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About a month ago I wrote about my introduction to Braver Angels. I’ve since attended several online meetings and discussions. They’re well run and, despite tackling hot-button topics, participants are respectful to each other.

Recently I attended my first in-person Red-Blue Workshop. By mandate, the workshop included an equal number of Red to Blue participants, plus nearly as many non-participating observers. Due to a glut of Blue participants I volunteered to observe. Watching the process was fascinating. Participants were identified by name and color and were seated red-blue-red-blue around the main table. Two completely neutral moderators ran the show. The goals:

  • Learn about the experiences, feelings, and beliefs of those on the other side of the political divide.
  • Discover areas of commonality in addition to differences.
  • Gain insights that might be helpful to others in helping to depolarize our community and the nation.

After introductions and review of ground rules, the agenda included two exercises: Stereotype Exercise and Fishbowl Exercise.

Stereotype Exercise: Reds & Blues broke into separate rooms to discuss and list the most common false stereotypes or misconceptions about their side, why these stereotypes are inaccurate (or what is true?), might there be a kernel of truth in the stereotype? Below is what the Blue group came up with.

Once the groups returned to the main room, a reporter for each side presented their Red or Blue group’s findings.

Next the entire group broke into pairs of one Red to one Blue to discuss what each learned about how the other side sees them and to explore if there were any commonalities. Of course, after this brief exchange there was another round of reporting to the group at large.

Fishbowl Listening Exercise: One group, say Reds, sat in a circle to discuss amongst themselves:

  • Why do you think your side’s values and policies are good for the country?
  • What reservations do you have about your political party?

During this phase, the other group, the Blues, sat quietly in a circle around the inner, active group to observe and learn. Then, with no interaction between groups, Reds and Blues swapped places and repeated the process.

Finally came the Reflection & Learning during which all participants again broke into pairs of one Red/ one Blue to share what they learned about how each other’s side see themselves and if there was any commonality between the two sides.

As they were working through this somewhat elaborate and foreign process, it was difficult to see the value. But upon reflection, the group at large made some interesting observations:

  • The Blue group focused on specific political policy issues, whereas the Red group focused more on the intrinsic character traits they felt are attributed to them, such as being bigoted, uneducated, and an ideological monolith.
  • By having to see and describe themselves through the eyes of their opponents, both sides were surprised to recognize their own entrenchment and resistance to compromise.
  • The Reds acknowledged that they tend to be skeptical of change for the sake of change, while the Blues recognized that they are more willing so introduce novel approaches to solve problems.
  • Linguistically, Blues acknowledged that they over-emphasize politically correct language, which can at times make real, workable discourse between groups impossible.
  • Listening to each side articulate reservations about some of their positions was particularly revealing and refreshing. None of us has the most perfect solutions.

I don’t believe any minds were changed. But hearts were. Everyone in the room recognized the humanity we share; we acknowledged how difficult it will be to break down barriers that are constantly hammered home and reinforced by social media, news platforms, celebrities, and politicians. And I suspect that everyone in that room will come back for more practice.

As Monica Guzmán says in her book, I Never Thought of it That Way, “When you’re surrounded by people who share your gut instincts, you end up sharing your blind spots, too. And when the whole group has the same blind spots, you amp each other’s ignorance and make a bad decision even more spectacular together than each of you would have apart.”

Our nation will not survive if we don’t learn how to communicate effectively with each other.