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How to heal political polarization among American families

After writing last month about the current climate of political polarization and how it is causing divisions in American families, I sat down with Bruce Bond and Erik Olsen, experts in fostering unity, to find out more about how we can heal the polarization among families.

Through their citizen-led nonprofit, the Common Ground Committee, Bond and Olsen’s work focuses on creating opportunities for people to engage in productive conversations that lead to finding or building common ground over polarizing topics. And we discussed some of the ways their work — which is mainly aimed at leaders — can help individuals and families overcome their differences and find more common ground rather than having to choose between their relationships and their convictions.

One of the most important factors in helping people find unity and common ground, as Bond explained it, is finding examples of other people who have disallowed opposing views and opinions to separate them.

There is power in human interest stories, Bond explained. Good news on a personal level can captivate people and give them something to exemplify.

Our discussion reminded me of the powerful story featured in the Deseret News in November last year where two neighbors posted a sign in their yard that read, “We disagree but we still get along.”

Seeing stories of real people actively overcoming their differences can be powerful in counteracting the polarization narrative and giving people something to be optimistic about.

“People are tired of being polarized,” Bond said. Most people aren’t extreme and, the silent majority, those who are more apathetic toward their opposition, are quickly becoming the exhausted majority. Being in constant conflict is tiring.

When it comes to families, the dynamics of differing perspectives and opinions are naturally complicated and are made even more so when politics becomes the dominating topic of conversation.

Olsen explained that, while it is hard to speak in general terms about families because each one is unique, the principles for finding common ground apply to families just as well, and perhaps even more so, as they do to political and social leaders.

In nearly every setting, finding common ground starts with listening and looking to find empathy with the position of the opposition, Bond explained. But it can’t be passive listening.

Active listening, where “you’re really trying to understand the positions they have and why,” is much more effective, he said. From there, it becomes easier to work from a basis of respect and understanding to find a viable solution for both parties.

If people can listen well enough to find something they are willing to agree on, that is where common ground can start, Olsen said. “Common ground is an aspect of the conversation, it’s not something that occurs everywhere. And sometimes it’s OK to agree to disagree. But if you listen, you may find new understanding.”

One limiting factor to finding common ground is the fact that too often conversations about polarizing topics aren’t taking place in a positive environment.

Social media, while positive in many respects, can be detrimental to conversations on complicated issues like politics because it is so limiting, Bond said. On platforms like Twitter, where people have only 240 characters to explain their thoughts or position, the nuances that foster a productive discussion get easily lost. “And that’s where the common ground is usually found,” he said.

Some newer apps, like Clubhouse and others that allow for more authentic discussions, seem aimed at solving some of the polarization taking place through social media. However, as Bond explained it, real solutions for finding unity are more likely to come from a bottom-up rather than top-down approach.

The latest inventions and legislation won’t solve our problems for us. Individuals need to take the time and personal responsibility to listen and have the important conversations with people close to them rather than simply posting or reposting their opinions and views on social media and public forums. As we’ve seen over the past few years, that only polarizes us further.

Whether in families or with friends and acquaintances, conversations about polarizing topics will fail to build common ground if both sides participating don’t commit to learning rather than proving a point.

Entering a conversation with intellectual curiosity and a desire to understand the “why” behind a person’s perspective will be far more productive than looking for various points to disagree with, Bond said.

There will always be people with very different perspectives, Olsen said, “and it’s not because one is right and the other is crazy. It’s because they have very specific interests and things that they believe are going to be more effective.” Those different perspectives are important because one may take into account something the other side has completely overlooked.

Finding common ground is not about compromising on principles, those don’t need to be sacrificed, Bond said. Rather, it is about taking the other side into account in order to achieve a more desirable outcome.

Families are our support systems, our strongest bonds and the foundation upon which all of America is built. So, for American families, the most desirable outcome is unity and love and the ability to “disagree but still get along,” no matter our political divides.