The public radio program On Being, as part of its Civil Conversations Project, recently aired an interview called “Repairing the Breach” (transcript). The show featured a white male Libertarian leader of the Tea Party movement, Matt Kibbe, and a black female millennial progressive leader, Heather McGhee, discussing how we can engage difference and better understand each other.
Near the end of the show (at 44:30), Heather brought up a conversation she had with Gary from North Carolina on a C-SPAN call-in show last year. Gary called into the show, admitted to being prejudiced, and explained why he thought he held certain attitudes. Then he asked Ms. McGhee how he could change, “to become a better American.” McGhee thanked him for his honesty and offered suggestions such as getting to know black families, reading books about the history of African-Americans in the U.S., or attending a black church. The video clip went viral.
Gary later found McGhee on Twitter, and they communicated over time. He had taken her advice to heart. In the On Being interview, McGhee shared a system Gary had developed for himself. When he sees a person who is unlike him (e.g., a person of a different race or ethnicity), he notes his initial internal reaction to that person, be it fear, anger, disgust, or some assumption. He then forces himself to say something to the person, making small talk to initiate a conversation. After talking to the person, he notes how his feelings about the person have changed.
I love this system. I’ve been attempting to observe and question my reactions to people for a while now, understanding that my own beliefs and prejudices have at times kept me from seeing people as they are. For me, this practice is an outgrowth of mindfulness. I realize that throughout my life, I’ve missed out on really getting to know people by placing them in boxes and making assumptions.
A couple of years ago, a study gained media attention. The study suggested that by asking a series of increasingly intimate questions and staring into each others’ eyes for a prolonged period of time, any two people could fall in love (or at least develop a close relationship). I think we can learn things from this study that apply far beyond the realm of romantic love.
I’ve begun asking personal, open-ended questions of my family members in an effort to deepen my relationships with them. As a result, I’ve learned so much about the people I love. I’ve become bolder about asking these kinds of questions to acquaintances as a way to get beyond small talk. My conversations feel more meaningful, and I often come to better appreciate, understand, and admire those with whom I interact in everyday situations. Though Gary’s system envisions more casual, less intense conversations, which are a great way to get started, it’s amazing how many barriers we can break down by really talking to someone, by really listening to what they have to say.
Instead of approaching people with judgment, we can question our assumptions. Like Gary, we can notice our reactions and then bravely challenge them. We can approach each other with curiosity. In this polarized environment where people are so quick to label and dismiss each other, it’s important to remember that every single person we encounter can teach us something. Rather than deepening the divide, will you do your part to bridge the gap? Start a conversation. Ask a question. Listen, and learn.
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