Bridging Divides

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

Maybe you watched the recent presidential debates in the U.S. or similar events in your home country and wondered: are we really as divided as the politicians make it seem? And if we are, how will we ever unite to confront the huge challenges of global warming, systemic racism, wealth inequality — just to name a few — and work together to increase the quality of life for all people? We can easily become disenchanted and demoralized when we consider the size of the problems and the seemingly irreconcilable divides that stand between us and progress.

Watching this play out in our politics, or even just reflecting on it alone, increases anxiety and can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Many in our generation feel a great sense of despair having lived with a political system that has never, in our lifetimes, displayed the power to adequately deal with pressing issues. This triggers the same fundamental fear of our lack of control that we discussed in our close interpersonal relationships. We know that securing our future requires working together to address these significant problems. When the divides between us threaten to thwart any progress, our deep need for security and stability in the world is similarly threatened.

Naturally, we avoid confronting these painful thoughts. We turn away from the news outlets and social media posts that oppose our views or we lash out in anger, engaging in a fruitless back-and-forth that only increases our division. We may recognize these patterns of behavior from the last post - these are the same patterns that come between us and our loved ones, the ones we are now trying to replace with supportive, loving relations. Although our goals are different in a broader social context, we can use this same approach to overcome differences and find ways to work together.

First, we can start to accept that we may never fully agree. We often fall into a trap thinking that if we could only convince enough people to see things our way, or elect our candidate, then our problems would be solved. Again, just like we saw within our families, this denies others of the freedom and independence by forcing them to conform to our way of seeing things. Rather than engaging with people in finding new solutions, we spend our energy trying to convince them that we are right and they are wrong.

Our diverse viewpoints is not itself a problem that needs to be solved. We can hold wildly divergent views and still come together to make progress on shared goals. The more we can hold space with a person who disagrees with us, the more open we become to finding ways to work together. When we are less driven by the need to convince, we can start to actually listen to the other’s views, even learn from them, and discover the places where we already agree.

Of course, this is no easy task. Simply reading this won’t make it much easier for you to have fruitful conversations with people on opposing ends of a spectrum. Just like meditation, we have to practice this approach in our lives and, over time, notice the changes as we learn from experience. Meditation gives us the basic tools we need: awareness of our inner state, strength to endure difficult feelings without reacting, and ability to see and choose from new possibilities. We still have to learn how to apply these tools by having difficult conversations and learning how to find and create common solutions.

Many of you have people in your extended family, workplace or neighborhood that hold starkly opposing views. Perhaps you’ve experienced the frustration of arguing with these people and resolved to simply avoid controversial topics or seen your relationships deteriorate as a result. No matter how offensive you may find someone’s views, you can have fruitful conversations and even relationships. Consider the close friendship of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who represented opposite ends of a political spectrum and nonetheless learned from each other.

We can embrace our diversity as a strength. Rather than seeing others as obstacles to be avoided or persuaded, we can learn from their differences and create more powerful and robust solutions than we ever could alone. Our goal is not universal agreement; it is the continual improvement of the quality of life for all people, despite our different beliefs about how to achieve it. We all want to create a better world and we can only do that if we effectively engage with all the people who disagree with us, even when those differences horrify us.

One important caveat: we do not accept intolerance. Our approach is built upon tolerance of differences, so the intolerant perspective is directly opposed to us. We tolerate all views except those that don’t extend the same tolerance for all people and perspectives. This keeps our focus on our shared problems and solutions, and prohibits the false separations that place blame on specific groups of people and seek their domination or exclusion. At the same time, we cannot avoid or crush these perspectives, because that will never address the roots of the intolerance. We must recognize these views are often rooted in trauma and provide their adherents with pathways to tolerance.

By engaging with intolerance as well as the many people in our lives who disagree in respectful ways, we can make progress towards solving the problems that seem to have paralyzed our political process. People often blame our divisiveness on our political leaders, but they merely reflect the reality that already exists in our families and communities. If we start to relate to each other differently — if we can tolerate our differences and commit to working together, right now, right here, in our communities — our political leaders will naturally start to reflect this as well.

We often forget that we also hold the power to shape our world; we are not merely shaped by it. It starts with changing how we relate to each other. Our power grows as we hold space with those who disagree and seek to learn and collaborate rather than convince and control. Every small step we make towards this is important. Every difficult conversation that goes well brings us closer together, whether it's in our families, workplaces, schools, or communities. Ultimately it’s these small steps that free us from the paralysis of thinking our differences are too wide to be bridged. This makes progress possible. It creates the possibility — the freedom — to learn, grow and live together in new ways.

Let’s start now by challenging ourselves to reach out to someone in our extended family or community that we know holds very different views. I’ve put together this one pager to guide you through approaching that first conversation. Expect powerful emotions and be kind to yourself when it doesn’t go well. Remember that you are doing something so important, and with each conversation it will become more natural. This is about cultivating freedom. This is about shaping the world. It starts with us.

Dialogue by Devan Musser
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Further reading:

  • Boghossian, Peter G., and James Lindsay. How to Have Impossible Conversations : A Very Practical Guide. First ed. New York, NY: Lifelong, 2019.


  • drawing by isabel gryschka

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