How to heal polarisation

By Martin Vogel

As part of my recent research into how coaches are engaging with the political sphere, I interviewed a US-based coach, John Schuster, who teaches on coach training programmes at Columbia University and the Hudson Institute. The interview didn’t make the final cut of the published article because the editors wanted to focus on the discussion of coaching and climate change. But John’s work highlights a very different way that coaches can contribute to addressing some of society’s big challenges. John is tackling polarisation: using his coaching skills to bring together people across the Republican-Democrat divide.

A Democrat-supporter, he teamed up in 2016 with a coach who had voted for Donald Trump. They organised a conversation to which each invited three friends from their own side.

This is what happened:

“We spent two hours talking and getting to know each other, building rapport – just like you do at the start of coaching. One had come from an amazingly conservative family. I realised he had gone far to the left just to end up on the middle right. By the end of that meeting, we knew it was good for us to keep talking. Both sides admitted that we didn’t talk to many people from the other side. We had found a way to do so and respectfully disagree.”

Since then, the group have met seven more times, taking on issues. “We discussed immigration. The Reds learned that the Blues didn’t want open borders, as they had feared. The Red guys were happy to have immigration. They just didn’t want it to be out of control.” John says the meetings have led the two sides of the political divide to realise that they have more in common than they appreciated. “There was instant healing. We were listening in a healing way and this was letting our fears about the other side go down.”

John Schuster has now joined with a broader movement, Better Angels, with members across America joining in citizen-to-citizen conversations. He says people are tired of being angry with each other. Meeting fellow citizens in a safe environment, away from the polarising influences of the media, gives them a chance to see that their neighbours who hold different views are good Americans. Coaches have a contribution to make, but it is one of leading from behind, helping people to meet in a mutually respectful way. “It’s brilliant, simple and needed.”

When I spoke to John at the end of last year, what he was doing struck me as unusual – and possibly harder to apply in the UK context where we seem to have multiple polarisations that cut across each other. The simple two-party division has fragmented as people’s loyalties become blurred by other issues such as Brexit, antisemitism, Islamophobia, sex and gender rights, climate activism vs climate change denial, and so on.

But since then, there’s been a change in the political atmosphere – perhaps because December’s General Election settled the immediate conflict over Brexit, though not how it will eventually be implemented. As the Guardian columnist, Gaby Hinsliff, puts it anger is exhausting and the weariness of the last few years of conflict is creating an opening to “some kind of healing”.

Three recent developments in particular have caught my eye. The first is the launch last week of a cross-party parliamentary group on Compassion in Politics which, among others things, is concerned to tackle hate speech in politics which they fear legitimises violence and abuse in society at large.

Next, is an example of how people here in the UK are putting into practice the kind of approach John Schuster and friends have been developing in the US. A group of Quakers in Norwich found themselves in the middle of a storm about transgender and women’s rights. In response, and over about a year, they conducted a process to hear from different sides of the debate – overcoming a degree of suspicion and hostility to do so. But they created a model for how division could be recognised, mediate and – to a degree – overcome. Among their conclusions:

“The opportunity simply to speak and be heard, without discussion or argument, is a powerful and unthreatening means of advancing goodwill and understanding.”

“Despite all the hostility, there is an area of clear general agreement between those in conflict, namely that the socially constructed boundaries around notions of male and female are far too rigid and prescriptive/proscriptive. These tight boundaries make it impossible for many individuals to fully express themselves; there is a need to loosen societal gender boundaries.”

And, finally, the BBC conducted a day-long exercise in which 50 people were matched into pairs who disagreed with each other and encouraged to explore their partner’s perspective, having been given a brief training beforehand in deep listening. Emily Kasriel, who organised the event, outlined four guidelines for deep listening:

  • Ask your speaker to explain their perspective and why they feel so strongly. Listen, without interruption, putting aside judgments, counter-arguments and solutions.
  • Summarise the core of what you have heard and check you have understood correctly, including the emotions and texture of their story. This does not mean you have to agree.
  • Ask whether they agree with your summary. If not, ask them to explain more.
  • Continue with this process till the speaker gives a resounding ‘Yes’. They should at this point be likely to listen to your side of the story.

The approach has similarities with non-violent communication or Daniel Dennett’s four steps to successful critique.

According to the BBC’s Mark Easton, the day had a significant impact on its participants :

“It proved to be a profound and emotional process, challenging participants to engage in a way that felt almost unnatural as they stripped away layers of understanding of each other’s views. Some of the encounters ended as they had begun, but many produced a connection that was deep and personal. A few of the conversations ended in a hug, a promise to stay in touch. One resulted in tears as the pair realised aspects of their own personality that they had hidden even from themselves.

”Such ‘meaningful interaction’ can work very successfully at an individual level, creating relationships and friendships across the divide as people recognise their shared humanity. But the question is whether this kind of exercise has a value at a community level.”

It’s my contention that this kind of work not only has a value at a community or societal level but is going to be fundamental to overcoming some of the toxic divisions that have entered the political realm. The main parties, captured by their memberships, no longer serve effectively the broader interests of the public but pursue agendas which, to those outside the cliques, look like the obsessions of cranks and extremists. In so doing, they sew suspicion and paranoia about the parties one does not support – to the extent that people become demonised for holding opinions that are part of the legitimate debate of a democratic society. By encountering each other through listening, instead of through the prism of preconceived stereotypes, people can rediscover their common interests and perhaps learn to trust that only by co-operating with people of different views can we find solutions to the big challenges that we face.

Citizens don’t need coaches or journalists to facilitate these kind of experiences. But people with professional skills in facilitating conversations perhaps have something to contribute to getting the process going. I’m on the look out for a coach or two with whom I disagree who might be interested in piloting here in the UK what John Schuster and his Trump-supporting friend initiated in the US.

Hat tip: Michele.

Image courtesy Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash.

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