Priorities for Your Personal Engagement

It seems to a lot of people that our political anger has gotten very far out of hand. It takes no great feat of imagination to see that our success as a nation and as a species will depend on enormous cooperative endeavors going forward.

Moving instead from disagreement to the growing attribution of evil represents a descent into a more primitive arena in which our democratic values cannot survive. Many intuit that, and wish for a political process that reflects the better angels of our nature, a process they can respect and that offers them respect in return.

So, many ask, what can I do? Options for your engagement should not be established by some sort of abstract assessment of what is most needed. Instead, the most important criteria for guiding your own involvement should be established with your personality and psychological capacities front and center. You should play the roles for which you are best suited, and avoid as much as you can roles for which you are not well prepared.

The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions. Without appropriate attitudes, you risk doing more harm than good by starting a difficult conversation with that old friend or relative on "the other side." And without the skills needed to navigate complex conflict situations, you will probably not be very effective.

Every well-intentioned person has a role to play. But those with compatible attitudes and strong skills should take the lead in direct interaction between conflicting parties. This is equally true regardless of which side the initiative for bridge-building first arises.

Many people drawn to bridge-building also feel anger and frustration. They cannot resist making moral judgments about "the other side." Such people are conflicted between what good sense tells them is right and the anger they feel. As a consequence of all this, people contemplating bridge-building often believe that their engagement in the process risks becoming very unpleasant for them personally. A companion view is that the prospects for meaningful success are slim to none.

For people with compatible attitudes and good skills, none of these more negative expectations need to happen. The process need not be either unpleasant or unproductive.

Many others who are conflicted or lack strong skills can build workable attitudes and develop the skills needed for bridge-building success, so this is not to discourage anyone from preparing themselves for such efforts. Experience supports the idea that success depends on good attitudes and strong skills, so if you don't already have what success requires, much more information about how you can build favorable attitudes and develop helpful skills may be found in Strengthening Your Skills.

Your Unique Assets

Beyond the more general comments just above, many individuals will have resources and capacities to apply that flow from their particular roles in the community. Virtually anyone in a leadership role in any sector has such distinctive resources, but it is easy to see for clergy, teachers, service club and nonprofit leaders, elected officials, news reporters and editors, and many others. Be sure to think carefully about opportunities to promote bridge-building that stem from your distinctive roles in your community.

Your Community's Unique Circumstances

Finally, learn as much as you can about the history of conflict, political and otherwise, in your community. Leaders of past conflicts may be more willing to bury the hatchet than is immediately apparent. Followers may have lost confidence in divisive leaders. Don't think about what you can do to promote finding common ground without giving serious thought to the unique circumstances in your community.

Published: July 2019
Revised: June 2023

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