How To Escape The Echo Chamber

You hear a lot these days about echo chambers, platforms where one set of ideas are amplified and repeated to the exclusion of countering opinions. Fairly quickly the surround sound reinforces or even exaggerates your own world-view. Eventually, you can’t recognize the merits of a different perspective. You don’t even want to hear it, much less understand it.

The Echo Chamber Effect is no small problem. It rips apart society’s fabric, which, when stitched together, makes the cozy quilt you sit under near the fire when winter comes. Without it, you feel cold. You see how “those other people” are creating your gray, drizzly, discouraging world. Who are these people, anyway? You don’t know any of them personally, but you wouldn’t want them as friends. You expend enormous energy fighting your enemies, online, in conversation, or in the privacy of your own mind. At least the people in your echo chamber agree: those opinions should get rejected.

It’s hard to see a way out of this. The disagreements genuinely are profound. On top of that, we see not just other people across the aisle, but mortal threats. As President George W. Bush said in a speech recently, “Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization.” You likely agree that something must be done to shift “the indecency of our discourse” that Senator Jeff Flake decried this week from the Senate floor. But what? How can you escape this enclosed aversion space?

Paradoxically, one way to reduce demonizing other people is to start embracing opposing sides of yourself. Everyone has parts of themselves they like, and other parts they don’t. Maybe one part of you is a careful planner, so you dislike your spontaneous side. Maybe you identify as a highly rational professional and reject your emotions. Or you like to be liked. So you ignore the times when people frustrate you, or you feel angry at them. Wanting to discard parts of yourself is the same impulse that wishes to eliminate people who are different from you. Neither of them works.

When you try to push something down, it pops up with more force than it had before. If you drive yourself toward perfection all the time, at some point your playful self will burst through the surface and cancel your meetings for the day. Then you’ll “procrastinate” to get a break, or even do something you enjoy. If you ignore your anger, someone will push you too far, and you’ll explode. That’s just how it works. What you deny comes back stronger, whether that’s a part of yourself or a segment of society you wish away. Finding a shred of acceptance is the first step in the right direction.

Here are a few questions for you to reflect on to get started:

1. Which parts of yourself do you like? Which do you wish weren’t there?

2. How do you deal with polarization inside yourself?

3. How can you tolerate different opinions inside yourself?

4. How can you find curiosity about different sides of yourself?

5. How can you find compassion for parts of yourself you don’t like?

Demonizing other human beings always involves denying some element of humanity itself. The same is true when you scorn aspects of yourself. Contempt is toxic, whether you direct it outward or inward. Fortunately, recognition works in both directions, too. Making room for your inner rivals helps you to listen to public challengers.

Diversity of opinion is crucial to a healthy, functioning society. Trapped in echo chambers, you live in a hall of mirrors, where you only see reflections of yourself. Finding a way back to each other starts with appreciating your own contradictory sides. Then what you practice on the inside, you can start to apply on the outside.

Erica Ariel Fox is a senior advisor to CEOs and top teams, and a lecturer at Harvard Law School. Her New York Times bestselling book, Winning From Within: A Breakthrough Method for Leading, Living, and Lasting Change, is a guide for leadership and self-mastery. With her colleagues at Mobius Executive Leadership, Erica advises business leaders on personal and organizational transformation.