Bridging the Gap: From Resistance to Reflective Listening

By Tabatha Thompson, Divya Sundaram, Kevin Chen


In a few days since the death of her daughter in Charlottesville, Susan Bro had aged 10 years. “I want you to pay attention,” she said at the funeral of Heather Heyer, “Find what’s wrong—don’t ignore it, don’t look the other way. You make a point to look at it and say to yourself: What can I do to make a difference?”

Since last year’s election, the number of protests and demonstrations across the U.S. has skyrocketed. The January 2017 Women’s March was arguably the largest single-day demonstration in U.S. history, with roughly four million participants across the country. June saw 818 demonstrations alone. These demonstrations were largely peaceful, with the number of events with arrests related to property destruction and violence decreasing from 1.4 percent of the total in February to 1.1 percent in June. Yet, most media coverage is devoted to the violent events, reinforcing the idea that our society has become even more divided and polarized since last November. Just as sensationalized coverage of terrorism makes us overreact to risk, overrepresented reporting of civil disorder sows mistrust and fear in fellow citizens.

Activism is important—it can give voice to the voiceless, and help pave the way to more inclusive government policies and agreements. It can help hold our elected officials accountable to the interests of their districts and communities. However, activism alone will not help us heal this growing divide.

One way that people have started to address this divide is through open, constructive dialogue. Some of these conversations have formed organically—like the conversation between a group of Seattle residents (mainly Clinton voters) who traveled to rural Oregon to talk with mainly Trump voters to better understand each other. Other dialogues have been strategically organized by groups such as Better Angels, a nonpartisan organization working to “reunite America” through multiple initiatives facilitated across the country.

policy::dialogue falls into this second category. Launched shortly after last year’s election at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, policy::dialogue is devoted to bridging the gap and fostering connection. Its mission is to host events and facilitate dialogues among people who share different political views—not for debating or trying to change minds, but to gain a better understanding of where both sides are coming from and find common ground.

This is hard work, but the thankless efforts to fortify civility and reinforce positive societal norms are always more difficult than apathy, ignorance, or violence. The first step to bridging the gap is realizing that our right to free speech comes with a requisite responsibility: reflective listening and dialogic listening. Reflective listening is a listening technique focused on seeking to understand what someone is saying and where they are coming from, while dialogic listening is a strategy that emphasizes being present and open in a conversation. It’s not good enough to claim free speech to spout rhetoric, and it is not meant to be a one-way street. Free speech must be bounded by human decency and the responsibility to listen, so that we can build up trust in society.

The deep divide we are experiencing in our society today took a long time to form. It didn’t occur with last year’s election, but is now amplified to a point we can no longer ignore. It will take a long journey to bridge this divide, but groups working to facilitate civil, constructive, two-way dialogue among people who disagree have already seen positive results.

Back in Charlottesville, Susan Bro continued her plea: “My child was no saint. But you know what? She was a firm believer in whatever she believed. And let’s do that. Let’s find that spark of conviction. Let’s find in ourselves that action. Let’s have the uncomfortable dialogue.”

It is time for all of us to start having our own uncomfortable dialogues, because it is the only way we can start to bridge this great divide.

Other stories of dialogue throughout the U.S.:

policy::dialogue Syracuse Dialogue Weekend debrief

In Lower Merion, Democrats and Republicans try something new: Listening to each other

Better Angels Waynesville, OH dialogue readout