How We Can Reconcile With Each Other When Our Politics Are So Polarized

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[From the Wall Street Journal]

Sharp political divisions have disconnected us from friends and family. Here’s how to find common ground again.

By Elizabeth Bernstein

On a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, eight Democrats, seven Republicans and one Independent attended a three-hour Zoom meeting to discuss politics. There was no screaming. No one hurled accusations or stereotypes. People thanked each other for sharing their opinions.

It felt like a miracle.

The meeting was a “Red/Blue Workshop,” conducted by Braver Angels, a nonpartisan nonprofit that was created after the 2016 election by people concerned about the increasingly polarized tone of political discourse in the U.S. The aim of these workshops is to bring people with different political views together to share their beliefs and search for commonalities. “You look for the glue, for that which binds,” says William Doherty, a marriage and family therapist, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, and one of the group’s co-founders, who designed the workshop. “Now is the perfect time to begin this process of reconciliation.”

A majority of Americans—67%—believe it’s important to get along with people they disagree with politically, according to a recently released study by researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education called “Bridging America’s Political Divide.” Eighty-three percent of the survey’s approximately 1,400 respondents said they could respect someone who disagrees with them politically as long as the person respected them back. And 80% said they would be “happy” to engage in conversations with people who have opposing political views—as long as the conversation was considerate, with neither party belittling or disparaging the other.

Focus on what you have in common: the shared history, goals, aspirations and values.

And yet true reconciliation will take more than good communication skills. To restore genuinely friendly relations with friends, family members and those in our communities, we need to move past our mutual hostility and heal. This will require us to listen, to try to understand why people feel differently than we do, and to find and focus on the things we have in common.

There’s an urge to break off ties right now, to claim we “can’t possibly understand” how someone could hold the views they hold. This is a personal decision. But Dr. Doherty says we should be very careful: The vast majority of people who hold different views from us aren’t bad folks. Their political opinions aren’t the only thing that defines them. And we lose a lot when we lose a relationship that was important to us.

Dr. Doherty designed the Braver Angels workshops based on techniques used in couples therapy. The group’s name was inspired by the words of Abraham Lincoln, who encouraged Americans to summon the “better angels of our nature.” It is funded by membership fees from its 13,000 members and grants from foundations across the political spectrum. In the past four years, Braver Angels has created chapters in all 50 states and run thousands of workshops, debates and presentations—first in person and now via Zoom—that bring conservative (or “red” in the group’s lexicon) and liberal (“blue”) participants together to discuss politics, as well as issues such as climate change and race.

In the Red/Blue sessions, people learn to express their views in constructive ways and listen carefully without leaping to contradict others. Just like sparring spouses, participants learn to adhere to the major tenets of marriage therapy: Speak for yourself; don’t interpret what’s going on in the other person’s mind. Accept your own contribution to the problem—and that you can only change yourself. Focus on what you have in common: the shared history, goals, aspirations and values.

“Both sides have temptations to resist,” Dr. Doherty says. “If you are happy about the election, your temptation will be toward triumphalism. And those who have lost will have a temptation for vengeance.”

So what does Dr. Doherty suggest we do? First, if your side won, don’t gloat. (Sorry.) It doesn’t foster goodwill. You also should not expect someone on the other side to apologize. You don’t need that to move on. And the goal is to restore the relationship, not punish the person.

Everyone needs an attitude adjustment. In order to repair our relationships, we need to be willing to accept our differences. We need to see our family members, friends and people in our community for more than their political beliefs. And we need to spend more time focusing on what is admirable in someone’s character. “We should remind ourselves that this is someone I care about. We have a history together. We love a lot of the same people. We have bonds that are deeper and more powerful than politics,” says Dr. Doherty.

In the Braver Angels Red/Blue workshops, participants take part in structured discussions that allow them to practice listening to one other. In one exercise, they take turns explaining why they think their side’s values and policies are good for the country, as well as what reservations they have for these policies. They break into groups—one for “reds” and one for “blues”—to explore stereotypes. And they pair up—one red and one blue—and discuss their views.

Braver Angels volunteers Steve Saltwick, a Republican, and Lynn Heady, a Democrat—who work closely together as co-directors of the group’s field operations—have tried to put the group’s advice into practice in their own friendship. When they met last year, they deliberately avoided talking about politics, bonding instead over work, family, dogs and barbecue. (He is from Austin. She is from Nashville.) But right before the election, Ms. Heady mentioned that she was upset about something she heard in the news, and the two agreed to talk about it. So she shared her views. Then he shared his. And each tried to really listen.

It went OK. And so they keep trying. If tensions rise, one of them will say: “I don’t think we are going to agree on this one. We should stop talking.” Then they return to what they have in common.

After the recent Sunday Red/Blue workshop, Howard Reitz, an 81-year-old retired music professor and violinist from St. Paul, Minn., who is a Republican, said that one of his most important takeaways “was learning that not showing one’s emotions—approval, shock, disapproval—is a valuable and necessary skill.” Teresa Collett, 63, a law professor in St. Paul, Minn., who is a Republican, said she was struck by how important it is to have a shared vocabulary around issues, such as police reform.

Martha Brown, a Democrat from Red Lodge, Mont., and Ken Goodpaster, a self-described “conservative independent” from St. Paul, Minn., were paired up during the one-on-one discussions. They discussed gun violence, immigration, racism and Covid-19. Both said they were surprised to find common ground on a variety of issues, including gun regulation, controlled immigration, police reform and the need for Covid-19 precautions to protect the most vulnerable.

“We learned a lot from each other,” says Dr. Brown, 62, a retired university administrator.

“It was exciting,” says Mr. Goodpaster, 76, a professor emeritus of business ethics. “There were a lot of themes that resonated with both of us, including the importance of unifying the country in the wake of a close election.

“We have a family here and it needs to be healed.”

Share Your Thoughts

What suggestions do you have for constructively talking with family and friends with whom you have different political views? Join the discussion below.

Tips For Talking With Someone With Different Views

Here is some advice from William Doherty, a marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Braver Angels, a nonprofit that works to depolarize Americans.

Be humble and accept responsibility. “Meaningful progress occurs when both sides see that they have contributed to the problem,” Dr. Doherty says.

Stop trying to change the other person. It rarely works and leads to endless arguing. Remember: We can only change ourselves.

Seek to understand. This means we need to talk less and listen more—a lot more. Stop explaining your point of view and try to understand why the other person sees the world as they do.

Try the LAPP Technique: Listen to understand, not reload. Acknowledge what you heard. Pivot by assessing whether it is OK to offer your views. Offer your perspective (if the person has signaled a willingness to hear it).

Use “I” statements instead of dogmatic ones. (“This is how I see it” instead of “How can you not see this?”)

Depolarize your language. Avoid labels, such as “bigoted” or “unpatriotic.” If someone offers their opinion and you put a label on it you are never going to have a meaningful conversation or mend the relationship.

Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at [email protected] or follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter at EBernsteinWSJ.

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the November 25, 2020, print edition as ‘Tips For Talking With Someone With Different Views.’

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