The Shift Network Blog

3 Ground Rules for Uniting Your Family & Community Beyond Political Party Lines
Phil Bolsta
By Phil Bolsta
Shift Team Writer

While supper is simmering on the stove, are political tensions already heating up at your dinner table?

Now, consider what life would look like — not just in an election cycle, but all the time — if acrimony gave way to harmony, if building walls gave way to building bridges, if time spent with family and friends transformed from a battleground to finding common ground.

That not only can happen, it is happening — at dinner tables, neighborhood gatherings and community events all around the country, says Mark Gerzon, an expert in “transpartisan dialogue” techniques for transcending party differences, and author of The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.

The keys to this transformation, he says, include:
 

  • Valuing relationships over “being right”
     
  • Thinking critically about your own positions
     
  • Staying open to those who differ with you so you can expand and enrich your point of view
     
  • The willingness to work through differences with civility and respect

 

“We can strengthen our sense of unity while at the same time honoring the legitimate, healthy, and vital role of conflicting points of view,” writes Gerzon, founder of the Boulder-based Mediators Foundation.

In an opinion piece for the Boulder DailyCamera, Gerzon and Ted Barrett-Page, a family therapist in Boulder, wrote:

"Just imagine how liberating it would feel to share opinions about the issues and still be close to your family and friends. This can happen, but only if everyone feels safe. Just like a football game depends on referees, goal posts and a clearly marked playing field, so does a good … conversation require some very simple ground rules.”

Gerzon and Barrett-Page offer 3 battle-tested ground rules for fostering communication, connection and community. While these guidelines are languaged for families, they’re equally important for group dynamics of all kinds.

The key takeaway is that peace and harmony in every situation begins with you.

As Gandhi so eloquently put it, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

If you can create harmony within your own family, you’ll be better equipped to communicate effectively, find common ground, and promote reconciliation and unity in the wider community and the world at large.


1.  Fairness

No one likes family or community get-togethers to be dominated by one person or one voice. It's not fair, and it's not fun. So agree that everyone gets the same amount of time — say, three minutes — to speak without interruption. They can pass, but they have the opportunity. (Anyone with a cell phone timer can keep everybody honest.)

Without this ground rule, the conversation can get too hot (interruptions, sarcastic comments, angry outbursts) or too cold (sullen silence, withdrawal, or even leaving the table).


2.  Time-outs

Just as anyone has an equal opportunity to participate, so does each person have the right to call a time-out. If something is said that is triggering or upsetting, nothing works better to reset the conversation than a short break. This doesn't mean you can't come back to the topic later when everyone has settled down.

If you can agree to take a break, it enables everyone… to catch their breath, have a sip of wine or juice, and bring their best selves to the rest of the conversation.


3.  Listening & Learning

It's only human to want others to agree with our point of view. But the third ground rule for this kind of trust-building, enjoyable … conversation is that the goal is not persuasion. It's listening and learning.

When a family listens deeply to each other's feelings and learns more about their differences as well as their similarities, they get closer to each other. Love grows. And everyone leaves the table feeling glad that they came together and look forward to doing so again.


Gerzon and Barrett-Page add an important note about the innocent bystanders who are so often wounded in deep ways when they get caught in political crossfire:

“[Our kids] are sitting at the table learning not only about whatever civic issue is being discussed. Even more important, they are learning what family is. Is family a place where people have to hide their feelings in order to get along? Is it a place where sharing differences leads to fights and estrangement? Or is a family a safe place where love is strong enough to hold differences and allow everyone to be seen and heard?”

Ultimately, if we can’t break out of the prison of our own point of view, and share our political opinions in the safety of our own homes and communities with people that we care about and value, how can we expect politicians to do so publicly with their opponents?


PS - If you are intrigued by the insights included above, you're invited to download a free, hour-long audio with Mark Gerzon, Bridging Partisan Divides: