A Common Sense Approach to Healing America's Political Divide
The state of our Union is both hopeful and broken, strong and fragile. By our very nature, Americans lean toward optimism. Our pioneering history drives us toward problem solving; our go-to strategies aim for forward progress.
Our fierce independence feeds our demands for individual rights and liberties. We derive strength from our Constitutional intentions and protections. These values and qualities inspire the world and shape our expectations for fairness and justice.
At the same time, America is broken – as evidenced by our failing infrastructure, generational poverty, racially biased and mean-spirited justice systems, and a lop-sided economy that works the very best for a very few.
Political gridlock blocks solutions to the interconnected crises of climate change, contaminated water, pesticides in our soil, chemicals in our food, and everyday poisons at home, school, and work. Our government publishes faulty food guidelines that lead to obesity with obesity itself connected to rising rates of many kinds of health problems and cancers. Ignorant government policies send family farming, ranching and fishing into bankruptcy, while We the People lose control of our local food supply.
We are killing the youngest and the bravest among us, driving far too many families into despair as they watch loved ones suffer and die, knowing full well the consequences of corrupt or misguided government policy.
We gloss over the depth of pain in America, our lives compromised spiritually by political leaders who cannot get past partisan rivalries to step up to real world problems. In those with a political strategy to escalate fears and hatreds, combined with overly aggressive law enforcement and dangerously militarized foreign policy (not a “peace through strength” and multi-track diplomacy mindset), we see too clearly the dark side of politics. And we have run out of time.
Peacemaking and Healing
Still, I remain hopeful. American wisdom and innovation can overcome every one of our challenges, chart a course of correction and agree on roadmaps to create a government that works for everyone and leaves no one behind. America was built by pioneers and out-of-the-box thinkers. We tinker in our kitchens, offices, garages, basements and back yards. We solve problems; that is in our DNA.
Yet the requirements for taking solutions to the national scale remain: gut-wrenching honesty, an open mind and true listening – not America’s strong points in today’s political culture.
How do I communicate my unyielding belief in the power of face-to-face dialog? For more than 30 years, one sentence derived from my doctoral research has kept me true to my oath of social justice – my theory of peacemaking:
People joined together in face-to-face dialog generate a field of energy with patterns of balance and rhythms of harmony across multiple levels of reality. (Kahn, 1988, p228)
My research studied words spoken in small, face-to-face groups, yielding quite remarkable patterns of balance: HOSTILITY attracts ANALYSIS, PAIN attracts SUPPORT and STRESS attracts ACTIONS. In small, facilitated, group discussions, anger is met with questions of why and how; pain nearly always attracts support and caring; while anxiety and stress bring out ideas about actions and solutions.
After only eight hours of face-to-face dialog, words of SUPPORT went up and words of HOSTILITY went down.
Those findings triggered my early belief in the power of face-to-face dialog. A few years later, obsessed with those results and writing about peacemaking, I found a rhythm of harmony to accompany the patterns of balance.
As people talk in small groups, they both speak out as individuals and merge into the overall group dynamic. This rhythm of separating and belonging, especially when the small group has a shared purpose, elicits what may be called “team spirit.”
The patterns of balance and rhythms of harmony define the source and power of small group dynamics from combat units on the battle field to peace-seeking dialog here at home and around the world. The power for finding solutions is embedded in face-to-face connections. Honesty and true listening on many levels reduce conflict and aim us toward peacebuilding.
This unyielding belief in the power of face-to face dialog shines a light on three points:
1. More listening, less arrogance
In the tool kit of every good facilitator is a simple exercise: “Describe what you just heard being said.” This is the “walk in another’s shoes” effort, leading to better listening and often more compassion.
I once asked a young woman to wear something nicer to an important meeting, only to learn she was essentially homeless, living in an unheated trailer, and her clothes had been stolen. I wasn’t just embarrassed at my rudeness, I was humbled by the ignorance of my assumptions, even with my personal history of climbing out of poverty. We cannot solve shared problems without being more present, more conscious and more willing to learn how others view and experience the world. We each have a story to tell.
2. Solve problems, stop debating
We did not know if we would find common ground when systems engineer Cindy Peak and I co-wrote an article on climate change given our upfront recognition that we had such different views. We started with the explicit intention to understand each other. We listed to very different sets of facts and concerns.
What surprised us both was that despite stark differences -- that she believed changing weather patterns are naturally occurring cycles and I believed human activity is changing our climate -- we reached solid agreements on solutions in the real world:
- We agreed on a vision: “We are stewards of our shared planet and we should take good care of our home.”
- We both sought accountability: “All people, corporations, and governments should protect the environment and be responsible for the damage they inflict upon the earth.”
- We both wanted to help communities most at risk for extreme weather events through improved building codes; improved infrastructure including transportation, energy, housing and health systems; and reinvented emergency agencies that help real disaster victims without bureaucracy or wasting taxpayer dollars.
- We both strongly supported reducing pollution and funding research for new energy solutions.
Writing that one article reinforced my conviction that people on opposite sides of any argument can still agree on specific steps to solve specific problems. Reducing conflict begins with the basic steps of problem solving: define the problem clearly, analyze root causes, look at data, brainstorm solutions, agree on first steps for those solutions and measure progress.
These activities of peacebuilding trigger the dynamics of peacemaking including mutual respect and a balanced approach that considers all sides of any problem
3. Speak to our shared values
The burden is on all of us to reduce conflict, respect differences, listen more intently and solve problems together. Try to start with that one true sentence or vision statement all can agree to even if it’s “Yes, this is a problem we need to fix together.” Recognize that trash talking, blaming, scapegoating and demeaning anyone with a different view just pushes us further apart. Remind each other that We, the People are America and we share beliefs in personal liberty and our Constitutional freedoms.
Healing our divided America means to restore strength and wellbeing by making whole, by agreeing on actions to solve problems. Beneath the anger we hear from so many of us resides nearly unbearable pain and all that is deeply connected to failed government agencies and policies.
Peacebuilding includes all the activities, truces and solid intentions to reinvent government and solve shared problems. Peacemaking is internal, where the human dynamics of new insights connect patterns of balance and rhythms of harmony. Face-to-face dialog is the surest and shortest path to building peace and healing America.