If you felt anxious about attending family gatherings during the holidays, you’re not alone. The annual events can be stressful, knowing that certain topics might take the joy out of the season.
One Bainbridge Islander is trying to change that by teaching people listening and conversational skills.
Elizabeth Doll is a “red” person living in a “blue” community, but as director for Braver Angels, she is at the forefront of a national movement to bridge the partisan divide.
Braver Angels is equally balanced between conservatives and progressives at every level of leadership with volunteers who work in communities, on college campuses, in the media and in politics dedicated to healing “the rancor tearing us apart.”
Doll said Braver Angels was founded after the divisive 2016 election when organization co-founders had the idea of bringing together a group of voters who supported Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to see if they could talk and find some common ground. After 13 hours, they did.
The group wanted to keep speaking to each other and build real relationships, but 13 hours was too long, so they designed a six-hour workshop and took it on a bus tour across the country.
Today, the organization has 78 alliances, or volunteer groups in almost every state conducting workshops for families, elected officials, candidates and their staffs, and the media. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-6th District, has participated in their events. He is trying to do something similar in Congress.
Braver Angels was inspired by President Lincoln, who called on Americans to summon the “better angels” within themselves, but also called on them to find the courage to pursue a more perfect union, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right.”
Ground rules for Braver Angels discussions include: no cross talk, no interruptions, stating views freely and fully, engaging in good faith with those who disagree, and treating people with honesty and respect. They seek to disagree accurately, avoiding exaggeration and stereotypes while looking for common ground. And when disagreements arise, both sides share and learn with neither side telling the other how to think.
Braver Angels helps people engage in such hot topics as religion, socio-economics and race.
“We live here on Bainbridge in a place where people are not that different from us,” Doll said. “But when it comes to the holidays, you’re talking to relatives across the country who may not agree with your political perspective, who might have a different faith than you. They live a very different type of life than you, and it can be difficult to bridge those divides and have calm conversations.”
She said when opinions differ, it’s important to not only know how to engage but also to disengage.
Doll offers a few suggestions for managing stressful conversations.
“You can’t just argue with what they’re saying. You have to understand the underlying ‘why?’ You have to actually understand what is motivating that belief and their underlying concern,” she said, adding you can’t have a real, deep conversation and understanding without that.
“What is motivating their trust in those facts as opposed to their trust in other facts?” she asked.
She suggests asking curious questions. “Can you tell me where you heard that from? What is it that concerns you about this? Can you explain to me what your understanding of this topic is?”
Exploratory questions can help you understand what is bothering them about a particular topic because that’s often where you find the crux of what they’re actually believing, Doll said.
Braver Angels helps people identify different characters one will encounter in conversations. The Gladiator will start an argument about their relatives being wrongheaded, the Defender will counterattack when others go first, and they might misrepresent the other person’s position. The Sniper gets in things to get a rise and then backs away. The Peacekeeper tries to end difficult conversations, and the Engager tries to have respectful conversations across differences.
In order to have respectful conversations, Doll said to realize probably no one will change their mind. But “you are going to be the respectful adult in the room … They may not be kind, they may not be calm, they may not be respectful. If that’s OK with you and you’re willing to engage and try to still get them to a point of being respectful, then wonderful, you need to continue on.”
Another aspect of conversations is when parents want to control or influence their adult children. In those situations, setting boundaries and listening is really important. “You’re an adult. You don’t have to have conversations that turn you back into a child,” said Doll, who suggests laughing it off, or saying something like, “How about them Seahawks?”
Braver Angels offers workshops, debates, book clubs and online classes. Learn more at Braverangels.com.