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In a Time of Deep Divides, Can We Find Common Ground?

Reconciliation may not be possible, but we can still make space for productive dialogue with the other side.

by James Napoli
February 1, 2021 | Our Future
Illustration of two face silhouettes torn apart and facing away from each other while speaking, deep divides, Rewire
Credit: Jiris // Adobe

After elections, we often hear a common refrain from politicians to set aside our differences, come together and move forward as one nation.

But this year, calls for unity ring especially hollow.

We live in a divided society, with deep rifts along political, economic, cultural and racial lines. We've become polarized to such a degree that we almost seem to inhabit separate realities, shaped by irreconcilable sets of values, beliefs and opinions.

Recently, we've witnessed conflicts spill over from social media to the streets, from protests against coronavirus lockdowns to marches in support of Black Lives Matter to the violent insurrection in Washington, D.C.

In the weeks following the attempted siege of the U.S. Capitol, many of us have been wondering how we can move forward when we can't even agree on something as fundamental as the outcome of the presidential election. Given this state of affairs, is there any hope for finding common ground?

Personally, I think the best place to start addressing conflict and working toward healing is on the local level, with our family, neighbors, co-workers and other members of our communities.

It isn't easy to engage in a conversation with someone whose beliefs may be the polar opposite of our own, but this work is necessary if we want to keep our communities from becoming further polarized. 

The following tips from professionals who work in mediation and conflict transformation will help you reach across divides and create space for productive and meaningful dialogue.

Start with self-awareness and self-education

Before we start looking to engage in a dialogue with someone else, we need to first look inward and examine our own values, beliefs, emotions and biases.

"The ability to manage conflict productively begins with self-awareness," said Cherise Hairston, conflict intervention specialist and mediation coordinator at the Dayton Mediation Center.

"What upsets you? What triggers you? What do you care about? Those values are your internal North Star. Identifying those will help you get grounded, get calm and get focused on what you need to do next."

For Lama Rod Owens, Buddhist teacher and author of Love and Rage: The Path of Liberation Through Anger, building empathy and addressing conflict require an awareness of how divisions in the world play out within our bodies and minds.

"Many people are interested in organizing and being change agents in their communities, but they haven't actually understood how trauma and anger and sadness and hopelessness are informing how they show up in the world," he said.

"If you can create some awareness around that, and tune into your discomfort and hurt, then you will actually be able to create change in a way that's much more effective, because you have an understanding of what's really happening with other people."

Another crucial step is taking time to educate ourselves on the issues that are driving our polarization.

"A lot of folks who are trying to create dialogue aren't terribly informed about the forces that are impacting that dialogue," Owens said. "We have to do that education ourselves. We have to do the reading and studying."

Set ground rules

One of the keys to creating a space for productive dialogue is establishing ground rules for the conversation in advance. 

Some mediators and conflict specialists follow formal rules that can be applied to any situation. Others recommend that the guidelines be worked out by the individuals who are holding the conversation, in a way that respects cultural differences and personal preferences in communication style.

"I think what is helpful is for individuals to negotiate and build a space together where there are rules of engagement agreed upon by those people," said Melody Stanford Martin, conflict specialist and author of Brave Talk: Building Resilient Relationships in the Face of Conflict.

"For example, we're going to agree ahead of time not to call each other names. We're going to agree not to try to control each other or force each other to agree. We're simply trying to understand where someone else is coming from."

Stanford Martin also recommends agreeing to disagree before you go into a conversation, so there's no expectation you're going to change someone's mind. 

Illustration of people standing on opposite sides of a deep abyss, deep divides, Rewire
In some cases, resolution and reconciliation may not even be possible — or desirable — outcomes.  |  Credit: Jozef Micic // Adobe

"What that does is really profound. It lowers animosity, because someone's not trying to convert you with a hidden — or not-so-hidden — agenda. And if your animosity is lowered, your curiosity can increase," she said.

"If we know someone's going to try to attack or convert us, we're going to be stressed out. Taking every measure to nip that in the bud before the conversation starts is a great way to circumvent that, and actually be able to sit down and hear someone. It turns it from a power struggle into a learning opportunity."

Kabrina Bass, conflict practitioner and executive director of Midlands Mediation Center, suggests a few basic ground rules that can be helpful in any conversation setting.

"Number one is that I will listen attentively and not interrupt while the other person is speaking, even if I disagree. I'll take notes of the things that I disagree with, but I will not attack that person," she said.

Bass also recommends Living Room Conversations and Braver Angels, in addition to the dozens of community mediation and conflict resolution centers around the country, as helpful resources for learning more about fostering productive dialogue.

Listening is key to understanding and empathy

For Bass, active listening is the most important skill for addressing conflict and engaging in a productive dialogue.

"Not only are your ears engaged, but your brain, your eyes and your heart is engaged in active listening," she said. 

"The best way is to sit and listen as a person shares how they feel. You don't say anything. You don't respond. You just sit, and you listen."

After letting the other person speak for a set amount of time (Bass recommends three minutes), you can paraphrase back what you heard. Then give the other person the opportunity to correct or confirm your understanding.

"The main thing is being able to listen to somebody, to affirm that you heard them, and then to make any corrections, clarifications or confirmation," she said.

This process of active listening is essential to building empathy and understanding between polarized individuals.

"It's fundamental to being human that we want to be heard and we want to feel like we're understood," Hairston said.

"Something really powerful shifts when people feel heard. The way we start interacting with each other becomes less destructive, less negative. And we tap back into productive and humanizing interaction."

Engaging in this type of dialogue is not about winning a debate or getting someone else to agree with your opinion; it's simply about creating space to hear and to be heard.

"We don't have to come to an agreement that we're going to change," said Kimberly Shaw, associate dean of students at The Putney School and an associate at Essential Partners.

"We're not going to change each other's minds, but at least we can respect how each other feels. Hearing each other is half the battle."

Handling impasse

Despite our best efforts to create a space for honest and open communication, we may reach a point where civil discussion breaks down and reconciliation seems unlikely.

"If somebody is being combative and not giving you back openness in a conversation, then you have to walk away," Shaw said.

"You cannot have a conversation with someone who does not want to be in that conversation. And it's OK, because they're just not there yet."

In some cases, we might have to accept that resolution and reconciliation may not even be possible — or desirable — outcomes.

"The mainstream approach to conflict resolution is that we need to reconcile our differences and compromise to make this a win-win for everybody. But life doesn't necessarily work like that," Hairston said.

"Deeply held values often aren't reconcilable, and they often come to impasse. So what do you do? Ultimately, that's what the question is: How do we learn to live with our differences?"

Stanford Martin suggests an approach that puts off the question of resolution and reconciliation in favor of grappling with the root causes of conflict.

"If your intention in a difficult conversation is to resolve or to agree, you're often not going to get very far. But if your intent is to understand and to see, then you can mend the relationship first," she said.

"Let's really try to understand what caused the conflict in the first place, and sometimes the rest unravels itself out."

For Owens, dealing with impasse and irreconcilable difference involves a process of mourning.

"There's going to be a lot of people who aren't interested in dialogue and aren't interested in change. We have to be able to mourn that disappointment for ourselves and for our communities," he said.

"And we have to reinvest our energy into people and in communities that are interested and willing to change."

The struggle to find common ground in spite of our deep divisions ultimately depends on our ability to recognize our shared humanity.

"Conflict only happens when people care," Bass said.

"We're all human. Seeing every person's humanity — not as 'them and us,' but as 'we' — that makes a huge difference."

Portrait of shaggy-haired local man with arms folded, wearing a cap, in front of pine trees
James Napoli, a former editor at Rewire, is a freelance writer, photographer and radio producer. Find him on Twitter @jamesnapoIi or Instagram @james.napoli.
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