The cultural climate in America in these days following an extraordinarily divisive election is unsettling at best and chaotic at worst. We are all weary of accusations, contention, and downright malicious talk. Behaving with “malice toward none and charity toward all” might sound overly optimistic and highly improbable. But those are the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his second Inaugural Address to a nation divided by the Civil War. Lincoln’s words have been coined by a national group called Braver Angels. With Malice Toward None is a their current initiative to depolarize America.
Their mission statement, if applied in our family gatherings, our workplace environments, our community forums and beyond – would change the atmosphere of our nation.
Communication is the means through which these goals can be accomplished. So where to start? Right where you are is always the best place. Meaningful conversations that build bridges instead of walls are the vehicle to a place of unity.
- Acknowledge their perspective. Listening is the most effective way to accomplish this. Building a conversational bridge requires that you know when to stop talking and start listening. Few behaviors enhance communication as much as truly attending to what people say. Attentiveness signals respect for people – regardless of their position or role. It also conveys a degree of humility.
- Highlight areas of agreement. It might be a shared value or something you have in common. Finding a point you can agree on enables a starting point for connection.
- Hedge your claims. This requires presenting your viewpoint in non-dogmatic ways. Soften your tone. We all need to learn the art of disagreeing without being disagreeable.
- Phrase arguments in the positive rather than the negative. This strategy, partnered with hedging your claims (point three) can be very effective at building bridges. Negative: With the dangers CoVid-19, it is irresponsible to participate in group functions. Positive: Though the pandemic has changed our ways of connecting, it’s encouraging there is much we can still do while social distancing and wearing masks.
- Avoid explanatory words. These are the type of words used in a debate. No one will dive into a heartfelt exchange of views with someone who seems to have a hidden agenda or a hostile manner. Strong words that would be used in an argument are best laid aside at this point.
Researchers tested the effectiveness of this simple strategy and found that five minutes of training resulted in a notable improvement in communication and increased trust in the parties involved. Another bonus is those who applied the suggestions were perceived to be smarter and more compassionate than those who did not.
It’s easy to think that the divisiveness felt among Americans today has never been worse. But it has. We have healed in the past and with intention, we will heal again. I began by referencing Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. In his first inaugural address, delivered on Monday, March 4, 1861, he took the oath of office as the sixteenth President of the United States. Seven states had just seceded from the United States and war was looming as a distinct possibility. He stated, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
May the better angels of our nature direct our steps as we build bridges through meaningful conversation.