It is an understatement to say that political polarization in our communities is intense. Some people are close to despair that they will ever be able to have a fruitful conversation with a person of another political party.
Frustration is often grounded in the sense that conversation is especially difficult with people at the extreme end of the political spectrum opposite to one’s own convictions. Efforts also might run aground when one imagines trying to convince large groups of people on the opposite side about important issues.
What if we change the frame? What if we shift the goal from trying to convince those who seem impossible to convince to helping each other to grow in charity in the way that we communicate our ideas?
As we may have learned on an elementary school field trip, the “buddy system” is an arrangement in which individuals are paired for the purpose of mutual safety in a hazardous situation. Buddies look out for each other, and they help each other when they run into difficulty.
Here is how a buddy system might help to illuminate our relationships as we travel through our current political terrain.
First, think of just one person who is invested in the future of a political party that is different from your own, with whom you might build a bond of trust and open communication.
Notice that the category is broader than those who support particular candidates. If you cannot think of a single person, it might be a good time to consider communication and relational strategies for making this kind of connection.
Second, explore with this person making a kind of agreement to help each other when you find yourself in difficulty in the midst of the hazardous territory of political disagreement with others.
The essence of the agreement might be articulated like this: “I am here for you as a sounding board, and to echo back how what you say might sound in the ears of someone from a different political perspective. I am also here to offer my perspective when you need to brainstorm potential approaches to communication that might be more loving and perhaps even more effective.”
The act of reaching out to a trusted buddy in the midst of a disagreement will not only help me to get the perspective that I need to improve my communication skills, but also will help me to avoid the No. 1 hazard on our journey: speeding.
How many relationships have been damaged — or totaled — because of hasty or reactive social media posts or emails, at times scribbled long past the hour when the capacities for cooler reason have gone to sleep?
Reaching out to a buddy will necessarily slow down the process of communication and give us the time that we might need to gain the perspective conducive to reflection on how to communicate amid a given conflict.
Reaching out to form a buddy arrangement requires humility and courage. It takes humility to admit that notwithstanding my good intentions, I do not always know how my arguments and my choice of words might sound for someone from the other party. It requires courage to take to heart what a buddy might have to say, especially when it presses against my own perspective.
But perhaps the bonds that strengthen buddy-system virtues — and the all-important practice of charity in our communication — are precisely the healing balm that people of faith can offer to our wounded body politic.
Amy Uelmen is a member of the Focolare movement, a senior research fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center and a lecturer at Georgetown Law School, where she teaches seminars that help students to communicate across religious and political difference.
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