As 29-year-old Harvard Business School student Henry Tsai struggled to process Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election last week, he realized he would never understand it without the perspective of a Donald Trump voter.
The problem was that he didn’t know anyone who voted for Trump.
It is perhaps one of the most salient lessons of this norm-defying election cycle: Americans are so deeply entrenched in their societal enclaves that they don’t listen to opposing views. Often it is because they have no exposure to them in the first place.
For Tsai, who received his undergraduate degree at Stanford and worked for several years in Silicon Valley, his social network — while diverse in race, gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity — was more siloed than he thought. Just two days after the election, after the candidate he supported lost, he sought to change that.
His goal was to facilitate dialogue between supporters of Clinton and those of her GOP rival, Donald Trump. At first, he simply created a Google Document sign-up form and shared it with his Facebook friends, asking if they would like to be matched with someone who voted differently. He called it, “Hi From the Other Side.”
By Sunday night, he’d received 1,300 messages and counting from people eager to connect — many from people he didn’t know. Most are Clinton supporters, but Tsai said that’s simply a reflection of his network. He intends to reach out directly to Republican groups to even out the mix.
He spruced up the sign-in page over the weekend. It now has the look of a more professional website. He also created a how-to guide so that, when matched, people can productively communicate their ideas and beliefs.
“It’s easy to demonize people on the other side, and I think it is an issue and it seems like we talk past each other and there’s almost this sort of dismissiveness that there’s no way the other side can be right,” Tsai said in an interview. “It’s something I’m trying to work on in my personal life. I don’t have to agree with it, but it seems only fair that I take a moment to understand.”
These efforts to reach out in ways big and small are happening all over the country. They’re showing up in Facebook posts and among colleagues. It was the central message encouraged by Clinton, Trump and President Obama in the hours after the election. They called for unity and inclusiveness, and asked Americans to give the other side a chance.
It’s not always a comfortable thing to do, said Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, an initiative created by the University of Arizona as a response to the attempted assassination of then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
Lukensmeyer and her team have worked for the past five years on strategies that encourage elected officials and the public to engage in meaningful ways that move beyond partisanship. After this especially bitter election, their work seems more important than ever, she said. It starts, she said, with having what her organization calls “the unlikely conversation.”
“How could you look in the mirror and ask, ‘Who did I close out and who do I want to experience having a friendly conversation [with] again?'” Lukenmeyer said. “One of the principles is to really listen to understand. Make no attempt to challenge their position, you have to listen until you understand that position and something happens when two people go through that process.”
What happens, she said, is that people start seeing one another not as adversaries, but as humans.
That’s not to suggest people can’t challenge opposing views, but she suggested that given how far apart Americans are right now the first step needs to be to “really listen to one another and hear one another’s positions” because only then will there be an opening to find potential inroads.
It won’t happen overnight, she said. The wounds from this campaign are deep, and some people may not be ready to have that conversation yet. There are Clinton supporters in major cities protesting a Trump presidency. Some Trump supporters have engaged in hate crimes.
No one is suggesting that those actions be ignored or that either side alone is responsible for reaching out. But there is a legitimate reason many Trump voters thought the system no longer worked for them and there’s very good reason why Clinton voters are scared of what’s to come.
Still, both Tsai and Lukenmeyer said they were heartened by the overwhelmingly positive response from those who now, or eventually, want to try.
“I’m past my [anger] and grief stage and now just want to listen and understand,” said one message Tsai received. “I know I made a lot of mistakes prior to [the] election in stereotyping and generalizing the opposing side and I want to make amends for that. The only way forward is for each side to empathize with the other and find the common ground.”
Understanding the emotional and ideological motivations for how someone voted will be an essential part of moving forward as a nation, but coming together can also be done sans politics.
For weeks leading up to the election, Brandon Ryff’s dental practice in Scottsdale, Ariz., could have been a test case for the nation. His 11 employees were almost equally divided between Trump and Clinton, and the tension in the office was impossible to ignore. Many of them had worked together for years, some decades, and now they felt as though they didn’t know one another at all.
“It never really got nasty because they respect each other, but you could tell they would get annoyed, that it was frustrating that this person doesn’t see this the way I see things,” Ryff said. “It was very tense, you could feel the tension.”
The day after the election, Ryff, 31, said it felt even more heightened at work. His Trump-supporting employees seemed to be walking on eggshells, and the Clinton voters were expressing disbelief and anger.
It made Ryff think about a Pedigree dog food commercial he had seen recently. It showed a woman with a lost dog ask for help with finding its owner at a Trump rally while wearing a Clinton shirt and then at a Clinton rally while wearing a Trump one. People at both events were kind to her. The message was simple: Beyond our political differences, there is a lot that unites us, such as a love for dogs:
So, in that spirit, Ryff announced a work unity lunch Thursday afternoon. He brought in sandwiches for the staff and they gathered for a meal together. Not as Democrats and Republicans, but as co-workers and as friends.
“Once we all sat down we weren’t talking politics, we were just being people,” he said. “What I can remember was incessant laughter, how can all these people with opposing views be laughing at the same thing if we’re all so different?”
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