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Bridging the red and blue divide one conversation at a time

Listening skills key to renewing civility in political discussions

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LAKE COUNTY — Active listening, I statements, acknowledgement … the basics of healthy communication can save marriages, and maybe even bridge political divides.

In a time of increasing divide between left and right, finding common ground has gotten harder. In an effort to keep the peace, married couples and extended family members with opposing views, have resorted to avoiding political conversations. But what are we losing as a society without discussions that explore both sides of an issue? In our quest to be right, have we lost our ability to compromise? Are we missing out on problem-solving opportunities? In a “hurry up” world of instantaneous everything - have we lost the ability to slow down enough to truly listen?

Grassroots organizations across the country have formed to address these questions and to bring people from across the aisle together in the democratic process and work collectively on issues of shared importance.

Mission Valley Rises, Democracy Engaged! in Lake County, Montana, and the national organization Better Angels are just two of many groups that have formed to reduce political polarization. Last fall, Gail Trenfield, one of the founders of Mission Valley Rises, traveled to Washington state to attend a Better Angels workshop. She listened as organizers spoke about how to communicate with members of both political parties and the strategies being used to facilitate respectful discussions. She said the Better Angels strategies would be worth bringing to her group, Mission Valley Rises, and to her community.

Mission Valley Rises is a smaller community-led group committed to democratic engagement. “We seek to effectuate local change with the intent that our local work will eventually have an impact on a larger scale,” a press release issued by the group reads. “We are non-partisan and inclusive. Diversity is key. We seek input from all people and understand the success of our message depends on the diversity of voices.” MVR envisions a community that is informed and engaged in the democratic process, for the benefit of their own community, the nation and the world.

MVR was founded in early 2017 in response to the extreme political polarization that seemed to define the 2016 election. Since then, MVR has hosted various community events to bring conservatives and liberals together to define community problems and consider effective responses. Events have included legislative forums, potlucks, movie screenings and Q and As with guest speakers. Last fall MVR held an ice cream social to inform the pubic about their group and solicit new members. The turnout was minimal and motivating people to participate has been a struggle; but they keep trying. Trenfield said organizers regularly seek feedback from cititzens about what MVR can accomplish to benefit the community. “I think there is a lot more we can do, but we need more members,” Trenfield said. She added, “The people that are actively involved [in MVR] are committed to getting others involved in the democratic process.”

Though the current membership leans blue, Trenfield says the tendency doesn’t define the group. “We aren’t affiliated with any political party,” she said. “We welcome more Republicans and anyone else who wants to get involved. Everything right now is so partisan in the world. I’d like to see us get past that and work together as concerned citizens.” 

Better Angels, a national nonprofit organization, encourages the use of practical communication skills, similar to those utilized in marriage counseling. The approach, designed to help people communicate in a respectful manner, was developed in Ohio a couple of days after the 2016 election. David Lapp and David Blankenhorn decided to bring people from both political parties together for a weekend. Their goal was to discover a path to “respectfully disagree and find common ground.” Bill Doherty, a family therapist and community organizer, assisted them by sharing communication tools used in marriage counseling. The results were remarkable. Blankenhorn notes on the Better Angels website, “We liked each other. We wanted to know more about each other. We wanted to keep on meeting.” So they did and Better Angels was born.

The name Better Angels comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address made in the spirit of reconciliation for a divided country. Lincoln said: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Founders of the citizen-led Better Angels sought to again call on our better nature.

Divisiveness in recent years has allowed polarization to reach levels not seen in the United States since the Civil War. Political polarization, a measurable phenomenon, has been on the upswing for more than 20 years. Pew Research Center has measured political polarization in the United States since 1994. Their studies show the average partisan gap has increased from 15 to 36 percentage points. According to Better Angels, “this degree of civic rancor threatens our democracy and it’s a trend we must reverse.”

“Today, many believe that their political adversaries are not simply misguided, but that they are also bad people whose ways of thinking are both dangerous and incomprehensible,” the Better Angels website states. “As Charles Krauthammer once noted, ‘Conservatives think Liberals are stupid, Liberals think Conservatives are evil.’”

Today, Better Angels hosts workshops in communities across the country bringing Reds and Blues together to get past these stereotypes and to foster productive conversations. These citizen-led workshops teach people how to respectfully disagree in order to work together and create solutions to common problems. 

Last October in the Stevenson Community Library, in Stevenson, Washington, citizens from both sides of the political divide gathered for one of these workshops. The timing of the workshop was just before Thanksgiving and many attended the event with the holidays on their minds, worried that conversations about politics might cause fighting between family members. Participants listened with interest as Better Angels moderator and organizer Dan Sockle, a Republican, and organizer Chip Masarie, a Democrat, co-hosted the presentation. Sockle began by explaining the goal of the workshop is bipartisan collaboration. “That is where things get done,” he said.

A couple attending the meeting shared  they want to have good conversations with people who have different perspectives without being afraid that the conversations will end in anger. They said they weren’t even sure how to start those conversations. “How do you come half-way with people that are totally opposite from you?” 

Bernadette and Keith Price, another couple, shared that they don’t talk about politics in order to save their marriage and avoid a divorce. She is a Democrat and he is a Republican. They’ve made their marriage work for 40 years by avoiding political conversations. “I think we need to talk about it with the way things are today,” Bernadette said. The couple hoped that attending the Better Angels workshop would help them.

Workshop participant Donald Miller said he remembers a time back in the 1950s when he was in college and people could have a “hell of a good time” talking about politics. He said people would argue the issues and have great debates. “Arguments about politics used to be fun,” he said. “My hope is that it will be fun again,” though he added he doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “I’m searching for hope. I don’t see a way forward in our current state. I’m looking for tools and a way forward.” He said he was encouraged by the Better Angels strategy.  

Sockle nodded his head and said that the solution comes down to two things. “It’s about dignity and respect,” he said. “Those are the two things to keep in mind when starting a conversation with someone with differing political views. Focus on setting a positive tone and abandon the idea that you can persuade other people to change their core attitudes. The idea is to listen, focus on facts and find commonality. Let the other person know that you want to better understand their perspective.”

After hearing a few comments from the crowd about being politically and conversationally “passive,” Sockle clarified that the technique isn’t about denying your own political stance. Let the other person know your views. The idea is to take the time to listen to opposing views with respect and to listen for underlying values. 

“You have to really listen,” Sockle emphasized. He added that it helps to paraphrase what the person said to verify you heard them correctly. It’s important, when doing so, to avoid “interpreting” their views. He explained that learning to listen takes practice and effort but it is the key to productive conversations. 

During a break in the workshop, Bernadette and Keith described how they avoid political conversations in their home. Bernadette said it was time for them to start talking and she hoped the skills they learned in the workshop would help. 

Keith looked at his wife with his arms crossed. “I still don’t think it’s possible,” he said. “We could find things to argue on, but as far as finding acceptance, I don’t think it’s possible, but we could try.” He looked at his wife and smiled. “I just hope it doesn’t end in divorce, because really, she just wants to change me.”

Moderator Masarie listened to this skepticism and after the break he took a serious moment to address it. He said people get “deeper and deeper into a rut” with the language they use. “It is hard to break these patterns.” People learn not to talk to the other side. He encouraged everyone to take the first step and to make conversations happen using respectful dialogue. He said the idea behind communicating wasn’t about changing people but about listening to their views and finding common ground. 

Sockle added that people need to “let go of being right” and take turns listening to each other. He went on to describe techniques taken right out of a marriage counseling playbook. “Use I statements when you talk about the issues like, ‘this is how I see it.’” He said I-statements are about expressing your views instead of blaming the other person. He added that using some version of “I hear you” is also important so that people feel they are valued and a part of the conversation instead of feeling lectured to. He further explained that acknowledging what people are saying is not an agreement of what they believe. “It just means that you hear them.” Even with respectful dialogue, arguments can still happen. Sockle and Masarie both suggested finding areas where people with differences can agree, to stay focused on the topic, and not to answer baiting questions. And they added, that if you get one of those baiting, argument-driven questions, instead of answering it, restate your viewpoint. If all else fails, “agree to disagree.”

Sockle continued that he hopes people will open their hearts and minds to others so that the holidays and political conversations, in general, can be positive and productive. 

Though the workshops have been successful overall, Sockle said the Better Angels have had a hard time getting other “Reds” involved. He speculated that it could be that some Republicans are reluctant to reveal themselves as a conservative and have people say things like, “You voted for Trump, how could you?” He said people might be reluctant to subject themselves to personal attacks. The issue could also be that since their party holds the presidential seat, Republicans feel less of a need to get involved in grassroots organizations.  

Mission Valley Rises has also struggled to get Republicans involved. They’ve held legislative forums, inviting representatives from both parties to speak and inform people about state and local issues. The events included the opportunity for participants to ask questions and get answers so they can  become more informed before casting their votes. Members of Mission Valley Rises continue to work on local issues they feel are important, including the 2020 Census. The census count ensures Montanans receive funding for critical government-funded programs like public schools.

Sockle said Better Angels is working on a way to measure the success of their group as well as similar groups. It’s hoped that such data could encourage further citizen engagement and voting. The expansion of Better Angels in only three years from an idea to a national nonprofit organization with hundreds of volunteers, does say something about the popularity of their mission. 

It may be that the success of these organizations can be illustrated by the friendships developed between conservatives and liberals. Co-moderators Sockle and Masarie, purposefully paired by Better Angels for political balance, say they’ve become friends and now enjoy talking about politics with each other.

The problem is how to measure the success of turning something from a negative into a positive, Sockle stated. “It’s a dilemma.”

He went on to say, “There will be outliers that say this is a waste of time, but I think it’s important to keep going. I think we can make a difference.” 

(Editor’s note:  In the face of uncertainty about the current virus pandemic, Mission Valley Rises has put on hold their plans for a public spring-time event. Please check the event listings in the calendar section of this newspaper for updates.)

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