Managing Crises in An Era of Polarization

By  John O'Dwyer , Dec 11, 2023

In America, our public discourse has become exceedingly contentious. We see it in the news media, social media, entertainment, labor negotiations, school board meetings, doctor’s visits, and conversations at playgrounds. Being contrary has seeped into the fabric of our lives, pouring gasoline on proverbial fires and making resolving disagreements more difficult.

As leaders and as communicators, we often must resolve situations arising from conflicting opinions. Sometimes they are small transactional matters and other times they are significant conflicts, internally or externally, that impact our brand or issue.

In order to develop effective communication strategies, it is important to analyze the other side’s motives and interests. If someone is coming into a discussion with dissenting opinions, they may not deliberately be trying to ruin your plans or disrupt progress; they may simply be offering a different point of view.

Because consumers and stakeholders are increasingly impatient with problem-solving—and by and large have embraced a culture where it is commonplace to resort to making unrealistic demands or bullying in an effort to get an instant resolution—it can be difficult to talk out a mutually effective result.

So, how do we de-escalate and get our messaging to resonate?

  • In the current climate, it is more important than ever to be thoughtful and strategic.
  • A look, a phrase or even a tone can send communication in circles.
  • Glossing over reality or trying to dodge an issue is likely to blow it up and not tame it.
  • A straightforward approach is often better received.

Here are some tips on how to effectively communicate in a culture of polarization:

Consider everyone’s reality before communicating a decision.  It’s important not to make assumptions or focus only on yourself, your needs, and your opinion. Instead, consider all of the positions presented and find an approach that minimizes your concessions while demonstrating sincere attention to your opposition’s interests.

Express your own interests without appearing selfish.  That means presenting an authentic analysis of your needs, difficulties, resources, and limitations. Demanding and drawing a “line in the sand” can reduce your ability to negotiate and maintain dialogue.

Embrace a “win-win” mindset.  When you think of communication strategies for resolving a situation, it’s important to recognize that there is rarely an outcome where you win and other partners get nothing in return. A less polarizing scenario is for all major stakeholders to feel they achieved a successful outcome.

Practice active listening.  Pay close attention to what the other person is saying without interrupting or raising your voice. Try to understand their point of view and offer solutions that take into account both parties. Unbiased listening is key when communicating with people who don’t agree with you.

Keep emotions in check.  Conversations often go off the rails when emotions are triggered, and either you lose the narrative or the entire battle. This is true in private meetings, as well as when others are watching or reading. In real-time conversation (online or in-person) when you both feel frustrated, hurt or confused, people often respond by belittling another person’s argument or opinion, instead of focusing on supporting their own statements. An ill-advised Twitter (X) post can’t be edited, and knee-jerk or emotional responses are tough to roll back. Intuitively you know it’s a negative loop that’s almost impossible to stop. You can be passionate without sounding aggressive, defensive or unhinged.

Effective exchange of ideas is an essential skill for organization leadership and communications or marketing professionals. Successful communicators must understand the context of their environment, and their decisions and communications must reflect relevance and navigate based on a 360-degree view to foster the trust and confidence that are vital in a crisis situation.


Ivy Cohen is President and CEO of  Ivy Cohen Corporate Communications .

Category: Professional Development

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