Listening for Hope
A dispatch from The Green Mountain State
BY Shanna Ratner
St. Albans, VT — Months of outreach and organizing paid off Monday as over 40 people came together in Franklin County, Vermont to learn skills for communicating with people who have opinions and values very different from their own, and participate in a dialogue with equal numbers of “red” and “blue” participants.
The evening began with a simple but nourishing dinner of spaghetti, salad, garlic bread and baked goodies provided through donations from community members and local businesses and prepared by volunteers at a local soup kitchen that welcomes broad community engagement. Republican and Democratic politicians, including the Lt. Governor, Representatives, and the Mayor served dinner and then offered their support to participants before they made their way down the block to City Hall.
Twenty people attended the skills workshop, using role-playing to learn how to listen and reflect back what they heard, and express their own opinions respectfully. They also learned techniques for entering and exiting potentially difficult conversations safely. These skills were new for some while others began to realize that they already had the skills they needed; it had just never occurred to them to use their skills in discussing political differences. Participants reported feeling better prepared and therefore more likely to explore political (and other) differences as a result of the training.
Downstairs in the Council Chambers, eighteen people, including 9 reds and 9 blues, participated in a structured experience to learn more about what the “other side” thinks. They managed to surprise each other just by listening.
“I’m encouraged by how well we listened”
Among the commonalities the group recognized were the influence of family and family circumstances in shaping political views on both sides of the aisle, and agreement that the media have become a divisive force in our society. They also discovered a shared interest in helping people in need, along with some differences of opinion about the extent to which that help should come from local and state governments, private efforts and/or the federal government. Participants reported a new openness to each other as people and more hope for our union:
“People are afraid of losing what we think American is about; I now feel less afraid of those who disagree with me.”
“Common ground exists; compromise is attainable”
Shanna Ratner co-facilitated the Better Angels’ dialogue in St. Albans. She helped organize the stop with Kate Larose.