Kalamazoo, Mich., musician and spiritual director Betsy Meagher, 76, felt anxious before her meeting with a Pennsylvania woman named Jodi. Their conversation was facilitated by StoryCorps, a nonprofit that shares interviews about people’s lives with the goal of spreading compassion and empathy.
Meagher had read Jodi’s bio and knew they shared a Christian faith but defined their beliefs differently. Meagher worried they’d end up locked in conflict — she’s socially liberal, and Jodi seemed more conservative. But she relaxed when Jodi said that she didn’t want to be put in a box.
“I also don’t want to be labeled,” says Meagher, who often faces the assumption that she holds certain positions because of her religion, such as being opposed to LGBTQIA+ rights.
From there, the conversation flowed naturally. Meagher described having learned about politics by watching television with her father when Dwight D. Eisenhower was running for president. Jodi talked about her mother’s death in December 2020, when no family members were allowed in hospice because of COVID-19.
Meagher left the conversation surprised by how easily two people with differing beliefs could be honest and respectful with each other. “We both agreed that this was helpful to our personal lives and that we might keep an open heart for conversations with other people,” she says.
That willingness is the goal of One Small Step, a project launched by StoryCorps in 2018 that matches strangers who have differing political beliefs for a conversation aimed at building mutual understanding.
“The goal is not to convince the other person they’re wrong and you’re right, but rather to talk about who we are as people — to be reminded of one another’s humanity.”
“The goal is not to convince the other person they’re wrong and you’re right, but rather to talk about who we are as people — to be reminded of one another’s humanity,” says StoryCorps chief program officer Lisa Gale, PhD.
Gale adds that the polarization of our politics has created a culture of contempt that poses an existential threat to America. It’s human nature to see outsiders as a threat and to cling to our opinions when someone challenges them — but bridging our differences is how we can understand one another, cocreate solutions to pressing social issues, and meet the needs of our whole community.
“If we want to live in a democracy and a civic society where we’re self-governed, we have to figure this out,” says Anna Sale, Berkeley-based host of the Death, Sex & Money podcast and author of Let’s Talk About Hard Things. “This is building the muscles we all need to figure out how to find common ground.”
Simply bringing different groups into the same space isn’t enough to mend fences. We can see from toxic social-media outbursts, public protests, and broken family relationships that talking without listening may do more harm than good.
If you approach the process thoughtfully, with an open mind and the willingness to change your perspective, you too can contribute to healing our divided society. Gale and other experts suggest these steps.
Before you launch into a potentially polarizing conversation, take the time to consciously affirm the relationship or whatever you have in common. That can be as simple as both of you being residents of the same community and wanting it to thrive. Or perhaps your family members committed to understanding each other.
“When you take those moments to reinforce what your relationship is to one another, that puts you in the headspace of wanting to understand, and encourages curiosity rather than debate,” Sale explains. (For more on nurturing curiosity, see “Get Curious“.)
Discuss in person, rather than online — and keep it private so you’re both focused on what the other person has to say. Consider stating a goal or setting ground rules, such as an agreement that if either of you feels overly agitated, you’ll take a break.
You might say, “I’m going to try my hardest to listen openly, without judgment, with the hope that the two of us can better understand each other,” says Daniel L. Shapiro, PhD, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program and author of Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.
Engage only if the desire for communication is mutual, and be mindful of the circumstances. “Is it worth it to raise the topic at the first reunion after two years of pandemic?” Shapiro asks. “Both people need to be motivated to have the conversation.”
Open Your Mind
To bridge the difference, you need to see the value in recognizing someone else’s perspective — and be willing to have your own mind changed. Know that your beliefs, values, and ideas stem from your unique path through life and represent only one view of the world, advises Columbia University associate professor of science education Christopher Emdin, PhD, author of Ratchetdemic.
“The only expertise I have is my own perspective,” says Emdin, who advises “radical humility” in the hard work of seeking to understand others. “Take the time to be still and to study.”
Don’t look to score points in a debate; instead, make mutual compassion your goal. By seeing the other person as having valid reasons for their beliefs, and acknowledging the truths they share, you’re modeling how to have a civil discourse.
“We start the conversation in an untenable position if we make it so that our only path to victory requires the other person to say, ‘I’m bigoted and racist,’” says Kwame Christian, director of the American Negotiation Institute in Columbus, Ohio, and author of Finding Confidence in Conflict: How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life.
Often we don’t listen in a conversation; we merely wait for our turn to speak. When it comes to charged topics, attentiveness is paramount.
“The thing that’s most profound is the listening,” Gale says. “It’s in taking in the information that your eyes are opened.”
Ask reflective questions with the goal of deepening your understanding — not to catch the other person in a logical fallacy.
Acknowledge and validate emotions that come up, advises Christian. Ask reflective questions with the goal of deepening your understanding — not to catch the other person in a logical fallacy.
“Responding with curiosity and compassion recognizes that they have value,” Christian says. “If you think that the only person who needs to transform in the conversation is the other person, that arrogance comes out in your tone.”
Name the areas of commonality, whether you both believe in hard work, the importance of honesty, or the need for a robust economy. Don’t argue over facts; dig deeper to the values and beliefs that are being challenged by whatever issue is on the table.
Ask about the reasons underlying people’s beliefs, and the evidence that led them to certain conclusions, says educator Lecia Michelle, author of The White Allies Handbook (forthcoming). “Talk about your own experiences, and encourage empathy.”
Manage Your Triggers
Expect that you may feel anxious during a difficult conversation and your body may react physically. Humans are social animals, and we’re often more comfortable around people whose views are similar to our own.
In fact, our brains work harder metabolically when we’re learning something new, says Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, a neuroscientist and author of 7½ Lessons About the Brain.
“When we’re faced with people who are different from us in some way that we’re unexperienced with, our brains have a harder time predicting what will happen next,” Barrett explains. That metabolic tax on our brains makes it harder for them to regulate our bodies.
You can prepare for this by being hydrated, taking deep breaths, and making sure you embark on the conversation when you feel grounded and well rested. Keep the conversation pace slow, and notice if you start to use pressured speech — you may have fallen into attempting to persuade the other person rather than truly seeking to understand.
Think Long Term
Feeling uncomfortable is an unavoidable part of the process, Emdin says. You’re building resilience: The more you engage, the easier it will become.
One conversation may not change the world. But a practice of respectful, sincere conversation across differences can sow the seeds of transformation in your life and your community.
“Just like you exercise every day or invest energy in certain practices to keep yourself healthy, this is something you can do,” Barrett says. “You can deliberately engage with people who disagree with you, not for the purpose of convincing them, but to learn something new.”
Any number of problems in our neighborhood, state, or country will be better solved if we can find common ground. Shapiro calls this a civic mindset, as opposed to a partisan or individualist mindset.
“We’re all part of the same national project, the United States of America,” he says. “There’s so much shared work that can get done that’s in the interest of not just red and blue but everyone. A little bit of talking and listening helps everybody.”
This article originally appeared as “Bridge the Gap” in the January/February 2022 issue of Experience Life.