Communicating Across Divides

On several occasions in the last year, I’ve found myself in the position of being asked to interpret the south and so-called “middle America” (i.e.: the parts of our country that are located outside of large metropolitan areas) for those living in self-described “liberal bubbles.” First, let me state that I am extremely uncomfortable with this role. I grew up in a liberal bubble in a traditionally conservative state, and (with the notable exception of five years spent in Boston during college) have spent most of my life in such communities. Yes, I was born in the south, but I am the child of two northern transplants which I’ve always felt cheapened my status as a southerner.

I do not feel that I am qualified, in any way, to interpret the experiences of others. That said, I have traveled extensively throughout the Southeast and my own extended family currently includes much of the American political landscape. As such, I’ve chosen to redirect such requests into conversations about how we can communicate across divides (whether those divides be real or perceived). I’m sharing a few of the lessons that I’ve learned, in the hopes that you, in turn, will share your ideas and communication strategies with me.

  • Don’t assume that other people want to talk about politics. Or about you. Or about the differences between you. Rather, ask them questions about themselves and their experiences.
  • Listen in a non-judgmental way (try your best).
  • Be kind, to yourself and to others.
  • Your experience is valid. And so is everyone else’s.
  • Assume the best, whenever possible, of people and situations.
  • Even if you don’t think that you share interests or values with another person, they are still worth your time and attentions.
  • Talking to people and opening lines of communication may lead you to find areas of overlap between your values and theirs.
  • Once you do find common ground, use that as the basis to build a relationship.
  • Focus on the positive in other people, not on their deficiencies (whether those be perceived or real).
  • Keep your cool. The only part of a conversation that you can control is you.
  • If you have a strong emotional reaction, acknowledge it but try not to become too attached to it. Try to let it go.
  • If your emotions continue to get in the way of your ability to connect with another human being, then you may need to further analyze your response later. Try to remove yourself from the situation so that you can tackle those difficult emotions in a time and place in which you feel safe.
  • Acknowledge your own faults. None of us are perfect. Rather, we do the best we can every day and continually try to learn from our mistakes so that we can improve in the future. If a conversation doesn’t go well, forgive yourself and try to learn from that experience so that you can do better next time.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’d love to hear your strategies for approaching difficult conversations and talking to people across divides. Send me an email or tweet @amycbogie.