A couple of weeks ago I watched the episode of 60 Minutes where Oprah surrounded herself with a cross-section of Americans, who shared their thoughts about the deep polarization in our country. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on what I saw, and on other times I’ve seen to people from “different sides of the aisle” brought together for dialogue. Oprah wasn’t the first TV personality to do it, and she undoubtedly won’t be the last. Just this week, I read that the comedian Sarah Silverman is about to launch a political talk show that aims to find common ground.
It’s raw and revealing to see folks sharing perspectives and their feelings with each other in-person on TV, without the anonymity of social media, in front of a national audience. But do any of us walk away inspired to reconnect with a relative, a friend from high school, or a colleague at work whose views are different from our own? Can we ever feel more united and connected—with our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens—when we see things so differently?
The fact is, many of us are afraid of conflict and confrontation, especially outside the realm of social media. But we’re stronger than we think. We can tolerate more disagreement and dissent and not only survive communicating with those with different perspectives, but be helped by it. The key is to approach difficult conversations with the right mindset.
Oprah did a good job of keeping the discourse civil on 60 Minutes, but Oprah can’t be everywhere. And there are no facilitators on Facebook. So, it’s up to us to engage on this higher and deeper level. In order to begin repairing relationships and bridging our differences. We need to be willing to do the work.
That starts by wanting to find common ground—not to agree necessarily, but to be willing to loosen our grip on our worldviews and be curious enough to see the perspective of “the other.”
The unwillingness on every side to do this— the way we stake out and hold on to all our positions, impervious to all contrary narratives and facts—means we don’t truly understand what’s at stake. Being tribal is a natural response when the leader of our nation whips up daily balls of confusion, discord, and fear. But if there’s going to be any hope for our country and society, we’re going to have to get more invested in the long game.
The long game recognizes that we may live in different regions of the country, may be of different races, creeds and generations, but we are all connected. This is not only the United States of America, this is the United Fates of America.
We need to find the spaces and places where we can have not only a conversation but an ongoing dialogue. And we need a new approach if we want a different, more productive type of dialogue. What does that look like?
First, we must examine the power, privilege, and bias operating in our country. Even as we are announcing our disparate views, we need to be willing to look at the context and history in which our experiences and perspectives have been forged.
Second, we need to agree that words matter. The denigrating words we use with people who aren’t like us are making us feel worse and behave far below our best selves. We need to try to treat people with dignity, even those with whom we vehemently disagree—not use words like “son of a bitches.”
Some people applaud this kind of language as “real,” and applaud our President for “saying what others are thinking.” But as Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors said after Trump’s comments, “This is not what leaders do.” I would add: this is not what good leaders do. When faced with division, good leaders speak to elevate and bring out the best in people. In the absence of such leadership, we have to set our own higher standard.
Third, we have to decide to go into these contentious conversations with the mindset of seeking first to understand. We must listen, adopting a posture of openness, bringing compassion and reconciliation rather than anger, and retaliation, wherever possible.
We have to acknowledge what it feels like to cry in fear of losing health care, or feel devastated by losing a longtime job, regardless of our views about a given policy. We have to be willing to see a bent knee as a cry for justice, and put ourselves in the shoes of the families of unarmed black men killed by police. We must resist the quick rush to judgment of those who saw a peaceful protest as unpatriotic and disrespecting of the flag. We must understand both the pain of the grieving mother who has lost her child to gun violence, and the fear felt by the mother living in a dangerous neighborhood who owns a gun to protect her family.
Finally, we need new linguistic devices—ways to remove the aggression, acrimony, and verbal violence from the way we engage. Right now we come to these dialogues in battle mode, our weapons of words drawn. But if we want change, we need to wield words that say, “I acknowledge you even if I can’t agree with you.” What if we stop when we see the steam rising—breathe and back up instead of going in for the kill? Can we perform the delicate surgery of separating the problem from the person?
We will never all agree. Different viewpoints will always exist, and in a democracy they must be welcomed. And, yes, freedom of speech is an essential right. But we have to decide what we want to do with that freedom. Do we want to use it to bludgeon, perpetuating a world of fear, hatred and separation? Or do we want to use it in service of our other ideals, like respect and equality—not superiority of one group over another.
Our protests for justice, whether on a field or on the streets, continue to be necessary. But we also need a new and different way of engaging across difference if this bold experiment of our diverse democracy is going to thrive. We need to welcome interactions with those we disagree with, and decide to have posture of grace and compassion that keeps us investing in each other’s humanity until we can find common ground.