While celebrating Independence Day, I reflected on the current condition of America. There's not much we can all agree on these days, but on this I believe there's common ground: the fabric of our society is frayed; civil discourse is in peril.
Hatred and fear are increasingly drowning out humanity and friendship. Basic decency has given way to demagoguery. Rancor has replaced relationships. We have become so blinded by the polarization and tribalization of American society that we often cannot see another person as anything but an ideology to be despised and defeated.
This is not "those people's" problem. It's my problem. And it's your problem. A problem we can only solve together.
My Listen First Project facilitates greater understanding, respect and cooperation by encouraging the timeless but abandoned practice of listening to each other, especially to those with whom we disagree. As I’ve shared our message across the country, I’ve been inspired by other leaders and organizations passionately promoting and practicing listening to improve relationships and public discourse. Listen First Project now collaborates with these organizations as The Listening Coalition – multiplying our impact coast to coast.
We recently partnered with Living Room Conversations – founded by Joan Blades of MoveOn.org fame – to bridge one of the widest gulfs in America, the caricatured stereotypes of Southern Conservatives and San Francisco Liberals.
Using video conferencing, we brought three Southern Conservatives and three San Francisco Liberals together for each of several Listen First / Living Room Conversations. Facilitated by Sabrina Moyle, Jamie Gardner and me, each of these conversations exceeded our wildest expectations and proved that we can break through any barrier and find common ground when we come together not as us versus them but as me and you.
All parties agreed to guidelines developed by our two organizations. Among others: come curious with an open mind ready to learn and grow, fully listen to and consider the other’s views before sharing your own, listen as you want to be listened to, show respect and suspend judgement, look for common ground and appreciate differences.
In these unprecedented conversations, we had a black southern conservative and an evangelical San Francisco liberal, a North Carolina Republican operative and a San Francisco Democratic party official, a pro-life activist and an abortion provider. Participants shared that they’re driven by faith, mindfulness, serving the marginalized, battling injustice, empowering others, and bettering the world for their children.
After listening to what drives each person, everyone shared the moment in life when they determined their political philosophy. We listened to stories of growing up overseas with parents in the foreign service, childhood in the Chicago projects, impactful events in the community, time spent serving in Uganda, a political college environment, classroom conversations, volunteer experiences, and indeed ideology taught by parents. One southern conservative said she was raised in a house where “Democrat” was a swear word. Another said “I realized this is not a democrat – republican thing; this is a black – white thing. Democrats were black; Republicans were white.”
With an understanding of everyone’s story, we asked each to share the issue they most wish we as Americans could solve together. And we discussed them, civilly. Topics spanned income inequality, homelessness, religious freedom, political reform, progressive taxation, economic incentives, regulation, early childhood education, transparency in government spending, individual and organizational incentives, the social safety net, conscientious objections to abortion and gay marriage, race, criminal justice, and the size, role and scope of government.
We were all struck that no issue is as simple as we like to pretend and agreed that labels stand in the way of solutions. “We argue and chant back and forth that we know the answer but that’s not the case; there are a lot of different things to take into account.” “I wish we could have conversations without these labels flying around.” “We actually may in fact agree on a lot of things outside of those labels, but those labels are sort of inculcated from a young age.”
And real, honest conversation is required to make progress on our toughest challenges. “I think for racism to get better, we need to have a deeper, more complex, more uncomfortable conversation about race like we’re having right now.” “We must respect and celebrate differences… It takes bringing people together from different backgrounds to have these explicit conversations.” “We haven’t even tried to walk across the street and ask our neighbor over for dinner.” “We get stuck in the polarization of big topics but when we actually dig down into the details, we can find more common ground to do something about it.” While we only had 90 minutes for each conversation, that was enough time to begin building familiarity and relationships that enabled civil discussion of incredibly challenging and personal issues. Such rich dialogue is not possible in sound bites, with talking points, or from behind a keyboard. It happens in conversation – real, genuine conversation – between human beings of grace, humility and good will.
Our Southern Conservatives and San Francisco Liberals, challenged by alternative perspectives, were invigorated by the experience. “So many great points by everyone,” “I totally agree with you,” “those concerns are my concerns too,” “I believe every word you said,” “it can’t just be one side or the other,” “there’s no black and white issue,” “we have far, far more in common than we do apart,” and “I learned so much just by listening to each of you. This was a transformative and expansive experience for me.”
We are all human beings with a story and a lot to learn from one another. Remaining in echo chambers with people who look like us and think like us is not only boring but limiting to our development as individuals and as a society. If we hope for a healthy, prosperous nation – from sea to shining sea – we can't continue to demagogue our fellow Americans because they see the world differently.
We must boldly step outside our comfort zones and get to know new people from new places. If Southern Conservatives and San Francisco Liberals can do it, you can to. Together, let’s rise above the vitriol and listen first – restore civil discourse, one conversation at a time.
Pearce Godwin is founder of Listen First Project and The Listening Coalition. He can be reached at Pearce@ListenFirstProject.org.