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Indivisible -- How to heal the political divide one relationship at a time

A new report in Science magazine shares the science behind the political divisiveness. What follows is a step by step guide for how to heal the divide one conversation at a time.

How did politics get so divisive?

Name calling. Threats. Shaming. People going so far as to bring out guns on election day or force a campaign bus off the road. It’s driving families and lifelong friends to choose between vowing to never speak of politics again or cutting ties permanently. For my own sanity, I’ve put a 30 minute daily limit on social media. My husband cancelled his Facebook account entirely.

What is at the root of this divisiveness? How in the world can we heal the divide?

A report in Science magazine by fifteen social psychologists, cognitive scientists, anthropologists, and political scientists from the most respected universities in America offers an interdisciplinary explanation -- political sectarianism, the rising tendency for one group to view its political opponents as morally abhorrent. They say that the problem goes beyond media silos (when all you hear is one side of the story) and beyond simple disagreements about the best way to solve a common problem like climate change or a global pandemic.

Political sectarianism is toxic. It is polarizing. It distorts our views and leads to contempt for those across the aisle that “often exceeds long-standing antipathies around race and religion.” It has fundamentally changed how we engage in politics, how politicians govern, how we treat others in public, and how we feel fundamentally about our neighbors, family, and friends.

They point to three ingredients or root causes of political sectarianism:

The first ingredient is “othering” -- an us-versus-them mentality that marginalizes, and even dehumanizes, the other side. It’s that feeling of, “How can anyone possibly think that way? It’s incomprehensible.” Unfortunately, there’s a whole host of tricks our brains play on us unconsciously, what psychologists call cognitive biases, that leads to othering: categorizing, stereotyping, implicit bias, in-group favoritism, and confirmation bias among others. Anxiety and stress tend to make these biases stronger.

The second is “aversion”, a tendency to not just dislike the other side’s views, but fundamentally distrust them as a person.” Suddenly, it’s not just about ideas and viewpoints, but a person’s core identity. The Science article describes how fifty years ago, the Democratic party had a conserevative wing and the Republican party had a liberal wing. Now, party affiliation is more than a set of positions on the issues, it’s an identity as fundamental as culture, gender, or race.

The final ingredient is “moralization”, in which you come to view those across the aisle not just as mistaken or wrong, but fundamentally evil and morally bankrupt.

The Science article continues: “It is the confluence of these ingredients that makes sectarianism so corrosive… When all three converge, political losses can feel like existential threats that must be averted — whatever the cost.” The lead author, Eli FInkel, in an interview with Scientific American, says: “And when you face a situation like that, is it acceptable to suppress the vote a little bit or to engage in some sort of political chicanery that isn’t really best for democracy? Well, when those are the stakes, of course.”

The experts recommend several solutions ranging from breaking down media silos to campaign finance reform to eliminating gerrymandering. However, there is one intervention that every single one of us can undertake -- build a bridge to someone who thinks differently than you.

Reaching across the aisle

Everyone, especially in this red pocket of the very blue state where I live, has friends and family who hold different ideas and opinions. Celebrate these friendships. I challenge every American in the aftermath of this most divisive of elections to invite someone from across the aisle to a dialogue. I know that feels scary. But you can do it and it feels so healing when done right.

Three years ago, I hosted a salon (like those from the Enlightenment) at my home where I asked every person to bring a friend from across the aisle -- “someone who you like and care about with one or more perspectives that differ from your own.” I used the Public Conversations Project’s Guide to structure our conversation and relied heavily on Ken Beare’s Difficult Conversations Project. I remember how healing and connected I felt afterwards. Years later, people who came still remark how influential that salon was.

I’ve continued to respond to divisive posts on Facebook with an invitation to a conversation. And every time, my relationships with those I connect with get stronger.

So, here’s aa step by step guide for how to have a conversation with a friend across the aisle.

Step 1: Remember we are all human. Remember we are all in this together. Next time you are at the grocery store, take a look around you. That young man ringing up groceries. The dad with a toddler in her cart. The woman in a business dress with a run in her stockings. The elderly grandmother with different colored skin than yours. The heavily pierced and tattooed teen browsing the magazine rack. We are all humans just trying to get through our day. We all have a mom and dad. We all laugh and cry. We all have fears and longings. Try a loving kindness meditation to get your heart into the right space. Or watch this video about all that we share that goes beyond the labels and boxes and stereotypes.

Step 2: Pick a friend or family member and invite him or her to a conversation. You might say something like this: “Hey, I know this whole election has been really divisive and tough on all of us. Would you be interested in talking sometime. I want to strengthen our friendship and better understand where you are coming from. I promise to set aside the desire to persuade or convince you about my point of view. I want to hear about the hopes, fears and values that drive you. And maybe share some of mine. Are you interested?”

Step 3: Set the stage. Choose a good location -- a phone call, a zoom meeting, a Facetime chat, a socially distanced walk in nature, whatever feels right. Do it sooner rather than later. Set aside time and clear your calendar for at least an hour, preferably two.

Step 4: Before you meet, make a commitment to prioritize relationship over being right. Intentionally choose dialogue over debate. That is, listen to learn, to understand, and to inquire, so that you can build on, rather than tear down, another’s thought or idea. Commit to being curious and avoiding the pattern of attack and defend. Watch this TED talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, one of my all time favorites. In fact, send the video to your friend to watch in advance as well and see if they will also commit to prioritizing relationship over being right.

Step 5: When you meet, be fully present. Agree to put your phones away. Strive for real connection with no distractions.

Step 6: Start with open ended questions. My favorites include:

  • What hopes do you bring to this conversation?

  • What values do you hold that lead you to want to connect and heal the political divide between us? Where or how did you learn those values?

  • What is at the heart of your attraction to, or leaning toward your preferred political party? What hopes, concerns and values do you have that underlie that attraction or leaning?

  • What is it in your life experience that has guided you toward those hopes, concerns and values? (I think of this as the most important question.)

  • In what ways have you felt “out of step” with the party you generally support, OR in what ways does that party or some elements within that party not fully reflect what’s important to you? (And this is my favorite question because the answer is always so surprising and refreshing.)

  • What aspects of the other party do you admire – or at least understand to be reasonable counter-balances to excesses on the “side” you generally support?

Step 7: Stay open and let the conversation flow. Listen and adapt to how your friend reacts in the opening minutes. Choose to ask questions and move beyond stereotypes and assumptions. When there is conflict, our tendency is to retreat to the safety of our tribe and put up walls that rebuild the us-versus-them mentality. You have a choice! Ken Bearne says, “Retreating further into our bubbles is only making matters worse. Stress, rather than diminishing, is increasing. As the pressure builds, both problems and relationships continue to worsen and we seem increasingly unable to respond. Fortunately we can make a different choice. The one Megan and her twitter friends took. We can decide to stay in relationship to work it out, to resolve our relationship and work together to produce solutions rather than more and worse problems.”

Step 8: Manage your emotions. Be aware of your buttons and triggers. Have enough objectivity so that when your buttons are pushed, emotions don't take over. These suggestions are straight from the Public Conversations Project’s Guide:

  • If you feel cut off, say so or override the interruption. (“I'd like to finish…”)

  • If you feel misunderstood, clarify what you mean. (“Let me put this another way...”)

  • If you feel misheard, ask your friend to repeat what she heard you say and affirm or correct her statement.

  • If you feel hurt or disrespected, say so. If possible, describe exactly what you heard or saw that evoked hurt feelings in you. (“When you said x, I felt y...” where “x” refers to specific language.) If it is hard to think of what to say, just say, “OUCH” to flag your reaction.

  • If you feel angry, express the anger directly (e.g., “I felt angry when I heard you say x...”) rather than expressing it or acting it out indirectly (e.g., by trashing another person’s statement or asking a sarcastic or rhetorical question.)

  • If you feel confused, frame a question that seeks clarification or more information. You may prefer to paraphrase what you have heard. (“Are you saying that...?”)

  • If you feel uncomfortable, state your discomfort and check in with the group to see how others are experiencing what is happening. “I'm not comfortable with the tension I’m feeling right now. How are you feeling?.”

  • If you feel the conversation is going off track, share your perceptions and check in with others. “I thought we were going to discuss x before moving to y, but it seems that we bypassed x and are focusing on y. Is that right?” (If so) “I’d like to get back to x and hear more about it.”

Step 9: Follow through. A single conversation isn’t magic fairy dust. Keep talking. Keep connecting. Keep building bridges.

We can heal our nation one relationship at a time. We can break the cycle of political sectarianism one conversation at a time.

I will reach out. Will you?

Read More

Learn more about political sectarianism and its root causes by reading the report in Science magazine or the interview with the lead author published in Scientific American.

Learn more about healing the divide one conversation at a time with the Public Conversations Project’s Guide or Ken Beare’s Difficult Conversations Project.

Going Further

Whether you are Republican or Democrat, on the Trump train or off, I would love to have a conversation like this with you. Taste how it feels to connect with another human about the hopes, fears and values that matter most to us and the life experiences that brought us there. My calendar is Sign up for a hour to just connect.

If you try a dialogue with someone else, please tell me how it went. I promise to have a few conversations of my own and will share how mine went in return!

If you want support bridging the divide with a loved on, don’t hesitate to reach out. I would also love to facilitate a conversation for you and a friend, or for a group. I’m here to help.

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