I should start by saying that I find Donald Trump abhorrent as an individual and disagreed with almost every policy he attempted to put forward. I am incredibly relieved that he is no longer President of the United States.
Yet there are people I know, like and respect who remain real Trump supporters. Even though the breadth of Trump’s influence on the Republican party going forward is unclear, plenty of politicians within the party will continue to play to the MAGA base.
That base is a large number of people. Trump received the second-highest number of votes for president ever, and while not all of them are really in that base, the fact remains that ours is a deeply divided country.
President Biden has made unity a major theme and objective. I believe that we absolutely must take steps in that direction, or what we have seen over the last few months – not to mention the last four years – will continue well into the future. That scenario will make it extremely difficult to achieve major progressive goals like dismantling racist institutions, managing climate change, establishing income equality, and so many more.
How much progress the president can make at the national level is an open question. His chances for success will increase if all of us, at an individual level, make an effort to be part of the solution. Therefore, my challenge to every person reading this is to identify one person who disagrees substantially with your politics and your worldview and have a respectful, calm, and, ultimately, forward-looking conversation. Stay away from who’s right and who’s wrong or trying to change minds. Just explore each other’s perspectives and see what you can learn. Easier said than done, I know. Clearly, there are people farther out on the fringe with whom this is not possible. But keep in mind that the same fringe exists on both the left and the right, and that in reality, most Americans are closer to the center than the extremes.
I want to offer some thoughts on how to do this and still keep relationships intact, having tried this twice so far — once with some success and the other, not so much.
- I ask a lot of questions in any situation where I disagree with someone. I try to listen to their answers in ways that allow me to pose follow-up questions that dig a little deeper into the topic. I do not provide my own answers to my questions, and I work very hard to be non-confrontational and non-judgmental in how I phrase my questions.
- I always want to know where the other person is really coming from. Not the repetition of positions, theories or claims that they have heard somewhere else, but the real concerns, priorities, objectives and fears that lie beneath the surface.
Sometimes this is all we can do, at least initially. If there seems to be a lot of emotion coming out in the answers, it is unlikely that the conversation can go much farther without getting counterproductive quickly. At that point, I simply thank the person for sharing and say that I want to think over what was said and look forward to talking more soon.
Sometimes, the other person will ask me questions, which I consider a good step in the right direction. It is my responsibility to answer truthfully but not righteously. I use phrases like “in my experience” or “it seems to me” rather than trying to imply that my view is the obvious, correct answer; objective reality; or a universal truth.
I begin by compiling a mental list of where I see agreement and common ground. When the time seems right, I will lay out a couple items from that list and see if there is an opportunity to expand on common ground. That may be in the later conversation; so, patience is a virtue.
If the conversation is going reasonably well, I might focus on what seems to be a shared objective, but one that we disagree on how to achieve. I’ll float a couple ideas that may be contrary to the other person’s perspective, again using careful phrasing like “I’ve been thinking that [insert idea here] might work. What do you think?” If the other person disagrees, I try to see if I can elicit the reasons behind that disagreement and – without directly contradicting them – lay out some of the reasons why I think my suggestion makes sense.
I usually avoid citing a lot of data, statistics or other “evidence”. When there is so much disagreement about what is or is not factual — not to mention going down the “alternative facts” tunnel — I think it is more useful to stay focused on personal thoughts, perceptions and values. If the other person starts to bring up their version of evidence, I ask — without immediately impeaching the answer – what the source of the information is. I ask for specifis and say that I would like to look into that source myself. I may ask if the person has found that same information in other places if I feel that doing so will not be taken as discrediting the initial source.
How well does this work? My results are decidedly mixed. Sometimes I’ve had people listen closely enough to their own answers that they began changing their position without any urging from me. At other times, people concede that I may have a good point or two and express a willingness to give the matter some more thought. When there is no movement whatsoever, I conclude the conversation without making matters worse.
For all of us, the positions we hold have been reached over a period of time. Moreover, the longer we hold them, the more attached to them we become. Changing someone’s point of view is a delicate dance, a process that almost always unspools over an extended period of time. It usually involves frustration; it requires a great deal of self-discipline; and there are no guarantees of success. If you achieve a .300 average, then you are probably an all-star, like the best hitters in major league baseball.
So why bother in the first place? Why put a lot of effort into something that has a limited chance of success? And what are the consequences of not trying?
I consider it a progressive value to respectfully, thoughtfully and compassionately reach out to people who are different from us. There is a lot of anxiety and fear out there, and it drives a lot of people in directions that are counter to their own interests, let alone the common good. Anything any one of us can do to alleviate just a little bit of that benefits us all.
Eighty-one million people voted for Joe Biden. So it’s not like any one of us has to change the minds of a huge number of people; nor are all those minds going to be changed anyway. But if you don’t do it and I don’t do it, exactly who will?
Keith Twitchell is the former president of Committee for a Better New Orleans, an award-winning writer, and an advocate for an inclusive future. Follow @twitchell_keith on twitter.
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