Talking to each other across the divide

Well, we’re in it now, folks. The political season is in full swing, and like a giant pendulum, our views, hopes, wishes and fears reach widely back and forth from one perspective to another.

One Saturday not too long ago, I joined about 30 other residents for an all-day workshop on a sensitive topic: Can we stretch out and talk to one another (like we used to do) across the political divide? If so, how do we begin, and is it worth doing in today’s hyperpolarized environment?

The answer was absolutely yes on all three counts.

Two volunteers with Better Angels, a bipartisan citizens’ movement dedicated to “unifying our divided nation,” offered the interactive skill-building workshop. Plumas Sierra Political Coalition sponsored the training and the Quincy Library meeting room was packed with everyday people, neighbors and friends who came with an earnest desire to reduce conflict and open channels of communication.

People admitted it, they felt some trepidation. Conversations on national issues today can easily flare up into anguished conflicts with no resolution in sight. One lady said everyone has made up their minds, and we have less and less time to communicate (meaningfully) with each other because of the speed of social media. She said the divisiveness has also hit our schools, and she’s concerned if we don’t raise awareness, do something, it’s only going to get worse.

Another said she wants and needs to get along with people at work where all kinds of perspectives are present, many of them just below the surface in communications.

I said a major problem is that we are all sensitized because so many issues have become deeply personal, so touchy and sensitive. It’s not that one view is right or wrong; it’s that our filter bubbles and confirmation bias have ballooned. I said everyone in this country is on their last nerve!

Some folks chuckled with agreement and nervous relief.

So where do we go from here?

The Better Angels facilitators, Donna Burgess and George Hoffecker, said humans have a basic need for reciprocity and to connect. The skills they would share that day were intended for situations where you want to have a connection with the other person; perhaps it’s someone you need to have a more positive relationship with. In that case, they outlined a way forward.

Choose your opportunities: With some people, it’s better to get along at the family event and not try to open a dialogue if you’re sure it will head south and quickly. But you can make a considered effort in other cases by understanding what typically goes wrong in these types of conversations.

For instance, some types of questions and conversation openers can (obviously, or maybe not) lead to conflict. “Don’t challenge me” is also a message people put out when they want you to know they believe what they believe, so don’t bother them.

“No one likes to be told they’re wrong,” said one attendee.

Ask real, honest questions: Don’t come at folks with loaded, “gotcha” questions. Offer questions that show you are genuinely curious and want to understand their point of view. Let go of any “I just want to change you!” frustrations.

Build your listening skills: Listen actively, which means stop mentally formulating what you are going to say in reply before the other person has even finished what they are trying to say (we all do it). Work on paraphrasing back what you understand so the other person feels heard. Don’t critique what the other person says. Keep listening for a “Yes, that’s what I’m saying” message within the conversation.

A special caution: Don’t try to practice these kinds of dialog skills on the phone or online. Better Angels said those are already artificial settings. Remember, your intention is to connect and initially some buttons may be pushed (on either side). So think about it as you practice communicating: Do you intend to connect or do you intend to be “right?” Have these conversations in person.

Focus on respect: Everyone wants respect for his or her fundamental beliefs; look for common ground. Don’t react to “baiting” kinds of questions or comments. Let ideas arise; help fear to subside. Abandon assumptions that a shared set of facts are agreed upon. Let go of expectations that you can change someone’s core beliefs. Be patient. Over time, respect, openness and curiosity will elicit the same in return.

Look for commonality: If you’re totally in disagreement on an issue, it helps to acknowledge what the other person is saying, take a pause, then respectfully state your perspective and hopefully leave it at that. Remain polite; don’t just power on through with your points of view. People tend to just walk away, but we always have a choice. Mainly, keep looking for underlying commonality, areas that resonate with you and maybe even solutions you both can agree upon.

Final thoughts: The workshop exercises covered a lot more ground, and the role-playing activities were especially enlightening. The day went by quickly. By the end of it, everyone was working to let go of stereotypes in our thinking and practicing not reacting to provocative statements or outbursts. The facilitators congratulated the group for working on these challenging skills and said, “Above all, keep your sense of humor!”

Better Angels was founded in 2016 upon the inspiration of President Abraham Lincoln. In his first inaugural address in 1861, with the nation on the brink of civil war, he appealed to the “better angels of our nature.” The organization works to heal our polarized discourse and offers training for groups nationwide. (