Reaching Across the Divide In an Uber Polarized World

by | Apr 16, 2018

I’m scared, and I know a lot of other people are, too. I am scared because the polarization and division seem to be accelerating at an alarming rate, all over the world. The Edelman Group, which has been measuring trust for decades, reported a global implosion of trust in 2017. I can definitely feel it. In the United States, the 2016 election divided families and friends like never before, and brought political and racial division to frightening new highs. And as fear and anxiety rises, people retreat further into groups of like-minded people, which only serves to fuel the division. The other day I overheard a woman on the street say, “I saw his Trump shirt, and I literally crossed the street.” And that’s the uber polarized world we live in – not even wanting to walk past people from the other side. Since I live in a liberal area but my family lives in a more conservative part, I find this trend – toward not seeing the humanity in each other – to be really disturbing.

So what’s the key to getting out of our comfort zones and start reaching across this divide?

EQ Practitioner Michael Eatman actively works to build these bridges – and the lessons he’s learned, which he shared with Rachel Goodman at a recent sit down – are equal parts simple, difficult, and transformative. It starts with each of us taking two actions, according to Eatman.


How to Start Reaching Across the Divide

Eatman recently attended a training with master diversity trainer and documentary filmmaker, Lee Mun Wah. One of Wah’s quotations really stuck with him: “I’m scared about this conversation about racism and bias all the time. But I’m more scared not to engage.” Even though it’s intimidating work at times, Eatman says the benefits of tackling these touchy topics far outweigh the costs, and that the survival of humanity may just hinge on our ability to overcome our differences. So how can we start reaching across the divide?

According to Eatman, reaching across the divide starts with engaging emotions and connecting with one person at a time.

For better or worse…

Without a doubt, race and politics are emotionally charged topics. And those emotions can sow more seeds of division – or help us build bridges. The difference, according to Eatman, is practicing emotional intelligence.

Practicing EQ is a multistep process of recognizing and responding appropriately to your own and others’ emotions. It starts with embracing emotions as a strategic resource, instead of treating them as something that should be ignored or suppressed. Eatman recommends starting with your own emotions: “Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Dig into: ‘If I don’t like someone because of their political affiliation, what is that about? Is it about my insecurity or their humanity?” Oftentimes we feel angry, scared, or disgusted by others’ beliefs, and our tendency is to shy away from those strong, challenging emotions. We make jokes. We cross the street. We identify ourselves as part of one group, and not another. But EQ is all about learning to harness those emotions as a strategic resource.

Anger, for example, focuses our attention on something we want to change, and motivates us to fight through or overcome the obstacles. EQ is the ability to acknowledge that anger as a valid feeling, while also saying, “What do I truly want in the end? And what are my options to get that?” Then you can use that energy from the anger in a productive way to get you closer to what you truly want, which in this case means using it to start reaching across the divide.

Sometimes, reaching across the divide is about not only coming back to what you truly want, but asking what your political opponents truly want in their lives.  “One of my colleagues has a mother who is very conservative, while she is not.” says Eatman. “She says, ‘I can’t believe my mom is on a high horse of ‘Go President Trump!’ I said to her, ‘Even if you don’t support the president, the question is, how can you have a conversation about what really matters?’ That ability to dig deeper is central to reaching across the divide. The more we are willing to talk about what really matters, and the emotional drivers for each party, the quicker we realize that we have more in common than we think.

“When we’re dealing with the high tide of political differences, it’s about relating to others from a place of humanity,” says Eatman.

You may also like, How Communities Heal from Conflict: 3 Practitioners’ Stories.

“We have to keep remembering that the wisdom not only lies within ourselves, but in our collective wisdom. We have to keep connecting. The degree to which I can connect with someone allows me to tap into our common humanity.”

Michael Eatman

Director of Community Life, The Pike School


Holding emotional space

As a black man in a predominantly white community, Michael Eatman finds the question of race difficult to ignore. And one stereotype he has had to overcome is that of the angry black man. He recalls a colleague who asked him if he ever got angry. “As a man of color, often times I learned to button things up nice and quick. So I said, ‘I don’t really get angry.’ Which is not really true. I’m a human being. I took a couple of weeks to think about it. Then I realized I do get angry! Because of the situations people of color find themselves in, I could be angry all the time. The thing is, I need you to give me the space to be angry. So that when I do get angry, you don’t say, ‘There is a black person that is getting angry.’ It’s a reciprocal trust relationship situation in which you can handle my anger and then I can also be who I am.”

This concept, of holding space for emotions, is essential in the nitty-gritty work of reaching across the divide to connect with the other side. It will be uncomfortable at times. Emotions will come up for both parties that they need to be able to share in a non-threatening way. And the only way you can do that is through a mix of trust and honesty.

Michael doesn’t shy away from the fact that talking about race and politics may lead to offense, but he feels in control of his reaction: “Six Seconds’ philosophy is really powerful for allowing you to say, ‘What’s the potential that’s within me to make a choice?” For example, “if someone is saying something to me in an offensive way, I can communicate with them, that, as a black man, that’s really offensive, and because I treasure our relationship, I really want to make sure you understand what’s happening to me.”


Reaching Across the Divide… One Person at a Time

Connecting to each person, be it a stranger or a friend with different views, builds trust and community. Michael says the key is reaching out even when it feels uncomfortable: “We have to forge relationships, one person at a time; see who we can connect with. Then we connect to a few more. It’s mobilizing individuals around a positive action and hope.”

And this is a man who is walking the walk, in large part because he strives to be a living example to his kids of community building. Recently he was out to dinner with his family and saw a young Hispanic woman with a sign asking for money. “I saw her and I said to myself, ‘Someone else will help her.’ We went to eat, and an hour later she was still there. I was curious. I asked her what she was doing. She said she needed $100 to rent a car so she could take her driving test. I gave her a few dollars. I asked myself, ‘Do I want to engage?’ I could have felt fine about giving her money and said, ‘See you later.’ Instead I said, ‘If you can’t raise this $100, text me, and I’ll see what I can do.’

A week later she called me and asked if I still wanted to help her. I had to ask myself if I wanted to go beyond the moment. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll help you.’ We met at the D.M.V. She got in my car to take her test, a perfect stranger. I was afraid she might destroy my car. But she passed the test! Her name was Athena. She started crying. She called her cousin, she says, ‘We did it!’ She hugged me twice and then she left. I thought, ‘What a way to be able to trust in humanity!’ I had to really use consequential thinking. If a person needs help, I need to get the best information I can to make this a better community.”

One person at a time, we start reaching across the divide and building bridges.


This article is an updated version of Rachel Goodman’s article, Using EQ to Build Trust Across Racial and Political Divides.

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