonplace that it is now the number one concern for young adults, surpassing fear about climate change and the economy (See Far and Widening: The Rise of Polarization in Canada report). In fact, in BC, even when faced with a forest fire and death, polarization can prevent us from working together for a common goal - our safety!

Polarization refers to deepening divisions where polar opposite viewpoints become increasingly entrenched and diverse perspectives are shut down (or don’t exist). The impact of polarization is far reaching and ultimately ends up weakening our communities and prevents us from working together effectively. Our divisiveness pits us against each other rather than uniting us to address our collective challenges—even when lives are at stake.  

We are in an era where we need all of our collective strengths and wisdom to address climate change, food security, housing, poverty and systemic discrimination (to name a few).

In my work supporting leaders and organizations to nurture community change, the emotional impact of polarization (and the anger that often accompanies it), is taking a toll on their health, relationships and well-being.  
Recently, I was interviewed by Don Shafer of the Conversations Lab, and we dove into polarization—how I view it, the opportunity it presents and a pathway forward.
The Conversation Lab with Don Shafer - Interview with Jessie Sutherland

5 Key strategies for engaging polarization effectively

Below are my top 5 tips for engaging polarization effectively and creating conditions for transformative outcomes (spoiler alert… #2 is the most commonly overlooked step).

#1: Reframe the challenge

When we see polarization within the context of the rise and fall of civilizations, we see that our increasingly polarized communities can be reframed as a common cyclical challenge during the disintegration of one era before a new era emerges.

The tell tale signs a culture is in a disintegration phase include:
  • A pervasive increase in stress & aggression
  • Lack of creativity
  • Disconnection from nature
Throughout history and around the world, the difference between cultures that died off versus cultures that manage to survive and thrive after a disintegration phase came down to one thing—values. Research and experience shows that when people reconnect to their values and draw on these values to guide their actions and decisions, cultures not only survive but go on to thrive as a new era is welcomed in.
When we situate polarization within the cyclical nature of any given civilization or culture, we can move away from seeing it as a problem to fix and look at it as a potential doorway, if handled skillfully, to a new era—one that is more interconnected, just and sustainable. After all, within chaos there is often an order getting ready to emerge. And in time, within order, there is a burgeoning chaos that will eventually be unleashed.

Engaging effectively with polarization means reframing the challenge as an opportunity to learn new skills to usher in a new era.

#2: Understand the bio-chemistry involved & create inner safety

When we are faced with polarization and the “Other” perspective is deeply offensive to us, most likely our notions of justice and fairness feel under attack. As a result, the experience can shake us to our core, threaten our sense of safety and impact how we make meaning in the world. When we don’t feel safe, we are hardwired to fight, flight or freeze. This tendency typically deepens polarization.
If we want to engage with polarization effectively, as part of a pathway to a better future, we need to choose a different response, which requires our commitment, courage and tenacity. Making that different choice starts with each of us mastering our inner landscape.

Once we recognize we are in a storm and our sense of safety feels threatened, it is helpful to learn ways to first tend to our inner landscape by recognizing what has been triggered within us.

In polarized situations, typically our sense of right and wrong, past traumas and cherished beliefs are triggered. Once we bring awareness to what is stirred up within us, we can more easily learn how to soothe our triggers. Each person develops their own toolkit depending on our life experience, culture and era we live in. Once we learn how to soothe our triggers, we are more able to get curious about ourselves and the Other. This is when and where the magic starts to happen.

Engaging ourselves is often the hardest and most crucial step. When we see polarization as an opportunity to connect with ourselves and learn new skills to identify and soothe our triggers and strengthen curiosity, it becomes an adventure worth going on.

#3: Dig for the gold

Remembering the bigger picture and the role values play in cultures that survive and thrive, we can more easily choose our focus. Polarization has the potential to fast track us to our values. After all, what we find offensive has the potential to lead us straight to the values we cherish. When we understand this, we have an opportunity to strengthen these same values in how we respond to each other and the challenging situation we find ourselves in. When we grow our values together, we create the conditions for a new pathway to emerge.
Imagine if, collectively, we began to view polarization as an opportunity to deepen our awareness of ourselves, each other and the world around us. In that process, we could gain clarity about our shared and divergent values, leading us to live out our values more fully in our moment by moment choices.
When faced with community-wide challenges, I always start by creating a collaborative decision-making process where we first identify our shared values that then inform our guiding principles of how we will work and make decisions together. Once we have shared principles, it is akin to having a rudder to guide us through turbulent times, informing our actions and decisions along the way. When we do this collective work, we create space for diverse viewpoints and opportunities to unlock hidden talents and wisdom within a community.
Addressing Polarization: Digging for gold - shared values
Engaging effectively with polarization means we dig for the gold by using a challenging situation as an invitation to dig for the values (the “gold”) we cherish. Then, we can choose to strengthen those values, knowing this is the only way to move from disintegrating as a community to thriving.

#4: Liberate worldviews & unlock hidden talents

Like biodiversity is necessary for a healthy and sustainable ecosystem, worldview diversity is essential for human flourishing. When we open ourselves to other perspectives, stories and values, we often get a glimpse of another worldview. In doing so, we have an opportunity to deepen and, at times, expand our own worldview.
When we explore our own worldview and make space for how others make meaning, we begin to liberate worldviews that may hold the hidden knowledge, values, teachings and talents that are needed to address your most pressing community challenges.  
A pitfall in understanding worldview diversity is to mistakenly treat disinformation as a worldview. Worldviews are cultural beliefs about how the world was created and our role as human beings within it. Disinformation is not a worldview; it is sharing of either false information or information out of context to manipulate others. The creation of distorted narratives is the “root rot” of our times. In this way, our work to liberate worldviews involves identifying sources of decay or disinformation and creating more wholesome ecosystems.
When we see engaging with polarization skillfully as an opportunity to liberate worldviews; tend to the “root rot” of our times; and to unlock the hidden knowledge, values, and talents within our team or community, we can harness our strengths and effectively address any given challenge we face—from climate change, to poverty and discrimination.

#5: See polarization as an adventure

Imagine seeing how we respond to polarization as part of a larger adventure—one where we have an opportunity to draw on our courage, soothe our triggers, dig for the gold, strengthen values and liberate worldviews. In doing so, we become more confident and at ease when faced with polarized positions and more effective in fostering collaboration to address any given challenge.


When we engage with polarization effectively, we are more able to unlock hidden values, knowledge and talents, and as a result increase our collective capacity to address every given challenge we face—together. In this way, regardless of the outcome, we create the conditions for a new era to emerge—one that is based on shared values and celebrates worldview diversity. To hear my full interview with Don Shafer, you can listen here.

Stuck and need a sounding board?

Curious how you can reframe a polarized situation you are faced with and learn how to build inner safety, dig for the gold, liberate worldviews and unlock hidden talents?

We provide 3 spots a month for a 30-minute chat so that you can share what challenging situation you are struggling with in your team, organization or community. We’ll ask you some curious questions and, if wanted, offer some tips and strategies. Book a call here.
{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}


About the Author

Jessie Sutherland

An international speaker, trainer, and consultant, Jessie Sutherland works with organizations and communities to engage diversity, build belonging and ignite intercultural collaboration. Her approach creates sustainable community change that effectively addresses a wide range of complex social problems.

Don't know where to start?