The Possibility Exists That We’re All Part of the Problem

It is the last week before the election and the rhetoric has rarely been more rancorous. The murders in Pennsylvania and Kentucky and the targeted mail bombs have all of us on edge, waiting for what might be next. In that context, I was struck by David Brooks’ column this week in The New York Times, talking about the alienation, disconnection and ‘us vs. them’ mentality that is so often behind these sorts of acts of violence. And it started me thinking that rather than simply mourning and blaming (guns, nationalists, Trump), what if all of us are in part responsible? What if all of us could be doing more — to build connections, conversations and community?

Let me explain.

Are We Even Talking to the Other Side?

For many years, I have been a huge champion of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America, devoting many hours to electing pro-choice candidates and raising money for more health centers as well as for education around the topic of women’s health and women’s choice. I have always believed that without full control over our bodies, women really don’t have full fundamental rights. I’ve always seen the core economic argument – that companies and society do not function if women aren’t empowered to control when and if they have children and unless all children are wanted children.

And yet, in all these years working on these issues, I have only ever had maybe two or three brief conversations with someone who disagrees with me on this issue. I have never chosen to sit down with the people who I am ‘fighting’ against to hear their point of view or learn from their perspectives. I have instead demonized them, moralized about the righteousness of my point of view, and basically chosen to believe what I believe without any effort to empathize with those who do not see the world as I do.

As someone who has dedicated her career to being a change agent and empowering change agents, I have often argued that we must listen to and learn from the naysayers who disagree with our point of view. I have lectured on the importance of hearing from the other side, honoring and respecting their perspective — knowing that those are often the most important pre-conditions to changing hearts and minds.

We must listen to and learn from the naysayers who disagree with our point of view.

So why have I never chosen to do this around a cause that I care so deeply about to which I’ve donated thousands of dollars and dedicated hundreds of volunteer hours? Why am I so focused on my position that I am not willing to test it by asking open-ended questions and honestly listening to the perspective of the other side?

What is that about?

Should We Be Supporting Organizations That Add to the Rancor?

A woman I greatly respect, who is equally committed to the pro-choice cause, wrote me an email this week explaining that she is losing faith a bit not in our cause but in those representing our cause because they have been doing more to ratchet up vs. tone down the rhetoric and the ‘us vs. them’ story – especially during the recent Kavanaugh hearings. I have to agree — it was distressing to see the role that organizations I respect and support were playing in casting this as not just the fight of a lifetime (which it may well be) but also arguing that those that weren’t with us were not simply misguided but the enemy.

Is that the right way to find our way to common ground?

We all know it’s not…so should I then be questioning my support for these organizations or is it ok to fight like this in order to preserve what we see as our fundamental rights? And in putting this fight in such stark terms, am I just giving my side permission to go all-in even if it means we never, ever listen to or value the other’s arguments.

Should Communities Adopt A New Set of Rules?

Throughout my life, I have created many different communities – for women entrepreneurs, authors, speakers, executives. In each case, I have made a point of establishing the guidelines of respect that were pre-requisites for participation. No shaming, blaming, bullying, or ridiculing were always at the forefront of the list, along with listening, being of service, giving before you take. These guideposts have served to govern the behavior of how we treat one another in the group.

However, interestingly enough, I have never thought to put together guidelines for how we (women in these communities) treat those NOT in the group. And I’ve certainly been witness to, and sometimes participated in, those conversations that begin “guys always” or “it’s not fair that men get…”.

In each case, it was easy to generalize, even over-generalize to make a point — they have it easy, we don’t. They get things that are withheld from us. They are privileged, we are not.

And yet, when I hear people say things that generalize women, I am the first to fight back — no, we are not ALL any one trait, characteristic, behavior, nor do we all have the same mindset, skill set or behaviors. We don’t all love kids, want to be CEOs, or crave a million-dollar business. No, we aren’t all emotional, bossy or that other b-word. Even though some of us may be any one or all of these things.

If I hate labels and stereotypes applied to me, why do I countenance this sort of talk about others?

If I hate labels and stereotypes applied to me, why do I countenance this sort of talk about others? Or, going back to my earlier point, this sort of talk about those who disagree with me about abortion?

Perhaps, as one of my friends suggested, we need a new set of Roberts Rules of Order. For those not familiar with the original parliamentary rules, they are designed to provide guidance for how groups interact in order to allow for the voices of the majority and of the minority – as well as individual members and absentee members to be heard even on the most difficult topics.

What’s missing in this guidance, though, is the rules for how to interact with people who are not members of our group at all…those who we don’t welcome as or even exclude as members. What if we had some clear rules for how to talk about and talk with them?

These kinds of rules are even more important online – where we don’t have to see the people we are interacting with and where often we have no community ties with those we choose to speak about or to. This has given rise to a set of behaviors that we would never tolerate in our daily interactions with those we know or choose to affiliate with through our work, where we live, etc.

So what can be done?

Some Hope for Reframing Community Dialogue

Fortunately, there are groups and individuals that have been working on some new models of community behavior as well as some new structures for community conversation.

Joan Blades, one of the original founders of and the founder of Moms started a group called Living Room Conversations a few years ago in order to structure community dialogue in small living rooms across America. Here is a TED Talk she gave about her work.


Living Room Conversations are designed to begin to “heal political and personal differences. They’re simple conversations where two friends with different viewpoints each invite two friends for structured conversation, where everyone’s agreed to some simple ground rules: curiosity, listening, respect, taking turns.” Sounds like a good start, doesn’t it?

Aspen Baker is the founder of Exhale Pro-Voice, an organization she originally started to provide a talk line for women who needed a place to turn to discuss their abortions – a place that was neither about pro-choice or pro-life but instead about honoring the voices of the women themselves. She has gone on to write and speak widely, sharing the pro-voice way, a set of guiding principles and practical tools that emphasize active listening, validation and nonjudgmental support. These are exactly what we need right now in every conversation because as Aspen says: “Pro-voice is contagious, and the more it’s practiced the more it spreads.”

Finally, I recently participated in a wonderful program at my local library, part of the international Human Library initiative, run by Redwood City Together, an initiative of Redwood City 2020 that focuses on fostering empathy and understanding through community dialogues and other activities that help create a more welcoming, inclusive environment in my town.

During Human Library events, individuals make themselves available to answer questions about their backgrounds and experiences in order to broaden everyone’s understanding of those typically seen as ‘other.’ Over a few hours, I had the opportunity to ‘check out’ five ‘books’ who identified themselves as a ‘Muslim’, ‘paraplegic’, ‘veteran’, ‘cancer survivor’ and ‘conservative’ and had some fascinating and challenging conversations.

Yes, I freely admit that the first four discussions were a lot easier for me than the last one – I was definitely ready to judge and argue with the lovely woman who freely gave up her Saturday to share her experience of being a Trump supporter in the midst of a highly blue city. But looking back, I think of her as very brave and very patient to be willing to share her perspective and not get too frustrated with my likely naïve questions and obvious disagreements with her point of view. I’d certainly recommend others to create a similar event in their communities.

We Can All Be Open to Changing

I am aware that I’ve likely asked more questions than I’ve answered in this post, but I hope I’ve also got you thinking about your own behaviors and the organizations you support. Maybe, like me, you know it’s time to adopt new ways of interacting and communicating – especially with those you disagree with and about those who are not in the room or in the groups you participate in.

If you are struggling with this topic too or if you have other hopeful models to share, please leave a comment below. I (really do!) welcome the conversation.

Denise Brosseau is CEO of Thought Leadership Lab, the author of Ready to Be a Thought Leader? (Wiley/Jossey-Bass) and a lecturer at Stanford Business School. She works with executives, entrepreneurs and their teams on how to position themselves and their organizations as thought leaders. Her new online class Becoming a Thought Leader is available on LinkedIn Learning.