The United States seems more polarized than ever after the midterm elections. Vitriol and name-calling seem to crowd out reasoned discourse not just on social media, but in much of public life. In such a climate, Metro Minute wonders: Are there practical ways to bring people together?
We sought answers from Carl Hobert, who has decades of experience in conflict-resolution education. Hobert, a graduate of Middlebury College and The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is the author of “Raising Global IQ: Preparing our Students for a Shrinking Planet.”
If you could get political opponents in the same room, how would you go about trying to get them to lower the rhetorical temperature?
First, I’d advise them to congratulate the election winners and graciously comfort the losers, and get to work immediately to fulfill campaign promises and to represent their constituents well, and together. This will not be easy, and political skeptics may think that this is not possible. But I do.
I would counsel Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House to check their political and personal egos at the door and get to work as soon as possible on the critical issues they spoke about during their campaigns. And they must do so instead of devoting vast amounts of time to investigations, attempted political character assassinations, 2020 election positioning, and endless fund-raising.
These important issues they promised constituents they would deal with, once and for all: health care reform, continuing to improve the economy, immigration reform, and stricter gun policy — especially given what happened recently in Pittsburgh, in Thousand Oaks, California, and right here in Boston. Our voters must not be overburdened by political warfare.
How can normal citizens bridge the divide, at a time of fraught personal interactions?
During the holiday season, people must be aware of the potential for political conflicts, including around the dinner table. First, I would suggest that the host or hostess lay down the ground rules in a few simple phrases: “As the host, I am asking that we please have no political arguments at the table. We will instead focus on what is going well in our lives, and what we can be thankful for.”
Second, the host may pick a “peaceful political discussion site,” like a home’s Switzerland, which is out of earshot of the guests, where guests may speak in a mature manner and where they can agree to disagree in a non-violent way that will not ruin the festive atmosphere.
Third, if you know that a person might pick a political fight with you at the table, don’t take the bait. Walk away, or designate a person who “has your back,” and is able to defuse the disagreement at once, with the simple suggestion of: “Let’s steer away from politics during our time together.” Then, your wingman must have a less-divisive subject in her/his pocket – such as your children, sports, or movies, knowing it is a subject that all will be interested in discussing.
Finally, if you feel that you have to respond to negative interactions with someone, do it privately. And when you address the issue in private, be non-confrontational and use such wording as: “I know that you and I have different beliefs, and I respect both yours and mine, but let’s stay away from this topic right now, and either focus on things that we agree upon, or not interact, OK?”
You’ve worked with schoolchildren to frame solutions to international conflicts. What is your approach?
One classic line that I teach them is: “The word ‘listen’ spelled another way is ‘silent.’ ” In the world of conflict mediation, as well as personal arguments, it is crucial that people listen to all sides’ beliefs while remaining silent, either before or just after voicing their own.
To leaders in Washington, I offer five lessons that come from working with schoolchildren:
■ First, when a conflict is escalating, all involved parties must call a timeout. They must return to their corners or rooms (or offices), and they must calm down.
■ Second, once calm has prevailed, both (or all) sides must learn to state their problems or arguments honestly and succinctly, also indicating their individual role in the conflict, so that the other sides may gain an understanding of the problem from the point of view of the “opponent’s side,” or what I call “walking in the shoes of others.’’
■ Third, the parties must apologize. A good apology will express regret, responsibility, and remedy. Politicians may find it difficult to say “I’m sorry” to those on the other side of the aisle, but it can bring major political and personal returns.
■ Fourth, once you have apologized, and accepted an apology, you must work to find a creative compromise — and a solution — through brainstorming.
■ Finally, there must be follow-through to work on future solutions together. One last thing that I teach schoolchildren: The words “listen’ and “silent” can be spelled a third way: “Enlist.” By listening to the other side, remaining silent, and working together on creative solutions to problems, you are also enlisting former political enemies into the ideas of bipartisanship, and “having your back” politically, now and in the future.
Roy Greene can be reached at email@example.com