Divided America, difficult conversations: If you’re ready to have them, here’s how

If you knew Joan Blades, committed progressive, passionate climate change advocate, Berkeley, Calif., resident, you might think she would be feeling a little bit heartened by the results of this week’s midterm elections. Then again, maybe not: “The horrible thing about this election,” says Blades, co-founder of MoveOn.org, “is that I’m really happy about some of the progress we made for progressive causes, but it really doesn’t change the dynamics of this fight we’re having with each other.”

It’s been two years since the Great American Schism of 2016’s election season, but time does not heal all wounds. Maps showing precincts that voted blue (Democrats) or red (Republican) illustrate that, even in Illinois where Democrats largely prevailed, you could cross a boundary — maybe even a street — and find yourself in a neighborhood that voted differently from your own. Travel a few miles west of downtown Chicago, and you’ll find blue districts side by side with red ones. Cross the street to go to the grocery, and you might find yourself wondering how you can even talk to the people on the other side of that line.

Even worse, with Thanksgiving looming, you might be wondering (yet again) how you can talk to your own family. Research has shown that, when people need to cross ideological lines to gather with family, Thanksgiving gets cut short by an average of 20 to 30 minutes.

It would be easy to blame the chasms that have opened up in American society on the divisiveness of recent politics. But in reality, says Columbia University social psychologist Peter T. Coleman, the divide has been growing for decades. “The current polarization at the top in politics,” he says, “has been building since about 1980. There’s the long-term trajectory where Democrats and Republicans stopped crossing the aisle. And now they have reached a point where there is no cooperation, no functional problem-solving there.”

The causes of the larger societal divide, he says, are complex, including an economy that has created wealth imbalance and a press that typically frames ideological issues to highlight difference rather than nuance. Politics — including the rhetoric of the Trump administration — “is more a symptom than the cause. Support for Trump is a symptom of the divisiveness on the ground.” Over the last 50 years, he points out, party affiliation has remained somewhat stable in the U.S. What has changed is the level of nuance within the views of people in those camps — these days, there is none. “People are vastly oversimplifying what has become an ever more complex society,” Coleman says. “And they have less knowledge on issues like health care, or immigration.”

“The boundaries between left and right are getting harder to penetrate,” Blades says. “We are self-segregating, and that’s terrible.” Blades decided in 2010 that she had to start doing something to break through to the other side — and not just to convince them that she’s right and they are wrong. “It’s so difficult,” she says, “that a lot of people are saying, ‘I don’t want to talk to those people.’ But for another subset of people, they’re saying ‘Oh, we better start talking to each other,’ and I am so thankful for those people. When people sit down and they experience each other, things change.”

Blades founded Living Room Conversations as a way to promote small-scale gatherings among people of different viewpoints, and the organization now provides DIY guides to conducting these discussions in your own home, without a need for a facilitator. Over time, she says, the project’s importance and urgency have only increased. “I used to talk about it as something we were doing because we needed to promote collaborative problem-solving,” she says. “Now I talk about it as a domestic peace initiative. Because that’s what it is.”

Coleman has also studied the dynamics of open discussion among people of different viewpoints, at Columbia’s Difficult Conversations Laboratory. There, research subjects are paired with a person who opposes them on a key issue, and the two are asked to come up with a statement together that each can agree to. Some of the conversations go badly. But many result in a more complex understanding of another point of view, and a bag of mixed emotions. Which might be all we can hope for when we undertake these conversations, Coleman says.

So, should you try to break down the wall that divides you and your parents or your neighbor and start a conversation about immigration or abortion rights? There’s no easy answer, Coleman says. But he has come up with pointers for having difficult conversations, based on his years of study.

Know your own agenda. Before opening a difficult conversation, “some self-reflection is in order,” says Coleman. “You need to understand what you’re trying to get out of this conversation.” Try to be aware of your own biases — looking for information that confirms our point of view while ignoring other information is a basic mechanism of human psychology. Digging deep can have big benefits: Admitting to your own contradictory nature makes you more likely to be tolerant of others.

Consider your existing relationship. “If you are close to your brother and you have a lot of great memories together that keep you close,” Coleman says, “you might be able to talk about really tough issues and have a great discussion. If, on the other hand, you have always had a lot of hostility with your siblings, this is probably only going to feed it and make it worse.”

Give up on persuasion. If you are truly willing to simply listen to and understand another person’s point of view, the conversation is more likely to go well. If what you really want is to change their minds, you’ve got a bigger hill to climb — one that might require many conversations over time, or might not be worth having until you can let go of your focus on a specific result. Coleman points out that bringing facts and statistics into such a discussion is unhelpful, since issues that are divisive are also emotional. What’s important is establishing a tone of positivity, from the start of the conversation. “How we frame these conversations informs people’s behavior,” he says.

That positivity, Blades says, allows difficult conversations to become incredibly constructive. “What I know now,” she says, “is that there are a lot of good people out there who disagree with me completely. And that’s important to know. To solve these big problems, we need to have everybody’s best ideas in the room. When you’re in this adversarial stance with each other, there’s no flexibility. I would say we’re stuck because we’re not treating each other well.”

On Nov. 16 through 18, Living Room Conversations is holding online events encouraging people to engage in difficult conversations as part of the International Day of Tolerance. Encouraged by a recent campaign in which 20,000 German citizens took part in conversations with those with opposing viewpoints, Blades is hoping for high turnout. She believes, from more open family dinners to a better political process, those conversations can open a way forward. “I’m a grassroots person, and I really believe we have to own this and step up and make this change ourselves.”