Skip to main content

We’re living in a time unlike any other. Just a year ago, could we have fathomed the world we live in now? Our old priorities now seem insignificant, and the future remains uncertain. As a society, we have become polarized about many issues, but now, in particular, we need to come together as one people, united.

It’s no secret that we’re seeing a lot of animosity in our country, fueled by differences of opinion and background. Politically, socially, and economically, this divisiveness has become our new normal—experiencing Thanksgiving fights with our extended family, living in social media bubbles of people who agree with us, and scoffing at the “other side” when they show up on the news. And now we’re also disagreeing with one another on issues around public health at the precise time we need to come together to get through a global pandemic.

With the severity of today’s crisis, this divisiveness needs to end. We need to recognize that the vast majority of Americans are good people who simply grew up differently and have different beliefs. If we want to move forward with public health and economic solutions, we must collectively improve our ability as a country to empathize with those who don’t share our views.

Here are four tips to bridge the gap and help us find lasting solutions:

1. Start from a common foundation.

When conversing with someone who disagrees with you, start from a place of common ground rather than jumping into disagreeable conversations or spouting classic talking points from your side of the aisle. Ask for the other person’s name, talk about where you’re both from, or enter into a conversation about a hobby or interest. Personal background and passions make up the root of a person beyond who they voted for. Realizing simple commonalities builds rapport and transforms someone you previously viewed as an enemy into a friend. Rather than sprinting and ducking into your ideological bunkers, you both become more willing to listen and try to understand each other’s positions in more difficult conversations.

Sports, for example, offers an excellent opportunity for finding common ground. When two fans are cheering on their team, they start at an equal level and are linked together through their shared goal and passion. Every fan loves to tell stories about their team, and sports has a unique power of bringing people together who come from vastly different backgrounds and belief systems. The nature of sports is one of raw passion and friendly competition, so it can easily act as a foundation between you and your “other side.”

2. Have respect and empathy for others.

No matter how strongly held your beliefs may be, rejecting, insulting, or dismissing another person is not productive for either of you. While it may be challenging to create space for someone to express an opposing viewpoint, it is essential to listen if you are to move forward with the conversation. Otherwise, what is the point of speaking at all? Demonstrations of patience and kindness define your character as much as your political affiliation or job. People have very different personal histories, and so while you can disagree with someone’s opinion, you cannot disagree with their experiences.

It’s important to realize that we are all striving for the same “ends”—a healthy family, a meaningful job, good schools for our kids, a safe community, and a Coronavirus vaccine—and it’s just on the “means” where we get caught up. Thus, if you hold respect for the “other side” as people who ultimately want the same things as you, then it’s far easier to empathize and have a more meaningful conversation. This is the path to bridging gaps and making forward progress.

3. Change your own mindset—don’t seek to “convince” others.

We may not realize it, but when we discuss divisive topics, we often spend the entire conversation trying to “convince” the other person. This approach makes particular sense for a situation like the Coronavirus pandemic, which requires swift, decisive action. While listening to someone make points we disagree with, our brains actively brainstorm rebuttals instead of allowing us to immerse ourselves in the other person’s perspective.

This is the wrong mindset. Rather than trying to “win” the conversation and bring others over to your side, try to authentically listen. Genuinely try to understand where others are coming from. Your own perspective will broaden, and a deeper conversation will result—benefits all around!

4. Look for win-win solutions.

If you can find the deeper reasons behind each side of an argument, then you can identify win-win solutions that alleviate concerns on both sides. Corporations can appeal to the Gen Z and Millennial workforce by incorporating equity into their business model. Farmers can receive a stable annual income by putting up windmills on their property. Solar panels aren’t just for liberal coastal elites—they actually help our military enhance their fighting capability and minimize casualties. Not every issue has to be a partisan one. You may think that these types of win-win solutions are rare, but in reality, they are all around us. They are essential in finding a path forward, even among traditionally adversarial groups.

If you follow these four guidelines, your conversations with the “other side” will go much smoother and may actually be productive. By refocusing our energies towards our shared aspirations and being willing to compromise—as opposed to only seeing our perceived and real differences—we can return to a time of civility and getting things done.

Bridging these divides won’t happen overnight. We need to make a concerted effort to be those catalysts for change. The stakes are too high.

About the Author / Kevin Wilhelm

Kevin Wilhelm is the CEO of Sustainable Business Consulting, instructor at Harvard University, and author of the bestselling book, “How to Talk to the Other Side: Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change.” He is one of the world’s pre-eminent business consultants in the field of sustainability and his book details how to find win-win solutions with people who disagree politically and ideologically around issues like public health, the economy, and climate change. His firm, Sustainable Business Consulting, focuses on demonstrating the bottom-line business benefits of sustainability and has led efforts for over 180 organizations, including New York Life, Expedia, Nordstrom, Tommy Bahama, REI, the Cities of Seattle and Tacoma, the Pac 12 Conference, and Angie’s List. His organization, a four-time Best in the World Winner from B Corp, has helped companies offset 100,00 times the carbon emissions of his own firm in the past three years.

About the Author / Natalie Hoffman

Natalie Hoffman specializes in research and communication between differing cultures and points of view. She is a co-author of the bestselling book, "How to Talk to the "Other Side": Finding Common Ground in the Time of Coronavirus, Recession and Climate Change." She often takes on the role of “peacemaker” and her lifelong goal is to bring people together at a mass scale. She is passionate about sustainability and, as a mixed-race woman, embraces many of the perspectives outlined in this book. A songwriter and water polo player in her free time, Natalie is a Seattle native who loves a good bowl of ramen.

Return to top