DIY: Wisdom from Better Angels

Understanding is the path to healing


Like many others, the 2016 election cyclone swept my colleague, Dr. Karen Walant, and I into a frenzy of energy, emotion, and activity. As weeks turned into months, we came to realize we were mirroring the stress and divisiveness that was happening across the country. We began to reconsider our approach, keeping in mind that no one group or person has all the answers and that the democratic system recognizes that the best and most creative solutions often emerge from joint discussion and combined efforts. Divisiveness interferes with this group process. We began to look for ways to stay committed to our beliefs and values, while not alienating those who feel differently. Seeking alternatives, we heard about Better Angels. Intrigued, we found ourselves volunteering our help should they take their program on the road. Several weeks later they pulled into our community on their 44-foot fully loaded bus, ready to go. By interweaving the wisdom of the Better Angels mission and methods with the feedback from our participants, I hope to offer a bit of help for those who seek to join the Better Angels initiative.

The blues and reds of Ridgefield, CT and South Salem, NY

The mission of Better Angels is to create “One America” from our many voices. Bridging the political divide through mutual understanding is a core organizing principle for Better Angels. They build this bridge through carefully crafted conversations, interactions, role-play, and other exercises. While not purporting to solve the complex problems of our country, they are taking a necessary first step. By encouraging active listening, they help us recognize each other as co-participants and co-creators of the future of our country. Following their approach is an opportunity to demonstrate our faith in our democracy.

Better Angels conducted two programs for participants mostly hailing from Ridgefield, Connecticut and South Salem, New York. Karen observed a structured dialogue between eight “blues” and eight “reds” moderated by David Blankenhorn. I took part in a series of exercises designed to help us talk to friends and family across the political divide facilitated by Bill Doherty. Over the next week, I interviewed about 20 of the other brave souls who joined. Here I highlight some of the wisdom of Better Angels interwoven with the reflections of our participants to support your own acts of patriotism — communicating and connecting across the political divide.

If you have decided to re-connect with people who you have drifted (or ran) away from over political differences, or if you woke up one day realizing that screaming across the divide was not an ideal problem solving strategy, here are some tips.

Take good care of your self throughout. Many of our participants arrived straight from work on a humid Tuesday evening in July. Tired, hot, hungry, and often nervous, several indicated it took awhile to settle. They persevered through the evening sustained on meager offerings of sandwiches and coffee. They did great, but the experience may have been easier if we had factored in more time for refreshment. Both programs rest on sophisticated communications that depend on brain capacities for complex thinking and social interaction. Stress interferes. Observe if you are hungry, tired, tense, jumpy, irritable, or struggling to focus. Take a few long deep breaths. Slowly open and close your eyes. Imagine your self in a peaceful place. Frame the goal as one of cooperation rather than competition. Nudge yourself into a calmer state to better access higher brain functions.

For Better Angels, understanding is the path to healing. They insist on our commitment to this goal and their guidelines keep us focused on the task throughout.

Our motivations can facilitate or detract from this endeavor. Consider that we are trying to talk to friends, neighbors, or relatives. We are not speaking with a politician or presenting our case as candidate for office. We are seeking to better know one another, not to prove a point. Be sure your personal motivations are consistent with seeking understanding. Acknowledge and root out ulterior motivations — like wishing to prove the superiority of your position — and focus on your higher calling.

To keep us on track, Better Angels instruct us to try to learn something new and to actively seek evidence of common ground. Focusing on learning (rather than on defending your self or attacking the other) creates a place of safety for both participants. It fosters an attitude of curiosity and freshness of perspective, protecting us from jumping to conclusions based on preconceived ideas. Several in the “talking to friends and family” workshop found this experience enlightening. In the eight “reds” and eight “blues” workshop, people on both sides came to appreciate the honesty and passion of all. Many offered the conclusion that while they came away knowing there were real differences and much work to do, they were now reassured that there were people across the aisle willing to try to work together to find common ground.

Fear and anger, often ignited in cross party dialogue, are contained by disallowing debate. Many found this profoundly freeing. When unburdened by efforts to change minds, pin someone down, set them up, or prove them wrong, communication flows more easily.

Similarly, conversations about political topics are often associated with competition. For the sake of bridging divides, we shift to a focus on collaboration by viewing our conversations as a joint effort to reach mutual understanding.

There were significant differences in the questions we grappled with between the two programs. Many found topics in the first program too hot to handle for their first forays reaching across the divide. If you are doing this outside the structure of a program, I highly recommend you begin with a mildly charged topic and avoid jumping around. The goal is to stay in your window of tolerance, to raise anxiety just enough to say you are in important territory, but not so high as to invoke a stress response that will compromise capacities for effective communication. Choose your questions and topics as an opportunity to signal the person you are genuinely interested. Avoid veiled attacks or set-ups.

Be prepared to accept what people share with you. Accepting is not the same as agreeing with. It simply means you are allowing them their perspective, as in “I accept that this is true for you.” Again, it creates a feeling of safety for you both. It says, “I am not here to attack you. I am here to understand you.”

Giving ample time to answer conveys a similar implicit message. The absence of time pressure again signals your interest and reassures your partner that another agenda is not lurking behind your questions.

During the ”talking to friends and family” program, we signaled our understanding by rephrasing their answer and asking if we got it right. When you engage in your own conversations, satisfy this requirement before moving on, demonstrating your sincere interest. If you cannot get to understanding, express appreciation for the effort. You may try another topic, or, if too heated, you can end the conversation.

Knowing that you are going to be required to rephrase what you just heard, you are encouraged to truly listen rather than use the time to prepare your response. Almost everybody commented on how powerful this instruction was. Again, many found not focusing on their own replies a release. Several admitted that they discovered they were actually not very good at listening and made a personal commitment to improve.

As you are talking and listening, notice if you drift into responding defensively or offensively. If this begins to happen (it probably will), try taking some long breaths. Only return when you are feeling safe and secure enough to bring your best self forward with openness and curiosity. Bill stressed the importance of protecting your own wellbeing. If conversations become too difficult, there is no shame is shifting topics, stopping the conversation, or walking away if necessary.

If all is going well, you may want to ask if your partner would like to hear your position. Take a moment to prepare and try to offer your position in a few succinct sentences. Ask the person to repeat what you have said to be sure that you got your ideas across successfully.

End by asking yourselves if there is anything else you want to say. Then thank yourselves for your effort.

These conversations are not easy. You may like to practice through role-playing as we did in the skills training room. Blues paired with blues, reds with reds. Each member took a turn acting out the position of the other side. Knowing you were with a “safe” other seemed to keep defensiveness down while being surprisingly effective for opening cracks in preconceived ideas. There were gleeful expressions like “I talked my way into agreeing with the other side.” Some of the feedback demonstrated the emergence of empathy as they began to imagine the individual processes that may have led to diverging positions.

If you would like to try, find a fellow silo member and ask if they are game. Pick your topic and try it out, using the same guidelines offered above. If you do not have a willing partner, or if lunch with your cousin from the “other side” is looming, you could try writing it out rather than acting it out. Write about an issue from the other person’s point of view or use dialogue to represent two or more sides of an issue. Look through the eyes of the other, being serious rather than reaching for the comical or outrageous. These simple exercises are surprisingly effective at humanizing and making the other person understandable.

After having time to digest these experiences, Karen and I feel energized and motivated to continue the work of Better Angels. The dialogue program helped articulate the extent of the divide. We realized that our community, and America as a whole, is filled with passionate people who love America and have strong feelings, as well as conflicting interests. We are passionate people with strong feelings and conflicting interests. Yet, these conversations and role-play exercises convinced me there is a way forwardd and that way includes us all. We all have a stake in this grand experiment. Democracy flourishes not when one of us wins but when, out of the interaction of many, committed to sharing views and listening to those of others in mutual respect, we discover resolutions. We need to create safe spaces within which we can come together with the intention of understanding through listening to all perspectives as we create our future as “One America.”

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