Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together began as a workshop, which I’ve been leading with diverse audiences around the country since the summer of 2017. I developed the workshop following a cross-country “conversation road tour” I took with my son just after the 2016 presidential election. We wanted to better understand what other people were thinking and feeling about the state of our country — and to discover how we might move forward together.
The conversations we had almost always surprised us. Like the pro-Trump Libertarian in Reno, Nevada, who told us that undocumented immigrants were tearing our country apart, and who later shared how he used to be antigay-marriage until a gay couple moved next door. The small circle of teachers from a community college in Bowling Green, Kentucky, who were in tears over the 2016 election, but who told us it’s fear that fuels our national divide, and that we need to have compassion for one another. And the black Vietnam war vet we met in Birmingham, Alabama, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day who told us that his wife lost her sister and her eye in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, and then shared that the only way to move forward was with love and forgiveness.
These and many other conversations gave us much to think about as we drove often long distances between each scheduled stop. And in the evening, we’d think about them again as we transcribed, edited, and posted the conversations on our blog.
By the end of our tour we felt like we’d learned something. The conversations took us beneath the surface of our divide to its deeper currents, where it was possible to see how we, as a country, might move forward. Here are three of our most important insights:
It’s about relationship. Yes, our economic, social, and political divisions are real. But they’re symptoms of a deeper problem: our disconnection from one another. For various reasons and in various ways, we’ve all retreated inside bubbles too small for today’s complex, challenging, and interconnected world. More than ever, we need to expand our connections and perspectives.
People want to talk. The hostile diatribes and intransigent perspectives people post on social media are not what we found when meeting face to face. Yes, liberals are upset, but more than that, they want to understand and build bridges. Conservatives, too, want to talk, but may be reticent for fear of being vilified for their point of view. We have to learn how to create spaces for respectful dialogue so that we can begin the process of finding, and building on, common ground.
We need new skills. To heal our nation and move forward together, we need to master some radical new ways of being and relating. No longer can we reserve the right to vilify or dehumanize “the other.” Turning people into enemies who need to be marginalized or vanquished does nothing but deepen our divide. Only by standing together on the ground of our common humanity can we secure the future we most want for our children and ourselves.
The workshop and the book — Difficult Conversations: The Art and Science of Working Together — are outcomes of our journey and responses to these three insights.