I'll always remember the time when my pre-planned speaking notes and a retreat plan went out the window as I improvised worldview skills to transform political polarization into increased understanding and collaboration.
A group of rural, midwestern sustainable women farmers invited me to lead a worldview retreat (planned over a year in advance), so they could learn new skills to address issues with their neighbours who are fracking landowners. They wanted to strengthen their intercultural competency. I happened to arrive 2 days after the U.S election with my planned public talk entitled, “People, Power and Civil Courage”.

Following the talk, my plan was then to lead a retreat with the women sustainable farmers. In both the speaking and retreat settings, political polarization was ripe with some having recently voted for Republican, Donald Trump and others who had voted for Democrat, Hilary Clinton.
3 Tips for Working with Political Polarization - midwestern sustainable women farmers

3 Approaches to uncover commonalities, build bridges, and address political polarization:

1. Cultivate curiosity...

As an outsider, I can put on my “curious hat” and ask questions that would be harder for an insider to do.

During one activity, I asked everyone to pretend we all voted for Donald Trump. We made a list on a flip-chart of all we were hoping to achieve by voting for him. When we had a full list, I then asked everyone to pretend we all voted for Hilary Clinton, and we made a similar list for her.

We then looked at and compared the two lists, we found they were identical. For example, everyone was looking to feel safe. What was different were the personal stories and experiences that led people to come to a different conclusion about how to achieve safety.

2. Start with feelings, then uncover the story...

I wrote down the word “government” and asked people to randomly say their first feeling when they heard that word.

As people shared their first feelings, I asked them to share stories. The activity unlocked the group's ideals and frustrations about government and enabled us to paint a picture of all a government could be, as well as all its potential pitfalls.

Women shared painful stories, including losing a son to murder, military experiences in the Middle East, and all the conclusions they made from these experiences on how to stay safe. This laid the groundwork for the deeper worldview and values-based work we did next—key stepping stones towards greater intercultural competency.

3. Dig for values and ignite action...

I asked each person to think about one thing that they felt outraged about during the election and then identify the value at stake.

For example, one woman shared that an incompetent man getting the job over an intelligent woman outraged her and, hence, the value at stake was gender equity. Behind each outrage was a personal and often painful story pointing to the essential need to live out the core value at stake. In another example, one woman committed to never staying silent when seeing a more competent woman being passed over for a job in favour of a less competent man. In this way, each value at stake provides a compass to ignite one’s personal commitment to action.

After each woman worked on a worldview and values-based personal inventory activity, each shared their commitment to action moving forward. We heard things like running for local politics, standing up for collaboration on a family-run farm, teaching independence and self-reliance, joining a parents advisory council to ensure fair governance, and much more!

In sum, sharing stories, identifying feelings, and digging for common values are often the first steps to build intercultural competency. Turning those values into personal and collaborative action is a critical next step for mastering this skill.

Political polarization: Your thoughts...

What are your challenges around political polarization within your organization or community? How do you facilitate a deeper understanding of self and others in these situations? What has worked in your efforts to build unity across divides? And what hasn’t? What is your next step to strengthen your intercultural competency?
How about taking Essential Worldview Skills?
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About the Author

Jessie Sutherland

An international speaker, trainer, and consultant, Jessie Sutherland works with organizations and communities to engage diversity, build belonging and ignite intercultural collaboration. Her approach creates sustainable community change that effectively addresses a wide range of complex social problems.

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