Empathy and Understanding in Ithaca

“Sharpening differences” and“listening to understand”


On a sunny Saturday in Ithaca a group of 7 Democrats and 7 Republicans came together for a day, pulling their political opinions off the internet or out of the closet to engage in face-to-face conversation. The session was led by Better Angels moderators Bill Doherty, David Blankenhorn and David Lapp.

I think it’s fair to say that we were all a little trepidatious in the beginning and uncertain of what to expect but it was equally clear that we were all united in our desire to communicate. 
We spent the next 8 hours engaged in what was essentially a communication workshop. The structured conversation and small group exercises were peppered with coffee, lunch and snack breaks which gave us an opportunity to have one-on-one conversations and get to know each other on a more personal level.

In this day and age where the cult of opinion seems to reign supreme participants were asked to listen. Just listen. Not “listen until you hear what you want to say,” but “listen to understand.” I have little doubt that every person in the room heard opinions expressed that made them bite their tongues but it was an excellent, refreshing exercise in putting one’s self aside and exploring empathy and understanding.
After breaking into two small mixed groups of conservatives and liberals in which we shared opinions and respectfully questioned each other (“no ‘gotcha’ questions, Doherty instructed) we convened again as a large group to discuss what we had learned. One of the Republican participants said something I found interesting and strangely heartening. He said he felt that our differences as conservatives and liberals went so deep that he was convinced there are many things we will never, ever be able to agree upon. There was a general nodding of heads and a mood of assent on both sides but no palpable animosity. This reaction was clearly familiar to Doherty, who suggested that we had managed to “sharpen” our differences and that it was not a bad thing. A well-functioning Democracy depends upon the ability of its citizens to hear someone else’s point of view, dissect it, consider it, disagree with it vehemently and still see the person expressing it as a human being worthy of respect. 
When we split into homogenous groups to come up with a list of prejudices that we felt the other group held about us it interested me to see how many of the misconceptions or prejudices on both sides were connected not to policy but to feelings. Democrats believed Republicans felt that Democrats don’t care about the Midwestern states. Republicans felt Democrats believed that Republicans don’t care about poor people. And on it went. What we found at the end of the exercise was that neither side was made up of ‘good people who care versus bad people who don’t’, but that we were a group of Americans who sit on opposite sides of the debate on how problems are best solved. If we can take as a starting point the assumption that we all — red, blue, conservative, liberal, progressive, independent — come from a place of caring about our fellow citizens and that our differences lie in the policies we believe will achieve positive results for all, I think the conversation would be more fruitful and less vitriolic.

Fringe groups that perpetrate and encourage acts of violence aside, I came away from the gathering with a renewed belief that most Americans want to find effective, humane solutions to solving the challenges we face as a country. That was certainly what I experienced through the social microcosm of the Better Angels Workshop.

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