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Over the last few years, our workplaces, personal relationships and political lives have been strained by an “us versus them” mentality. We all know there are deep divisions that keep our communities at odds with one another, but what we haven’t discussed enough is our personal role in bridging the gap and building more peace within ourselves and between others.
There are a few mindset changes I’ve advocated for in my diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultancy for years that can help you break out of the “us versus them” mentality.
1. Don’t be afraid to hold difficult conversations
Having difficult conversations is a beauty and a battle. It’s beautiful in that when you learn to be open to opinions that differ from yours, you’re not more likely to change your mind; instead, you’re more likely to expand your mind. It’s a battle in that most people avoid difficult conversations out of fear of being proven “wrong” or of sowing deeper divisions with those around them. You win the battle simply by initiating tough discussions despite your fear.
What I find people struggle with the most when having difficult conversations is that they are conversing to win. Ask yourself: “Am I trying to win, or am I trying to get perspective?” I would argue that when engaging in difficult conversations, you actually win by seeking to understand and gain perspective. Let go of the idea that you win when you change someone else’s mind, and you lose if they change yours.
2. Hold the middle ground
In the “us versus them” dynamic, it’s easy to be on one side or the other. What’s hard is navigating the middle. That requires humility, openness and a willingness to see all sides of an issue. By holding the middle ground, you are no longer thinking, “This is the truth” about a certain situation. You begin to see that you have your truth, and this is her/his/their truth. All of these truths can coexist and could all be valid to each individual.
Rather than choosing a side or one singular truth, sit comfortably in the middle ground and allow yourself to see both sides objectively. Witness the validity in each situation — even if it’s not your experience.
3. Be a bridge builder
It’s one thing to listen to different perspectives and be open to them; it’s another thing to actively seek to connect two opposing sides and show them what they have in common with one another.
Bridge builders seek to find common ground. They seek to build connections between people who seemingly have nothing in common. They’re connectors, they’re community organizers, and they’re people who create trust and coexistence. Become a bridge builder or find someone in the company who is one, and be sure to invite them to important conversations that require connection be created in a room potentially full of division.
4. Improve your cultural intelligence
The truth is, depending on what you look like, where you were born, your faith, and your family values, you may be having a totally different cultural experience than someone else who was born right down the street from you. In the U.S., we are a land of immigrants who come from all sorts of different circumstances. But just because you haven’t lived it doesn’t mean it’s not true or happening.
Improving your cultural intelligence to understand that, for example, the Black American woman’s lived experience might be different in ways that you didn’t expect is important for breaking out of the “us versus them” dynamic. People have denied the presence of racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia for centuries — all because that lived experience wasn’t true for them personally. But when you’re building relationships with people across differences, listening to their stories, attending their family gatherings and learning more about their cultures, you realize that the “side” you’re on may not have a full picture of their reality. Cultural humility is at the heart of compassion and unity and is the key to quelling division and anger.
5. Meet people without stereotypes in mind
One of the most challenging aspects of changing your mindset is that it requires you to take a step back from what you think you know and consider if there’s another way. When it comes to engaging with others who are different, try this: walk into a room, look around and erase your mind of any and all preconceived notions.
If you see a group of older white men, don’t put them in a box of what you think they might be like or what you assume they believe in. Engage with them as if you have no idea who they are (because the truth is, you don’t). The same goes for folks with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ individuals, or any other “group.” Practice approaching people with an open mind. Imagine each person you meet is a clean slate, a whiteboard with nothing written on it, and allow them to show you who they are with their words, personality, and actions.
The question you should be asking yourself after reading this article is: “How can I have a more humane and open-minded connection with others?” When you begin to open your mind to the idea that human connection is bigger than individual ideology and that you may have more in common with someone than you think, then progress can be made. “Us versus them” doesn’t have to be a long-term reality. You can change your mindset and approach difficult scenarios as a bridge builder. Practice these mindset changes and set an example of what compassion and connection can look like in a divided society, and hopefully inspire others to change for the better, too.