Build a Bridge

With Thanksgiving just a few days away and a deep national divide splitting even close families, folks might be worried about upcoming awkward moments. Some might be feeling reluctant to share a meal together with those who didn’t vote the same way. Sadly, at least one friend I know even changed holiday plans this year to avoid contentious conversations.

I have heard many bewildered people, both Democrats and Republicans, wonder aloud how a man who publicly insults nearly everyone could get elected president? It’s a big question. It seems to be all anyone has talked about since the election. But contrary to the blame cast by some in the media, it doesn’t make your best friend or your aunt racist or xenophobic just because they might have voted for the new president.  Such assumptions cut both ways. Judging a person based on which of the (only) two major party candidates they selected opens the door to judgment on the kind of person you are based on how you voted. It only deepens divisions and misunderstanding.  If we are ever going to heal the wounds in our country, we must first start healing our relationships.

I took this election as a wake-up call. Though not the most popular presidential candidate, Mr. Trump received enough strategic votes to secure the top seat in our government. So what happened? What did I, and so many others miss?

We can read the news reports, we can read books, we can analyze and criticize the Electoral College. While these things have their place, the key to better understanding can be done one-on-one: by asking questions.

I called a friend who I knew voted differently from me to ask some questions. I was genuinely curious to hear what she thought, and I promised at the beginning of the phone call that I would not comment on any of her answers. I did not have a script, and I have never done this before. In fact, I really, really, dislike uncomfortable discussions and feel like it isn’t my best skill. But this person is a dear friend, and I thought she might be able to show me my blind spot.

Our conversation began uneasily. Her first answer was short and maybe a little suspicious of my motives. Then I asked a follow up question instead of arguing with her, and she answered again, and pretty soon my friend was speaking openly and easily with me. I’m not going to lie, it was difficult to stay quiet at times. But listening really worked, because I heard some things I did not know, that I never would have heard, if I had barged in with my own opinions.

If you’d like to come to a deeper understanding about what is going on in our country, perhaps you could try this, too. Here’s what I recommend:

1- Identify a person.  Think of the person you love the most who voted differently than you voted and remember why that person is so special to you. Meditate on this for as long as it takes for you to feel calm – even if it takes days.

2- Schedule a call.  Pick up the phone and call this person to ask if he or she would be game for this kind of discussion. It might even be better to schedule it into two separate conversations: one where the other person speaks (first), then one where you get to speak.

3- Practice humility.  Put yourself in a calm state of mind before you call for your listening appointment. Take a walk, cuddle with your dog, pray. Remember why you love the person you’re calling. Remind yourself that you do not have all the answers; YOU have something to learn from this person.

4- Ask and Listen.  Promise from the start to honor what the other person is saying, even and especially if you disagree with what you hear. Then ask questions and listen. You might have to sit on your hands or physically cover your mouth in order to remain in your listening mode. Do it. You’re not trying to fix the problems with the media or correct all the fake news stories from Facebook with this conversation. You’re only listening.

5- Say thank you and take a breather before it is your turn to speak. You really may need two separate days to do this exercise, because it can really be hard to keep quiet. But do it. It’s worth it.

One conversation isn’t going to change the world. But collectively, each conversation removes one more stone from the wall that separates us, allowing us to use those stones to build a bridge instead.

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