Address the genuine grievances that drive people to extremes. Poor education, job insecurity, unemployment, under-employment, and racism are persistent problems. We can do a better job helping those who have fallen behind without dropping into socialism.
As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Douglas E. Noll.
Douglas E. Noll is an award-winning author, speaker, and trainer. After 22 years as a trial lawyer, Mr. Noll became a peacemaker and mediator. Today, he helps people solve deep and intractable conflicts and teaches others to do what he does.
Mr. Noll is the co-founder of the award-winning Prison of Peace Project, in which he teaches life and long-term inmates in maximum security prisons to be peacemakers and mediators.
Mr. Noll’s honors include California Lawyer Magazine Attorney of the Year, a Purpose Prize Fellow, and Best Lawyers of America Lawyer of the Year.
Mr. Noll has written four books, his latest entitled De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less (Atria/Beyond Words).
On a personal note, Mr. Noll is a jazz violinist, aircraft and helicopter pilot, ski instructor, 2nd-degree black belt, tai chi master, and whitewater rafter. He lives with his wife Aleya Dao in the central Sierra Nevada’s foothills south of Yosemite National Park. His website is htps://dougnoll.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born left-handed, partially deaf, almost blind, and crippled with two club feet into an affluent upper-middle-class family in Southern California. I was the oldest of four boys. My parents decided that I had to be tough, so I had a challenging childhood, physically and socially. However, I was blessed with a sharp mind. I attended Dartmouth College, where I graduated with a degree in English Literature. After college, I enrolled in law school and was admitted to the California Bar in 1977.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I was a hard-core trial lawyer for 22 years. In the mid-nineteen eighties, I took up the martial arts and obtained my 1st-degree black belt in 1990. In 1992 after being awarded my 2nd-degree black belt, my teacher told me to study tai chi.
Tai chi has two paradoxes. The first is, the softer you are, the stronger you are. The second paradox is, the more vulnerable you are, the more powerful you are. So in tai chi, you must be soft to be strong and vulnerable to be powerful.
Frankly, this did not compute. I was a hard-core trial lawyer and a 2nd-degree black belt. The idea of being soft and vulnerable just did not work for me. However, I persisted in my training.
In the late nineteen nineties, I was trying a case in court, and the thought came to me, “What the heck am I doing in here?” After the trial, I had a vacation planned with friends, whitewater rafting on the Main Salmon River in central Idaho. I spent 10 days thinking about how many people I’d really served as a trial lawyer and could only come up with about five names. I decided then that I was knocking to spend the next 40 years of my career only serving 15 people.
When I returned home, I heard a public service announcement on our local public radio station for a new Masters Degree in Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. Intrigued, I wrote the number down and made an inquiry. Ultimately, I applied and was accepted into the Master’s degree program at Fresno Pacific University. That decision completely changed my life.
For the next three years, I studied human conflict from every imaginable dimension. I was introduced to neuroscience and was tutored by a Caltech professor. I began to see that all human behavior originates in the brain. Understanding the neurological foundation of human behavior would be necessary for my future peacemaking work.
I left my law practice in 2000 to start my own peacemaking and mediation practice. In 2004, I was confronted with an intensely challenging, highly emotional mediation between a divorced couple. I had no real clue about how to help them because all they could do was scream vile insults at each other.
The idea came to me out of the blue to “listen to the emotions.” I had each of them ignore their words and just listen to and reflect back emotions. It was magic. Within 45 minutes, they had come to an agreement had walked out, holding hands. An hour before, if they had had knives, there would have been blood on the floor. I didn’t know what I had done, but I know I had done something significant.
Three years later, I came across a brain-scanning study by UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman that explained what was going on in the brain with the process of listening to emotions. That empirical study, coupled with my experience, set me on the course for the next two decades.
In 2010, my colleague Laurel Kaufer and I founded the Prison of Peace Project. Prison of Peace trains lifers and long term prison inmates to be mediators and peacemakers within their prison communities. Today, Prison of Peace is active in over a dozen California prisons, a prison in Connecticut, 12 prisons in Greece, and start-ups in Italy and Kenya. Of course, the pandemic has forced us to adapt, so we are recording the curriculum onto video for distribution to any prison interested in starting the project.
Today, I devote my life to teaching people about emotions and listening others into existence. I am all about teaching the “how” and not talking about the “what.” And, I only teach based on empirical science, not on theory or speculation.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
With the pandemic forcing everyone online, I am building virtual training courses for my students and interested people to teach de-escalation and emotional competency. The more work I do in this field, the more I realize how unintentionally abused most of us were in childhood. Our parents did not know any better, but they could not teach us to be emotionally competent because of their ignorance. As a result, many people suffer, and the worst end up in prison. I’ve made it my goal to teach parents, among others, how to listen to their children’s emotions. If I can stop one kid from going to prison, I will have lived a life well served.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had a lot of outstanding teachers along the way. I would probably select Dalton Reimer as the most influential person on my journey to becoming a peacemaker. Dalton was my mentor, advisor, and chief teacher in my Master’s Degree studies. He’s a brilliant man who immediately understood my strengths and therefore structured my readings in a most useful way. We had hundreds of fascinating discussions on all kinds of topics relating to human conflict and peace.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
The biggest mistake I have made is assuming that people are ready to embrace the new ideas around emotions and, with those ideas, shift their lives to happiness and fulfillment. I am not surprised at how many people are trapped in emotional defendedness or are emotionally shut down. I am amazed at how few are willing to learn the skills of emotional competency.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The book that helped me connect the dots around emotions was “How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain” by Lisa Feldman Barrett. I had read many of her journal articles and knew she was onto a different way of thinking about emotions. Her book presents a constructed theory of emotions that aligns perfectly with the conclusions I had been drawing. Essentially, we are not born with emotions. Emotions are socially and culturally constructed cognitive structures that translate our general feelings of pleasantness and unpleasantness (called affect) in consciousness.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My life lesson quote is “Listen Others Into Existence.” I made this one up to describe the profound effect that occurs when we validate another person’s emotional experience. It sums up my life’s work. When we listen to others into existence, we stop conflict, create trust, and build relationships. As a side benefit, we build emotional competency that leads to emotional intelligence.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the process of taking a disorganized group of people and turning them into a team with goals and tasks to accomplish those goals. There are three types of leadership: hierarchal, technical, and adaptive. Hierarchal leadership occurs within a hierarchy of superiors and inferiors. A hierarchal leader is legitimate if the leader rose to leadership because of hard work, skill, emotional competence, and discipline. If the hierarchy promotes people to leadership without these attributes, the order is not legitimate. This breeds contempt, disrespect, incivility, and conflict in the lower ranks.
Technical leadership occurs when the problem is understood, with rules, algorithms, or procedures in place that will solve the problem. The technical leader’s job is to make sure the rules are followed and to keep team members focused on task.
Adaptive leadership occurs when the problem facing the group is unique, new, and challenging. The adaptive leader must provide a range of services to the group that the hierarchal and technical leaders generally do not possess. Adaptive leadership requires a high degree of emotional competence and a broad range of skills beyond the technical knowledge implied by the problem.
Most groups disintegrate into non-productivity or conflict when they face an adaptive problem and are led by a hierarchal or technical leader lacking adaptive leadership skills.
All leaders, regardless of type, must be skilled at providing the following services to the group: Psychological and emotional safety, focus and direction, and team member role definition and anchoring.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
In my graduate classes, I talk about VUCAR environments: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous, and Risky. Living in a VUCAR environment is stressful unless you are trained in emotional competency and critical thinking.
Of course, most people are not trained in those skills, and often experience deep anxiety. We have seen a rapid change in our culture and society over the past 50 years, driven by technology innovations. These changes have been accompanied by continued racism, economic inequality, and severe environmental degradation. If you are uneducated, these rapid changes may deeply threaten you. To cope, people look to simplistic, soothing beliefs that claim to explain the confusion and chaos.
Media organizations, social media platforms, and politicians step in and inflame these fears for self-aggrandizement.
People are desperate for simple, easy-to-understand answers. The subtleties of political correctness grate on them. The redefinition of gender identity scares them. These people become easily exploitable by those who see polarization as a competitive advantage. Over decades of polarizing rhetoric, the ante keeps being raised until we, as a society, are utterly driven apart.
I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?
Some years ago, I became deeply concerned at Thanksgiving with a conversation I had with my 89-year-old mother. She has been a lifetime, staunch conservative and had bought into some of the more ludicrous conspiracy theories being touted by the far right. During our conversation, she cried out of frustration. Despite my training and experience as a mediator and peacemaker, I could not have a calm discussion with her. That was a real wake-up call for me. If I could not talk to my 89-year-old mother about difficult political topics, how were other families coping?
In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?
The single skill that will make a difference is learning how to listen your polarized family members into existence. You can validate their emotions around their beliefs without agreeing to anything.
What I have learned is that most politically polarized people feel unheard. If they can experience being heard, they tend to calm down and become more reasonable.
If, on the other hand, we try to convince family members of the righteousness of our cause, we will only increase the divide.
Today, when I speak with my mother, I listen to her emotions.
I might respond to her by saying, “You are angry and frustrated.” “You feel disrespected.” “You are a little sad.”
She feels deeply validated and doesn’t care if I disagree with her underlying beliefs.
How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?
If there are partisan divides in the workplace causing contention, I would say there is a leadership failure. Smart leaders will teach their team members how to listen to differences in beliefs without becoming emotionally reactive. There is a fine balance between suppressing free speech, preventing a hostile work environment, and repressing the natural desire to talk about non-work topics. Good leaders can navigate this and use diverse opinions as a strength. Weak leaders only make matters worse.
I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?
You are correct. Some of the studies are showing that highly polarized people do not have a political agenda. Instead, they are exhibiting anti-social personality disorders that polarization is permitting to be displayed. The alt-right media depends on narrowly focused identities to keep viewers glued to the screen. One possible antidote is to remind people that they have other identities other than their political affiliation. Perhaps this would be in the form of public service announcements, ads, op-eds, and social media broadcasts. When you put your political identity into a broader perspective, you are less likely to become polarized.
Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?
First, do not engage with any politically polarized statements made on social media. Ignore them and exclude the offender from your network if necessary.
Second, find other ways of engaging other than social media. (Tough, I know.)
Third, make your voice known to the social media networks that you do not appreciate polarized polemics. No one can individually make a difference. However, if enough people acted against polarized political posts, the networks might engage in better policing.
What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?
This is difficult. The politically polarized are drawn to pundits who soothe them by feeding them what they want to hear. It’s very much the same as drug addiction. People go to where they feel safe and good about themselves.
My best advice is to make sure your news and opinion sources are varied. If you are a Fox News devotee, spend some time on CNN to simply flavor what others say you disagree with. Likewise, if you follow CNN, follow Fox News to get a sense of what others are thinking and talking about.
Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?
First, address the genuine grievances that drive people to extremes. Poor education, job insecurity, unemployment, under-employment, and racism are persistent problems. We can do a better job helping those who have fallen behind without dropping into socialism.
Second, demand that reporters and journalists drop their fake credo about “balanced reporting.” It took the media three years to finally call out Trump’s lies and falsehoods directly. Don’t give far-out conspiracy theorists a legitimate platform by trying to show both sides.
Third, recognize that many of us are being exploited and played by some politicians who will try to rile us up. Fear works to their advantage. Support people that offer reasonable policy positions, even if you might disagree with them. Reject people who run on demonizing the opposition.
Fourth, reject violence, threats of violence, or even intimation of violence offered by any political candidate.
Fifth, teach children that freedom comes with responsibility and accountability. Many polarized people believe that the right to liberty is the right to do whatever they want. That is not freedom; that is anarchy. We saw how anarchy could play out on January 6, 2021, when the Capitol Building was stormed.
Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
I’d like to share my steps for how to have a calm conversation with the politically polarized.
Let’s assume you are having a conversation with a family member or a co-worker who is politically polarized from you. What that person needs more than anything else is emotional validation. The beauty is that you can validate the other person’s feelings without ever agreeing their beliefs. Here’s how to do it:
First question: “Tell me how your life experiences have led you to the beliefs you have today.”
Notice that you are not asking about beliefs. Instead, you are asking for a story, and most people love telling stories about themselves. As you listen, do not argue, rebut, demean, or disrespect anything the person says. Instead, you can gently paraphrase their story and reflect back their emotional experiences.
Second question: “How do your beliefs guide you in your everyday life?” Beliefs are cognitive constructs that help us make fast, unconscious decisions without conscious thought. They are decisional short cuts. Some beliefs can be quite strong, while others are less so. The stronger the belief, the more likely it serves an essential function in a person’s life. Usually, strong beliefs are created to soothe intense anxiety. You want to listen for the underlying anxiety and reflect it back. “You are anxious that the way of life you grew up with is changing.” “You are anxious that strangers will tell you what to think and believe.” “You are anxious that your way of life is being destroyed by outsiders.” You will receive an emphatic “Exactly!” when you reflect back the feeling.
Third question: “How do you deal with people who hold different beliefs?” The answer to this tells you much. Sometimes, the answer will be snarky, such as “I just shoot them.” Most of the time, people will say that they can tolerate different beliefs within reason. It’s almost always the undefined “They” who are the enemies, not my more liberal neighbor across the street.
Fourth question: “How should our society be organized to accommodate all of these different beliefs?” Your friend has probably never considered this question before. The super-rigid person will say that all the people that look, talk, or believe differently should leave. Most people will finally agree that our society has to allow for all expressions of belief.
What you will learn is that the values of your politically polarized friend or family member are very similar to your own. The difference is in how those values are expressed. Once common ground is established on shared values, the issue of polarization diminishes in emotional intensity, and the path to peace opens up.
Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?
Yes. Learn how to listen each other into existence by ignoring the words, reading the emotions, and reflecting back those emotions with a simple “you” statement. I have taught this idea to lifers in maximum-security prisons, who went on to become powerful peacemakers. Thousands of people have transformed their lives and those around them by mastering this foundational life skill.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
This period is unprecedented in recent history. However, we Americans have faced far worse in the past and managed to survive. Think of the polarization that caused the Civil War as an example. I also think that socially and culturally, we grow in cycles. We are having a moment, and it shall pass. Then, decades from now, we will be rechallenged. That is the nature of growth.
If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?
I would quote the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy who said, “The sole meaning of life is to serve humanity.” Find a way to serve others in a meaningful way, and your life will be more abundant than you can possibly imagine. That doesn’t mean you have to go into poverty to serve others. You can become a billionaire with the right idea and a focus on helping others.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can learn about my work at my website https://dougnoll.com. Also, I have a YouTube channel with many videos I have created on the topics we have discussed today. Just search for Douglas Noll on YouTube.
This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!