The Paradox of Belonging

Abi Dauber Sterne
July 18, 2023

Why do people shy away from disagreements? Why do so many of us prefer giving an equivocal or ambiguous answer to find a way out of a disagreement, rather than stating what we really believe?  

The short answer: We all want to belong.  

Most of us don’t want to threaten our own feeling of belonging. And for good reason. In his book, “Belonging: The Science of Creating Connection and Bridging Divides,” Geoffrey L. Cohen writes,  

Research shows that when our sense of belonging is threatened even momentarily, we’re more likely to feel worse about ourselves, perform below our potential, behave impulsively, see others as hostile, and lash out defensively when provoked. On the other hand, even fleeting experiences of belonging, such as glimpsing pictures of people who care about us, can have far-reaching benefits. They raise our sense of well-being and self-worth, improve our performance, lessen our defensiveness and hostility, increase our tolerance of outsiders, and make us more compassionate. We become more humane.

So, almost unconsciously, we protect ourselves. We are careful about what we say, what we reveal, and what we conceal so as not to breach that sense of belonging.

Through the first year of our work at For the Sake of Argument, we’ve taught more than 2,000 people, and in many of the sessions we’ve taught, although we’ve encouraged disagreement, people consistently tried to find a way to agree. In our workshops, though we bring stories that are rife with disagreement, participants most often try to find common ground.

This finding of common ground is, perhaps, another way that people try to ensure for themselves a sense of belonging.  

Many of the groups that we’ve taught are comprised of people who are, in one way or another, part of a community, whether organizationally, politically, academically, and so on. The individuals in the group rarely want to risk jeopardizing this sense of community. And so, most often they stick to what they have in common.  

On the face of it, this is a positive intention. But, paradoxically, not sharing opinions also has another effect.

If we only surface what we have in common, we are likely concealing our differences. While this may work for a time, concealing what we really think can erode our sense of belonging. We begin to imagine – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly – that, if we can’t share what we really believe then we can’t possibly fully belong. Or put differently, “If they only really knew what I thought, they wouldn’t want me as part of this group. I obviously don’t belong.”

The tension between revealing and concealing is, it seems, at the crux of feeling fully welcome. Belonging requires both sameness and difference simultaneously. It is this tension that makes the welcoming of diverse opinions so difficult.  

As we work to engage with difference, to create a sense of welcoming and belonging, this is the core tension that we must hold. We must help people share both how they are the same and how they are different, so that that they can completely belong.

From our perspective, healthy arguments are an important step in the journey to authentic belonging.

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