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Four Words to Help You Bridge Divides


Have you noticed how the fault lines between our values in the United States are becoming chasms? The distances separating conservatives and progressives, blue states and red states, pro-lifers and pro-choicers appear to be growing. That makes it oh-so-tempting for me to want to curl up in my island community and just speak with my own kind, of which there are plenty here in the Pacific Northwest.

But if we only talk with our own kind, how will we ever bridge the divides that plague our country? And how do we begin to do that?

I asked that question to my friend and colleague Real Time Strategic Change consultant, Robert “Jake” Jacobs, in our recent podcast interview, Jake responded with four magic words he learned from his mentor, famed organizational consultant Kathy Dannemiller.

Could You Say More?

Like a lot of what Jake has to say, (love him for it), these words are simple yet profound. As he said in the interview, could you say more “creates a space for other people to share their stories, and for you to more fully appreciate their experiences before sharing your own. It’s about listening—the central secret—paying attention to people in a much deeper and more profound way—so that you connect with them on a heart level as well as a head level.”

The results of such listening can be significant. Jake and his consulting colleagues Margaret Seidler and Chandra Irvin have been working with the City of Charleston, South Carolina to help that city move forward, community and police together, in the wake of the mass shooting and hate crime that took place at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on the evening of June 17, 2015. Community and police were brought together in facilitated “listening sessions” which led to mutual understanding as well as concrete proposals for action that both sides were willing to take.

Listen to the full interview here.

Bridging through storytelling

Jake’s words remind me of the five words I use in helping someone bring out a story: “Tell me about the time…” Those words, or variations, help point someone toward a memory, a real experience, and away from the report or conclusion he or she has drawn from that memory. This helps take the conversation away from entrenched positions, about which we may differ, to real experiences, which have a validity of their own.

Before you start the conversation

All of this presupposes that you actually want to listen to someone. Our brains are well tooled to sense not only what someone is saying but how they are saying it. When you approach someone with appreciation and curiosity they feel it. When you approach with judgment, they feel that, and it’s likely to trigger a cortisol-infused fight or flight response.

But how do you engage in a conversation with someone who is making proclamations that are off-the-wall-loony-tunes and possibly destructive to others? Simple answer: you don’t. That bridge is way too rickety given your judgment and the fact that person doesn’t want to dialogue with you anyway.

Better to find someone who is willing to enter into a real conversation, not to convince you but to build a bridge of mutual understanding.

Bridging the deep divides

One person who has practiced the art of dialogue around issues where there are deep divides is Francis Kissling, former President of Catholics for Choice. Abortion is one of the heated issues that has divided this country for years and Francis has made a point of reaching out in dialogue to pro-life advocates who have been willing to talk.

Key to these conversations was an agreement that she and her conversational partner were coming together to understand differences and not to reach agreement.

In a brilliant interview with Krista Tippett she says, “the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.” In the many years that she has been a part of dialogues about abortion, Kissling hasn’t changed her opponents’ perspectives. But she has allowed her own views to become more nuanced.

What a dialogue like that requires is, in Tippett’s words, “the courage to be vulnerable in front of those we passionately disagree with.”

Kissling offers three profoundly wise questions to consider when talking to someone who is on the other side of a deep debate:

  1. What is it in your own position that gives you trouble?
  2. What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to?
  3. Where do you have doubts?

With her approach, you don’t need to change your core values. But you can deepen your understanding of an issue and embrace your doubts.

Years ago, I coached a manager whose family was broken apart because he believed his gay brother was “going to hell for his gay lifestyle.” My client was an otherwise kind man so I asked him, not withstanding the Bible he cited as proof for his views, if there was any place he might have room to say “I’m not totally sure” about his convictions. He had none. It was terribly sad because his unwillingness to consider even a shred of doubt or the possibility of a “gray zone” between his black and white beliefs was costing him his relationship both with his brother and with his son.

I’m not pretending that dialoging across large divides is easy. But we have to start somewhere. Maybe with Jake’s four words.

Can You Say More?



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