Bridging Divides

This election cycle is almost over. I’m breathing a sigh of relief! It seems like it’s been going on forever.

Of course, the stress is not going to be over just because the election is past. No matter what the results are, half the people of this country will be extremely dissatisfied. How will we ever heal divisions given the way positions have hardened and polarized? Bridging divides seems so urgent and yet it feels totally out of reach at this moment. Still I don’t want to get stuck in hopelessness and despair.


My mindfulness practice leads me to believe that listening to people I strongly disagree with could be a productive first step. What does it take to do this?

Mindful listening starts with simple respect for the other person as a human being and for their right to speak. The next step is to listen deeply to what others have to say. I don’t find this easy when difficult and strong emotions are involved. However it is possible.

Here is an extraordinary example of a group of 6 women on opposite sides of the abortion debate who started meeting in 1995. They described their experience in an article in the Boston Globe in 2001.

Initially they met in secret because there was a lot of trepidation on all sides. They were skeptical and concerned, afraid it might be a waste of time, or even might do more harm than good. They write: ”The threat of violence was palpable. What if the wrong person found out about the dialogue?”

Ground rules helped hold the space for deep listening. They agreed to not interrupt, grandstand, or make personal attacks, to speak as individuals not as a representative of an organization, and to shift focus away from arguing their position or engaging in polarizing rhetoric. “Knowing that our ideas would be challenged, but not attacked, we have been able to listen openly and speak candidly.”

The chasm was huge, however. They found it immensely difficult to find language to use that was acceptable (or even tolerable) to both sides. For instance “Pro-life participants feel maligned when characterized as religious fanatics taking orders from men, or as uneducated, prudish individuals, indifferent to women in crisis and to children after they are born. Pro-choice members are offended by labels such as anti-child, anti-men, anti-family, elitist, frivolous, self-centered, and immoral.”

They slowly began to connect with each other on a human level, at one point sharing deeply personal life stories about why the abortion issue was so important to each of them.

Even when their views on abortion didn’t change, their actions changed. The news media noticed (before knowing about the meetings) that the rhetoric on each side was less inflammatory. They write: ”Toning down the rhetoric is critical. It’s not just better manners, but it turns out it’s also better politics. We reach people we may never otherwise have reached with the message.”

At one point the group learned that someone was coming to Boston to do anti-abortion activity that was going to involve violence in an abortion clinic. The pro-life women told this person he wasn’t welcome in the community and he didn’t come.

They sum up the meetings in this way: “These conversations revealed a deep divide. We saw that our differences on abortion reflect two world views that are irreconcilable. If this is true, then why do we continue to meet? First, because when we face our opponent, we see her dignity and goodness. Embracing this apparent contradiction stretches us spiritually. We’ve experienced something radical and life-altering that we describe in nonpolitical terms: ‘the mystery of love,’ ‘holy ground,’ or simply, ‘mysterious.’ “

The article continues: “In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility: a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.”

So much of what they wrote resonates with me as a possible way to reach across our divide on a whole variety of issues. What’s important to me is that profound changes happened in their approach to the issue because they made a deep, heart-felt connection with each other, and saw the person behind the issue.

When you listen to someone speaking, it’s so ingrained to immediately listen for “what is their position?” and “what is my reaction to this?” and “what’s my judgment about their position?” It seems imperative to begin, instead, by first putting your attention on this person speaking and answer one simple question: “What does the other person care about, long for, value or need at the deepest level? “ I’ve experienced this type of deep listening and I’ve found being heard on that level to be a profoundly moving experience. I don’t minimize the degree of difficulty in accomplishing this across divides. I feel very strongly, however, that the effort it takes is truly worth it.

More Information

The full Boston Globe article, titled Talking With the Enemy is located here.

The work begun by the group in Boston is now being continued on a wider scale by the Public Conversations Project and Essential Partners.

Other examples:

Listening is Sacred Activism by Dr. Marisela Gomez
“I had touched the depth of peace in myself, nurtured it, and felt its power grow to hold and transform the triggers of injustice that moved me to anger. I was a happier activist, able to continue the struggle without letting my fear and anger dictate my actions.”

Minnesota Child Custody Legislation
A debate on child custody issues in the Minnesota state legislature had been deeply polarized and gridlocked for years with entrenched positions and a history of personal mistrust. This webpage describes how Miki Kashtan, (a Nonviolent Communication, NVC, trainer), was able to support the legislature in reaching a collaborative solution to this issue that had seemed completely intractable using a method she terms Convergent Facilitation.


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