Friends, what is your WHY? Mine is to cultivate the best relationships between all people, (here comes my spiel [I prefer to call it a mantra—winking emoji]), “because our relationships kill us or save us, and relationships themselves live and die by communication.”
How are you affected by the current political climate? Are you separated from friends? Do you feel restricted in your conversations? Do you self-edit more than before? Or are you emboldened to speak your mind, finally freed from the social muzzles of more repressed times? How have politics in the 21st Century affected your relationships?
I first learned of Better Angels when I read David Blankenhorn’s article, “The 7 Habits of Highly Depolarizing People,” written before the 2016 election. I was intrigued by the organization but could not figure out how to get involved. Last year I asked my Facebook friends which charity they thought I should fundraise for—I support so many causes in theory, but could not decide where to focus my efforts. One insightful friend suggested Better Angels. I did not end up fundraising for anyone, but I started following Angels on Facebook and signed up for the newsletters. This May I participated in a skills workshop and wrote about it. The objective in these workshops is for attendees to learn and practice listening and speaking skills, to facilitate mutual understanding and connection between liberals (Blues) and conservatives (Reds). The workshops are brilliantly structured to make engagement safe and productive. I decided I wanted to be part of this solution.
In August I attended my second workshop, “Depolarizing from Within,” aimed at helping us help our own ‘side’ combat the 4 Horsemen of Polarization that we unleash on the other side: Stereoptyping, Dismissing, Ridiculing, and Contempt. I took notes on the moderator’s methods this time, as I had committed to training to become a moderator. Like in teaching, he had to set clear expectations and ground rules. He had to control the session and politely but firmly interrupt people’s monologues and keep us on task. This was harder than I expected—many of us wanted to depolarize from the other side rather than our own—self-scrutiny and –regulation is hard. Going against group think and calling out our peers feels scary and vulnerable. But we can do it if we have the skills and motivation. It is essential if we want to reconnect with our loved ones ‘on the other side.’
I read the moderator training materials and watched the videos over the summer. When I found myself feeling triggered watching a Red/Blue workshop online, I wondered if I’m really up for facilitating such an event. Moderators, after all, must exude sincere neutrality and make all attendees feel welcome. We are the leaders in the room; we set the tone. For the sake of the work, we cannot afford to get emotionally agitated by anything any attendee says. That means not only in our words, but our body language, facial expressions—people must feel us being professional at all times. So to test myself, I registered for the next Red/Blue workshop in my area as a participant.
The event was almost cancelled because not enough Reds had registered. Chicago and Evanston are very Blue cities, and I’m learning how ostracized and unwelcome my Red peers feel among us progressives. So I’m so grateful for Red folks who came at our organizer’s behest—her friends who did it as a favor to her. More than once during the morning, we heard how apprehensive some of them felt, not knowing what to expect, and not used to feeling free to express their views. This makes me so sad, and I feel strongly that we Blues have to own our part in it. Regardless of how badly we feel our conservative counterparts anywhere behave, it does not excuse our own ad hominem.
About a week before the workshop, we found out Van Jones and his crew would come to film the whole thing and then interview some of us afterward. With very mixed feelings, I agreed to wear a microphone and appear on camera. He told us at the beginning that of the 4 hour event, 4 minutes would be aired. So we could relax.
Not only was I relaxed; I felt positively uplifted and encouraged. Throughout another set of wisely structured exercises, Red and Blues explored not only our strengths, but our flaws—both ideological and behavioral. The stage was set for safe self-reflection, and the vulnerability required to practice it. How often in your conversations, even with people you love, do you feel safe to acknowledge the weaknesses of your ‘side’ and where your group could act better, without someone pouncing on you? Has it been so long that it doesn’t even occur to you to consider it? At the end I exchanged contact information with two Reds and another Blue, and I really hope we can continue the conversation. I will invite them to the skills workshop I will co-moderate next month, my first attempt.
The Better Angels segment aired on the Van Jones Show last night. It’s about 9 minutes. I thought the show did an excellent job of highlighting the objective of the organization, and showing perspectives from both sides, as well as an observer, whose notes are worth pausing on and reading, at about 7 minutes. Please take a look and share your reactions (civilly) in the comments.
In preparation for Thanksgiving, Better Angels is holding skills workshops across the country in the next weeks. Find one near you and bring a friend or loved one! And check out the blog and podcast to read and hear civil, respectful, even friendly Red and Blue perspectives and discourse on issues like gun control and education.
We have so much work to do, my friends. It feels exhausting and discouraging at times, but not during Better Angels events. Here the goals and vibe are openness, curiosity, learning, understanding, and above all, connection. It’s the perfect place for me and my WHY. So I’m going to stay a while. I’ got something to contribute here.