A study conducted in October by the Pew Research Center revealed the partisan division between liberals and conservatives is at its highest point in American history, so to help people find common ground and come back together, an organization called Better Angels is employing a counseling method typically used on unhappy couples. Basically, America needs to go to relationship therapy.
Although it may be hard to believe that techniques used to bring feuding couples closer together can work to bridge the gap between Americans with differing political views, a report published in NPR last week suggests the unlikely technique is yielding positive results.
During a session in Brentwood, Tennessee, attended by six Republicans and seven Democrats, people from opposing parties were able to make inroads thanks to various decades-old tricks used by marriage counselors. The fishbowl technique, for example, which groups like-minded people together in concentric circles, allows for those with similar viewpoints to discuss issues within their own group, while the other “side” listens and takes notes, paving the way for a future conversation.
“What happens is, people in the middle forget about the other group,” Bill Doherty, a family therapist who teaches at the University of Minnesota and works on behalf of Better Angels, explained to NPR. “They're just talking to each other. And so it's a chance to kind of eavesdrop on a group that you'd never have a chance to do before, and then you get some things from that that you can't get any other way.”
And while the divide between liberals and conservatives may be wider now than ever before, Doherty, who has been holding this group therapy sessions since weeks after the 2016 election, has seen signs of hope through his work. “These are reds and blues. But they are willing to listen, and what I believe is that a lot of Americans are willing to listen,” he said.
Added David Blankenhorn, Better Angels’ president and founder, “We'd ultimately like to bring together political leaders and everybody else, but beginning at the level of just citizen-to-citizen, can we talk to one another? ... Can we at least recognize the goodwill of the other side?” While there’s a comfort in socializing with those who think like you, it’s not realistic to do all of the time, nor is it sustainable for progress.
Interestingly enough, one thing that has been shown to change hearts and minds and make progress is discussion. According to the New York Times, in a 2016 study, researchers found doorstep canvassing has the power to shift views on transgender rights, making those who were once against them more open and tolerant in the long run.
Though Better Angels has faced some difficulty in recruiting people who are willing to listen to the “other side,” for some who have participated in these conversations, the results have been transformative. For example, Ohio participant Greg Smith told NPR that Better Angels' workshops positively changed his views. “I was what one might consider a real hardcore conservative. And just kind of immovable,” he explained, adding that he’s befriended a Muslim man through the workshops and plans to become a Better Angels moderator.
“It's been an eye-opener. I've actually changed my viewpoint of some people, even President Obama,” he concluded. “I've changed the way I've looked at some things.”