I was a shy, self-conscious teenager. After years of trying to be supportive, in exasperation my mother told me that self-conscious people were too self-involved, and that I needed to just focus on another person and listen. Then, she claimed, I could stop thinking about how others saw me and become connected to the story of someone else. This advice has served me well in the years of my life, and I have come to greatly value authentic conversation. Given the contentious nature of our country from the campaign of 2016, I wanted to channel this advice to my students.
I am an educator of communication in health care in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Duke University. For my session on Cultural Competence, which is required for accreditation in most health professions, I recognized the need to address the biggest cultural divide we currently face … the political polarization of our country. I challenged my students to take this on by providing $5 Starbucks cards to the first 10 students who were willing to engage in a cup-of-coffee conversation with someone who voted differently from themselves.
They were told to use this opportunity to bridge with someone else – not convince that person to become a version of themselves, with their priorities. This experience, I emphasized, needed to be approached with curiosity, respect and empathy. The conversation was to be framed with the following questions:
▪ What were the key issues that influenced your vote this past election?
▪ What was your greatest struggle in casting your vote?
▪ Find at least one perspective you have in common (attitude, attribute, opinion, preference, situation, perception, etc.)
▪ Learn at least one perspective from this person that you did not know/appreciate previously.
After the coffee talk, I requested responses from the students to the following questions:
▪ How do you feel the experience went? Was it worthwhile?
▪ What emotions did you have during the coffee? How do you feel afterward?
▪ What did you find you share in common with this person?
▪ What new perspective did you learn?
These selected student responses (shared with their permission) reveal how this opportunity was experienced.
“(We) shared the same values, that is wanting our loved ones to be safe, but those values just manifested in different votes for various reasons. Even though it was very apparent that all of our priorities were ranked differently, with the election behind us, we all agreed that we just wanted a better future.”
“We ended up having a wonderful conversation that discussed topics that I would normally never feel comfortable broaching. After we talked through the questions and our own off shooting discussions we both thanked each other for not being judgmental and not trying to push our views on each other.”
“Interestingly, I was feeling good and positive during the coffee talk, but then felt less so after I spent time reflecting on it. I say this because speaking with this person challenged me to reevaluate what I believe and why I believe it. I began to feel more critical of my beliefs and myself. Though this was the case, I still left the experience with an overall positive affect and feeling challenged in a thoughtful way.”
“During our talk I definitely felt frustrated at times because we have very different priorities in looking for a leader of our country. Afterward it was very clear to me how much your surroundings can impact your political viewpoint”
“I found we share a lot of social views but differ in how we voted for them.”
“I think any opportunity to talk to someone with differing beliefs is beneficial because it’s a different thought process. Simply talking to like-minded people may be easier, but also prevents you from expanding on your knowledge base.”
“It was very refreshing to have some civilized and collected discussion about our opinions about current state of affairs in the United States.”
Much to my delight, I found my students reflected what I had hoped would come from these conversations … a genuine learning experience without the burden of antagonism, coercion and anger. There were unsettling emotions for some but bridging seemed to be occurring and the recognition of the humanity in another, rather than the divisiveness of “othering” someone who saw the situation differently.
Why is it that we have such difficulty talking thoughtfully about our differences? It is well documented that people listen to information that supports their viewpoint and rarely are opinions changed by data. Bullying and pushing moral rectitude are unlikely to result in shifting the persuasions of people. Everyone wants superior education for our children. Everyone wants a sustained planet with thriving people. We all strive to make a living, raise our children and feel we have safe place to inhabit. How we arrive at these goals is what causes friction among us. Collaboration and cooperation are the behaviors of civilized people and those must begin with conversation that does not threaten. We must feel safe with each other and work for our common ideals, which are many.
It seems the initial step toward civility and progress in our current time is conversation where we listen without judgment and seek understanding of each other. It seems so simple in concept and yet so challenging in practice. Seeing beyond our own self-consciousness and self-involvement to truly focus on someone else in order to connect and move forward seems so necessary right now.
The wisdom of my mother comes back to me. Maybe, we could get Starbucks cards for the members of Congress. It would be worth a budget item to me.
Elizabeth Ross is an associate consulting professor at Duke University’s School of Medicine.