Between 2016 and 2019, a California Republican, who several years earlier commanded a company of Marines in Afghanistan, and a California Democrat, trained as a liberal journalist, spent their break time from law school, traveling the United States in an aged Volvo. They sought and stumbled into encounters with people from every part of our national pallet. They discovered that despite our polarized rhetoric, we as Americans, are not as divided as we seem.
Americans of all stripes have a desire to make the lives of other people better. What divides us, is who we choose to care most about. The policies we embrace are for the benefit of a recognized class of people. Those policies are a function of our chosen tribal membership.
All of us desire membership in communities that give meaning to our lives. Those memberships give us significance. To protect that community, and in effect, our own significance in this world, we adopt shared cultural values.
Just the notion of seeing value in an opponent’s beliefs, can subconsciously trigger a sense of betrayal toward our own tribe. It can present an existential problem. Bridging that divide is the difficult part. There is no guaranteed formula. But there are behaviors, skills if you will, that can help.
Be in relationship. Opportunities for relationship organically occur in an unimaginable variety of ways. Creating a relationship out of opportunity, when common beliefs are not apparent, requires discipline. Relationships are built on trust and respect. Trust and respect are earned by example. Relationship, more than anything else, gradually opens the gates of the castle. So how do we get there?
Be civil. Do not give voice to anger. Do not express negative emotion at the values or words of someone who has taken the time to speak with, or yell at, you. Instead, listen. Authentically. People’s opinions are formed because they care about a certain group of people. The reasons we choose to care about any group of people are deep. They are not mere personal opinions. They are shared cultural values that give significance to their lives. Respect that.
Be patient. It is a fool’s errand to expect agreement in a single encounter, or even over a short period of time. Like the farmer, prepare the soil, and allow the seeds of your authentic listening and civil acceptance to germinate. Expect nothing in return. One day trust will break the surface. Sometimes, one plants, another harvests.
Armed with these passive fruits of the spirit, do not eschew those who think differently. Treasure the opportunity for those relationships to develop. They will deepen your own understanding.
With some, it will not be possible to engage in civil discussion. But for others, listening leads to trust. Trust leads to respect. And respect leads to more trust. The other may never agree with you. Nor should they be expected to. But at least they know that you stand in acceptance of their authentically held concerns.
Understand how the other’s values give security and significance to their lives. Discover what concerns give rise to those values. Discover the source of those concerns. Acknowledge the importance of their need for security. “You just want to make sure [i.e., the promise of America] remains safe.”
Now you can talk about solutions and ideas.
One of my favorite examples was found in a conversation with a musician. Patience and discipline are required to master an instrument. It can take a lifetime of practice. But at some point, the musician is accomplished enough to make music. Music is a universal language. “Music brings people together, because you can come at it, interpret it, and appreciate it from infinite points of view. There is no right way to take in and fall for a tune. All that matters is that you do, and what you bring to it in turn. After all these years on the road, we have come to much the same view about our country.”
Solutions and ideas are like songs. You can hear them and interpret them from many points of view. From there, common ground emerges. It’s all in the getting there.