Reflections on Ohio

How to talk — and listen — to the other side

SOMEWHERE ALONG ROUTE 71, Ky. —

“Normally when I talk politics, I’m talking to people I agree with. I feel like I rarely get opposing perspectives.”
“My friends and I used to be able to discuss politics without getting heated. Now it seems impossible.”
“I’ve avoided talking to the other side since the Election. It just turns into a shouting match.”

These were some of the sentiments expressed at the beginning of last night’s Better Angels gathering in Kettering, Ohio, which brought together local Democrats and Republicans for a two-and-a-half hour workshop designed to give participants a chance to express themselves and listen to the other side without debating head to head.

“Normally, when people talk politics, they’re not really listening — they’re waiting to make their point,” said facilitator Bill Doherty, who teaches family therapy at the University of Minnesota. “At Better Angels, we establish careful ground rules that enable folks to meaningfully absorb opposing perspectives.”

Among other methods of structured engagement, Better Angels uses “fish bowl” exercises to break down the barriers that normally preclude productive dialogue. All the members of one party sit in the middle of the room — discussing their positions, values, and views on the current administration amongst themselves — while the members of the other party sit on the outside listening, learning, and taking notes. Then, they switch.

By the end of the exercise, both Democrats and Republicans have an opportunity to hear the other side explain their positions without being defensive or argumentative. The result is that participants begin to develop a richer picture of those with whom they disagree. They begin to see their political opponents as people instead of just stereotypes. And they identify areas of commonalty they wouldn’t have predicted.

“There’s so much more common ground than you would think listening to the TV,” said one participant after completing the fish bowl exercise. “And there’s such a strong sense, on both sides, of ‘Don’t tell me what I am.’

After finishing last night’s session, many of the participants expressed a willingness to keep meeting.

“We might disagree on how to get there, but we all care compassionately about others — and we all want to keep working together for a better country.”
“It was nice to have a chance to just listen rather than have a back and forth. We need to further develop our ability to listen without making someone feel defensive.”

While the residents of Kettering only scratched the surface last night, they started to lay the groundwork for a more effective method of communication — and a less polarized polity.

Today the One America tour continues on to Nashville, TN. Stay tuned.

The One America bus rolls on