The lights were bright up on the stage, making it hard to see the sixty-or-so people gathered at a local coffeehouse. Sitting on my right, a Republican. On my left, a very liberal Democrat, a staunch conservative, and an Independent. For a half hour, the moderator asked the five of us questions about our party and positions while the audience watched and the camera rolled.
- What do you dislike about your own party?
- How do you get your news?
- What do you wish the “other side” would do differently?
- How do you think our community could better address homelessness?
- Where’s your favorite place you’ve ever been?
It was incredible.
While there are a growing number of groups in the US facilitating cross-ideology discussions like these, I lucked out that the inaugural Bridging Our Divide event was hosted in my town. I jumped at the chance to participate, and was both elated and terrified when I was chosen as one of the five panelists.
Would it be contentious? Would I be uncomfortable? Would I cry in public? It wasn’t, I wasn’t, and I didn’t. No one ranted or criticized anyone personally. No one spouted extreme views. No one even pointed a finger. Unlike at Thanksgiving dinner, there was a timer, good facilitation, and clear questions to keep us focused. I couldn’t stop smiling, and thinking,We so need this!
As we took turns sharing about our concerns and values, one thing became apparent to me: we all genuinely care the well-being of our community and country. We differ on policy, perhaps, but everyone on the stage was reasonable, thoughtful, and caring. On several occasions, I noticed the other Democrat and I were nodding our heads in agreement with the super-conservative guy. The Republican on my right has a huge heart for the homeless community in my town, and I got misty-eyed hearing about his work and concerns.
At the end, I grinned and asked him, “Are you sure you’re not a liberal?”
“People ask me that all the time,” he laughed.
The gift of respectful listening
With respect as the central ground rule, we each talked honestly—and learned some things we didn’t know. I learned that some conservatives feel threatened and scared they can’t worship as they want to. That some Republicans feel concerned that government isn’t taking better care of homeless people. That some independents feel squeezed out of the political system. That some Democrats don’t think they’re better or smarter than anyone else.
It was truly heartening to listen and discover—when we get beyond the labels—how much we have in common.
And if our democracy is going to heal, we need marriage counseling for our nation. We need this. We need to practice talking to our neighbors, not just those we agree with. Learning how to listen to, respect, and value each other is the bedrock of a functional democracy. Building bridges really matters.
Since it’s the Week 4 reflection week for the Americans of Conscience Checklist, I offer you two activities for nourishing self-reflection.
- Watch these two clear, uplifting videos featuring Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk (and one of the influences on the Bridging Our Divide founder):
- Reflection questions:
In your own journal or in the comments below:
- What do you wish your own party did differently?
- What are you proud of or happy about from January?
- What did you learn this month?
- What worries or concerns you?
- What are you hopeful about?
Next week, the checklist will be back and full of clear, hype-free actions to speak up for your democracy and your neighbor.
I’ve had a couple of similar experiences just recently, people of both R & L persuasion and rep & dem party. Went through a whole long thread and nobody started the name calling and no troll stirring up trouble. It was very enjoyable for a change. Not sure what’s driving it but I hope it’s because people in general are becoming more civil and showing more respect to each other than in the past😀
I am willing to listen to Republicans and conservatives. I think we have lost the center. The ability to communicate. We are starting to hate each other. And how can we stay one country. What I AM scared of are the real extremists such as white supremacists. I do not have a belief they are going to take over. But my fear is that their ideas are becoming more mainstream though still condemned.Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day and I was thinking of my grandmother’s community in Ruscova Rumania. The Jewish community there started in the late 18th century and thrived for hundreds of years until.one dsy in 1944 when they were all deported by the Nazis. Had my grandmother not emigrated here in the early 1900s she would have been one who lost her life
I don’t want to.believe America could degenerate into that madness. Yet racism is alive and well as Trump.wages war against Black and Brown people and immigrants and LGBTQ people, and this is whire supremacy even though Richard Spencer is not President.
We people of good will need to come together or elses the extremes of violence will become the only thing left . And I think.the situation is urgent.
Thinking of you, Laurie. You’re honoring your family’s story by showing up for this work and speaking up for what is right and humane. Your voice matters in this whirlwind.
What do you wish your own party did differently? – a get out the vote.
What are you proud of or happy about from January? – participating in Women’s March Philly!
What did you learn this month? That it’s okay to back off and not send as many letters when I’m stressed.
What worries or concerns you? – this runaway presidency. Blatant disregard for law, ethics.
What are you hopeful about? – The calls to action on many fronts. Tears welled up when I walked toward the Women’s March and heard the crowd blocks away; when I got there, I turned around and around in amazement like Mary Tyler Moore did in her tv intro (we’ll it’s you girl and you should know it; love is all around, no need to waste it; you’re gonna make it after all!); when I saw the comradery of so many (40,000+) well behaved people willing to stand up for what is right.
Jen, I love this post.
I have a question. Did the person who said s/he didn’t feel like s/he could worship the way s/he want give any further explanation for this? As a non-religious person who is astounded by the religious hypocrisy in the country, much coming from the conservative side, I am curious about this.
Hi Leslie –
The structure of the event didn’t lend itself to follow-up questions, but rather gave each person an opportunity to speak their truth. I can’t speak for the person, but what *I* heard that was different was the extreme fear–mouth-drying, palms-sweating, heart-palpitating fear of something precious being taken away. For those emotions and feelings, I have empathy.
Empathy is different from agreeing. Even if I disagree completely with the premise or facts, I’m learning that it’s important to honor a person’s values and emotions as a way toward finding common ground. My judgment is just another wall that blocks connection and collaboration.
I know that’s not giving you what you’re asking, but I hope it’s helpful anyway. <3
Thank you, Jen; it is helpful! I do agree with your statement about having empathy and that we must meet people where they are. In fact, I attended a training this weekend where that was a big part of the message. I really like the statement “My judgement is just another wall that blocks connection and collaboration.” I guess I hope that “the other side” (for lack of a better term) will have these thoughts about me/us as well. Personally, I have that same physical reaction and fear of something precious being taken away when I think of the current state of our democracy especially with regard to the hypocrisy from the right and the disregard for the average American and the greater good of the country.
On another note, thanks for all you do! I hope to spend some time this week pondering your questions!
1. Democrats should always be focused on meeting the needs of the working class. They are a much larger proportion of the voting population.
2. I am happy that Robert Mueller hasn’t been fired.
3. I learned a lot from “Fir and Fury”.
4. I’m concerned some Americans have become apathetic because of this reality show presidency.
5. I’m hopeful Democrats will get off their bums and vote during the midterms so we can impeach Trump.
Since you show two set of questions I have decided to give my answers to each question.
This will take some time and will be very confusion.
However that seems normal today to stay confused.
I will refer to my past weeks look ups and thoughts and try to stick to each question—fair enough?
What do you wish your own party did differently?
Post the planks of the party for issues of the day and our stance.
What are you proud of or happy about from January?
I am proud the FLOTUS is making a statement for all to see.
What did you learn this month?
I learned that Israel should be the 51st State.
What worries or concerns you?
I am concerned that Roe vs Wade will be overturned.
What are you hopeful about?
I am hopeful some good news will help stop the rampant Islamaphobia and black racial discrimination will ease.
What do you dislike about your own party?
It is just like the other party —-Both parties are divided among themselves.
How do you get your news?
Being a curious person I check many sources to get the spin on any one item of interest to me.
MSNB is the easiest for me to find and I love Rachael…However I also search for opposing views on FOX and go out of my way to find news from the Guardian, Pravda, news from Israel and all the major newspapers including Wall-street Journal .
Somehow Facebook started sending me RU in Espaniol,
It was Russian news for the Spanish speaking people — I considered it to be propaganda of the first water— so I stopped it from clogging my account..
What do you wish the “other side” would do differently?
I wish they would quit assuming all that all Americans must interpret their spin on Biblical related influence in such matters as Birth control, Gay Rights, Same sex marriage, Control over Israel and of course their recognition of God.
I would guess the God of the Koran and the Republican God of the Bible are incompatible. I am sure the Jewish people with their God of Abraham on the outs with the God of the Koran also.
So If I wanted the other side to do something differentially I would humbly ask them to listen to the young knowledgeable people who desperately want peace in Israel with the Palestinians. They need no high handed
politicians to sort it out.
How do you think our community could better address homelessness?
This is a problem I have agonized over over the years,
Any time I see news related to the homeless I review it carefully with the hope of some solution,
In my mind I see patterns that can be identified that lead to homelessness.
Several examples come to mind.
One….Palm Beach Florida had farmers and farms on the Atlantic Ocean.
Some were Black farmers.
When the railroad with a surge of immigration caused real estate prices to shoot up on the beach — Gone are the farmers ……
Two …Some farmers started raising tomatoes and potatoes in South Florida—Again Real estate needed for housing took all the tomato fields..
Gone are the Farmers.
Three….Mid western large wheat fields and corn fields with the help of Government aid and and automation have wiped out the small farmers.
Gone are the farmers.
Everyone has to be somewhere so —– Our cities are overwhelmed with displaced persons some from foreign countries displaced by earthquakes, Wars, Hurricanes etc, , unemployable persons, mentally deranged persons, Alcohol and drug abusers.
A large number of these people have zero income.
So how do I answer your question?
I certainly hate to answer a question with a question.
Where’s your favorite place you’ve ever been?
Fort Lauderdale , Florida.
1. I hope the dems can stop bickering within the party so we can get behind winning candidates.
2. I’m happy about the Women’s March in San Diego, 38,000! Also the Doug Jones win in Alabama, even though it wasn’t in January.
3. I learned that there’s so much more work to do. We can’t take anything for granted.
4. I’m worried that more people will get hurt as a result of Trumps policies and that the wall that was a joke will actually begin to be built.
5. I’m hopeful that we will take the House in November!
I was an independent leading up to this election- actually i am still not sure if i have registered as a democrat and need to be sure. The democrats need to communicate their bottom line “planks” and agree on those. They desperately need to show up to vote and be a strong voice against voting discrimination and gerrymandering.
I am so proud of all the women (and men) who supported and participated in the marches . It is amazing and reassuring to see them.
I learned that there are reasonable people on both sides of the aisle although the current republican party “values” terrify me. I am referring to the overall behavior of those in government who continue to take basic needs away from the most vulnerable and act to line the pockets of the rich.
What worries me is the actions of this president which demonstrate a total disregard for the checks and balances which keep us “safe”- he feels the constitution is an annoyance which keeps him from doing what he wants – he feels he is above the law and will get away with whatever he does or has done by virtue of his entitlement- he admires dictators rather than actual leaders- he is trying to skew the Justice system by filling it with ultra conservatives with whom we will have to deal for many many years -he undermines faith in the media and the branches of government- in short -he has many tendencies towards dictatorship. The fact that the republicans fail to speak up against all this and in fact protect and encourage him in order to fulfill their agenda is very disturbing
I amhopeful about all those who speak out, who continue to resist – i am hopeful that respectful discussions can increase between people of strong opposing views . I hope we can find enough common middle ground to restore some recognizable semblance of what I believed this country stood for. I have great respect for you and others who help educate and guide a path forward that is positive, not destructive . There are so many issues in every area that it is difficult to choose what to address! You help with that and thank you for continuing-
I have been trying to have more conversations which hopefully will show a connection for different views. As Elizabeth Warren pointed out – we have no choice other than optimism and to move forward fighting every day for our beliefs (which i feel are for common decency)”onwards and upwards! Sorry this is so long😎
Thank you for participating in this event and writing it up to tell us. I want to challenge you and other readers a little bit on your “are you sure you’re not a liberal?” comment, though. Context is everything, I wasn’t there, and it sounds like you shared a lighthearted moment with your neighbor. So perhaps this doesn’t apply in this situation, but maybe other readers will encounter situations where it does.
When I hear something like that, it reminds me of when Christians tell those of us who are atheist that we are “good Christians” if we serve our communities. It’s as if there isn’t a category for them that includes both “non-Christian” and “doing good work in the community.” Can those of us on the left hold a category in our minds that includes both “conservative” and “cares about the homeless” (or whatever the issue is where we actually do agree)?
This story is very heart-warming and inspiring. It sounds like an amazing moment, ripe with possibility.
I’m glad this exists. What a great organization. I used your reflection questions for my journaling today and it was enlightening. There are things about my party that make me uneasy, most notably the division and a lack of commitment toward unity. Then I immediately wondered what I was doing about it-I may have to get more active:) I’m proud of the resistance’s staying power, the women’s march and the #metoo movement. I learned too much to list in many areas of my life and I’m not going to give voice to my concerns and worries this early in the morning. And I am hopeful, in spite of everything, because of the spirit of people like you and others who are working diligently to create change. I believe we can do it.
I appreciate the idea of taking a break every 4th week and of suggestions for “clear, hype-free actions.”
Thank you so much for leading me to the Celeste Headlee Ted Talk videos. Sooooo valuable, full of wisdom. I shared them with friends and family. 😄