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.