U.S. Representative, Abigail Spanberger.

From previously working as a CIA operative tasked with solving international crises on foreign soil—to currently helping Virginians have access to affordable healthcare, safer communities without gun violence, and continued support from the Child Tax Credit—U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger is no stranger to meeting new people or answering tough questions, especially from those on the opposite side. 

Earlier this year, Spanberger participated in a One Small Step conversation with her Republican counterpart, Blake Moore. She sat down with us to reflect on what she learned and to offer tips on improving conversation skills with people of all backgrounds and beliefs. 

Questions Build Connections  

Spanberger says listening and asking thoughtful questions are a prerequisite for successful dialogue. 

“People are interesting and you learn extraordinary stories if you express an interest or ask people questions about their lives…” Spanberger says. “I think just a basic level of curiosity about the people we come across—in work, in our personal lives—can be such a fun way for us to connect as people.”

In the political world, disagreement comes with the territory. While there are topics that politicians find themselves diametrically opposed to, Spanberger has forged a reputation as a bridge-builder. So it was natural that she decided to participate in One Small Step and show Americans that it doesn’t always have to be an “us versus them” posture. 

“My perspective is that’s what people want in politics. They want to know that there’s more than just this kind of ‘yes-no atmosphere,’ which is so frequently what gets presented,” she says. “I think it’s important because even if you might agree on a particular topic, what I find fascinating is that sometimes people take different paths to agreeing on a particular issue.”

Coming to a consensus can help us better understand our own beliefs and Spanberger reminds us there are always new insights you can glean along the way, even when you do agree. 

“I know that some of my colleagues who might be fully aligned with me on environmental issues don’t necessarily understand the extraordinary work that’s occurring on farms across Virginia, and, frankly, across the country. So, even when you agree, there’s still things that you can learn about what’s happening in different communities, or the way that people are pursuing certain objectives,” Spanberger says.

In her current role representing the 7th district of Virginia, the congresswoman is constantly invited to new spaces that welcome discussions about issues in her community. Every day, she witnesses the remarkable impacts of nonprofits, small businesses, first responders and healthcare providers, and it’s through these interactions that Spanberger says she’s learned to be curious. 

“I think the more curiosity that we demonstrate in our communities, the more we’ll learn about the amazing commitment that exists. And I think increasingly, as we see, some of the community binds and networks might be declining a bit. There’s a lot of opportunity for us to knit communities back together, celebrate the good things that are occurring, and try to find reasons to bring people together.”

Disagreement as an Opportunity for Growth

As communities across the nation look for ways to knit their own communities back together one stitch at a time, it’s critical to take a step back and critically think about the “why” of an issue. If you’re struggling to argue your case, it’s time to reconsider the information. 

During Spanberger’s One Small Step conversation with Moore, she talks about how people aren’t afraid to argue about apolitical topics, such as picking a place to go out for dinner. Disagreeing doesn’t have to result in a negative outcome. Think of disputes as an opportunity for growth.  

“You may never agree, but there’s something inherently valuable in understanding why you disagree,” she says. “When people bring a challenge, I think far too often, we look at it as a challenge, like a point of opposition, as opposed to a reason to say ‘actually, maybe you’re right, or, actually, I disagree with you. But let me explain why.’ And I think that you can understand your own position, priorities, and principles even better when you allow them to be challenged and you have to defend them.”

Disagreeing without losing control is a skill that comes with practice, and with practice comes opportunity for enlightenment. 

In fact, overcoming division and finding common ground has become a staple for Spanberger’s success in Congress and has led to national recognition of her as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress.

When asked about overcoming dissent in her political journey, Spanberger shared a story that took place during a town hall meeting early in her career. As she finished her speech and opened the floor for questions — a young man clearly frustrated with her views — raised his hand. Angry cries of disapproval echoed from her supporters in the crowd, but Spanberger wanted to give this engaged attendee a chance to speak. As her representative, his voice was important.

Later that evening, a news segment featured an interview with the man who had spoken up. During the segment, he shared his appreciation for having his voice heard in his community. “Demonstrating that we can disagree is such a valuable skill set that increasingly, not enough people I think are willing to engage in,” Spanberger says.

With a pivotal election year upon us, Spanberger encourages everyone to engage and listen. 

“Nothing in policy or politics is exactly black and white; there’s nuance to everything. And to engage and listen to different sides of the debate…is incredibly important. And frankly, getting involved, and ultimately, voting is monumentally important,” she says. “The more we disagree on the little things or debate the little things, then the more practiced we are for the bigger disagreements.” Let’s get practicing, Richmond. Sign up to participate in One Small Step.