By Peter T. Coleman, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University

The combination of COVID, political polarization, racial injustice, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol have all contributed to a majority of Americans being miserable. But, it’s not just about two people who have different opinions and are unable to talk to each other. It goes way beyond this. The media, the internet, our political leaders, and our political structures also contribute to this miserable divide.

In an environment like we’re currently in, change can be difficult. But, it’s possible when you take small steps.

My work focuses on violent, long-term conflicts that go on for 30 years or more. We find that they change under two conditions. First, the population begins to get exhausted, fed up, and really miserable. Studies show that a majority of Americans are at this point. Second, they need to see a way out, that there is a clear way forward that is hopeful, feasible and not too costly.

How do we do this?

Don’t launch first into a political debate. Try to begin by learning about others through dialogue, by sharing your personal stories and hearing theirs in a way that opens you up to each other and to discovering more about them, yourself and the problems you are facing together. This is fundamental to overcoming the oversimplification, hate and polarization that we’re experiencing. It starts by listening and hearing one another speak about things not related to politics, such as life stories and things we share in common.

This can offer a first step toward a way out of our current misery. By experiencing this, we begin to gain a sense of what it means to move beyond our current climate of contempt. Modeling this for others is also critical. Hearing stories of people connecting across our divisions can move people and change their sense of what is possible.

One Small Step introduces the opportunity for people to have that experience, and also shows them how to have that experience. When others see and hear people with opposite opinions have meaningful conversations without descending into tense political debate, they begin to recognize that these kinds of encounters are possible, valuable and meaningful, and that they can have these experiences too.

Beyond participating in One Small Step, you can engage with others with whom you disagree politically by simply doing a couple things:

  • Clarify your intentions. You likely are not going to change someone’s mind about a deeply-held political belief in a single encounter. But you might be able to learn more about them or about a complicated issue and grow from your experience. Knowing your intentions going in is key to having a fruitful encounter. 
  • Start local. In most of our lives, there are people and groups who are natural peacemakers who can help us get started. Some are individuals who are inclined to fairness and trustworthiness, who we tend to seek out when we are trying to repair our damaged relationships. Others are groups that spring up in response to tense divisions in our communities, who develop techniques for bringing people together safely and helpfully. Seeking them out should be one of your first moves when looking for a way out. 
  • Complicate your life. When you find yourself feeling completely disdainful of them – the members of the other tribe – and absolutely certain they are dead wrong on most issues, then it might be time to complicate your life. That is, to seek out people who hold opposing views from you on important issues, but whom you feel are smart, decent and well-informed. Thinking with them can help you see things anew. 
  • Take a hike. Research shows that when you move, physically, your mind opens up. Being active and doing something together – and ideally outside – with others that you disagree with has been found to help build cooperation and understanding. It can free up your thinking, change your perspective, and help you get in sync with others.

There is a way out of the polarization we’re currently trapped in. You’re taking positive steps to help overcome it by learning and participating in One Small Step.

As we continue to develop One Small Step, experts across a number of fields are advising StoryCorps on how to create respectful environments conducive to meaningful connection. Peter Coleman, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, is one of our advisors.

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