Growing up, my father worked two jobs to support his growing family. It was unglamorous work, the kind that requires sturdy boots year round and insulated overalls during freezing winter months. After work, he liked to unwind with a couple of beers while he sloughed off the day. As a child, I was sometimes fascinated to witness him engaged in full on dialogues…with himself. There were whispered asides, gesticulations, finger pointing, head nodding, as I imagine he worked out whatever psychic frustrations bedeviled him. Maybe a client had stiffed him on a job. Maybe some worker had given him lip, or disrespected him. Somebody cut him off in traffic. And here, in the safety of his own home, was where he could finally give them all a piece of his mind.

Author Terry Real has a name for this: he calls it “shadowboxing.” It’s when you’re boxing with someone who is no longer there, or maybe was never there to begin with. The shadow can be anyone, or anything. Maybe it’s your old boss, a parent long gone, a painful incident from childhood, or in the case of my father, maybe the general sense of powerlessness he felt in his job. The trouble with this kind of boxing is that A) It’s totally exhausting and B) you can never really “win” because the opponent has long since left the building. By this time, they are no longer even real people, but rather invisible caricatures of those people: ghosts cobbled together from past experience and memory.

We’re seeing a lot of shadowboxing in the news these days. While certainly now new, the caricature and demonization of those with opposing viewpoints has reached a new and alarming level of vitriol. Terry Real would argue that we are not really fighting with each other, but rather with the other’s “core negative image,” which is to say: the worst imaginable version of that person. A caricature. Certain of our moral superiority, we focus on all the ways that we are RIGHT and they are wrong. We amplify those qualities and attributes that we find most offensive in the other, and use these as license to discredit, dislike, and even delegitimize.

In my work as an executive coach, I will often gather and present written 360 feedback on business leaders at all levels. For people on the receiving end, it can be very difficult to not react negatively or defensively. They may even resort to name calling, which feels good in the moment, but only serves to create more distance and misunderstanding. I encourage my clients to counter this natural instinct by remaining open and curious. Curiosity invites dialogue, which can lead to some useful new insights. I ask them to be compassionate with themselves and with those offering the feedback. Both require taking risks. Effective leadership demands that we avoid shutting down, drawing up the battle lines between US and THEM.

Another key foundation of great leadership is the ability to recognize and check our own bias. In order not to demonize the “other”, in order not to weaponize our contempt, we need to keep a close check on our own worst instinct which is to point the finger of blame. It is a universal truth that what we criticize most harshly in others is the thing we like least about ourselves. What I hate most about you, may be the very thing I hate most about myself.

In her excellent TED talk entitled “Take ‘the Other’ to Lunch,” Elizabeth Lesser offers these three important tips for navigating a conversation with someone whose viewpoint is fundamentally the opposite of yours. 1) Don’t persuade, defend, or interrupt. 2) Be curious, be conversational, be real. 3) Listen. Perhaps easier said than done, but we could all afford to LISTEN better to what the other side is saying.

All great religious and political leaders from history share in common this unique ability: they strive first to understand the other’s problem, before seeking out the common ground. They are (or have trained themselves to be) intensely interested in the viewpoints, ideas, and critiques of their peers. Of course, we can’t all be Nelson Mandela, but maybe we can try to understand the “other” point of view without resorting to questioning their intellect or moral integrity.

I think the biggest enemy of people who want to make the world a better place is not liberalism or conservatism, it’s actually cynicism. Our own cynicism that says nothing will ever change and the world is going to hell in a hand basket. I think that’s the real enemy, and the one we must guard against. It may sound very “Kumbaya,” but I sincerely believe that deep down we all want the same thing: a feeling of connectedness with others, to live with hope, peace and security. We just have different ideas about how this can be achieved. Shadowboxing an ugly caricature will not help. As the old saying goes, “If you want to change the world, try starting with yourself.”

**Illustration credit: Steve Huston