How Do You Build Bridges When You Don’t Have a Shared Reality?

Our post after last week’s State of the Union address struck a chord with many of you. It also raised a difficult but important question:

How do you build a relationship with someone on the “other side” when what separates you isn’t just different politics or a different set of beliefs—but an entirely different view of reality? When your “facts” are someone else’s “propaganda”?

One commenter on Facebook put into words what a lot of us are feeling. (We edited their comment lightly to obscure their political affiliation, because we think this is a question people of all political affiliations can relate to.)

How do we go about it when we don’t have a shared truth? I’ve had civil conversations with people on the opposite side, and I can often find at least one commonality, but they tell me everything I believe is lies and that [the other side] has done nothing wrong. They believe all kinds of conspiracies and tell me I need to do more research. How do we build a new bridge when the last one was burned by the idea of “fake news”?

This question deserved more than a couple lines of response in a Facebook thread. Because this is reality for people on both sides of the political divide. It’s complicated, heart-wrenching, and difficult to navigate. Chances are you’ve felt this tension as you’ve worked toward peace in your own neighborhoods and circles.

We asked members of our team—including some of our colleagues responsible for creating gatherings where precisely this kind of conversation can take place—how they would respond to this question.

Saadia, Gathering Coordinator

This isn’t an easy question to answer when “the other side” bases its beliefs on an alternate set of facts.

In our Gatherings, we have always said that you can disagree with a person’s stance, but you can’t disagree with a person’s experience. We encourage people to talk about experience.

Also in a Gathering setting, the tone is set at the top, and the expectations are known: we are there to know each other, listen to each other with empathy, wonder, and understanding—not to convert people to our “side.”

Anna Brooks and a fellow gathering member share a laugh together. Photo by Valerie Sigamani/Preemptive Love

Anna, Gathering Coordinator

There may not be a straightforward answer. However, I think sometimes our questions reveal our deepest intent. Things that we might not even realize until we ask them.

If our intent is to bring “the other” into a deeper understanding of our truth, or to help them “see the light,” our posture has already begun to shift into teacher mode, rather than that of a curious listener.

For me personally, I believe that on all sides of issues there are life experiences, pain, and struggles. A story that can help us understand why a person may support or believe the things they do.

My hope is that through consistent, structured interaction within the context of community—and with clear conversation guidelines—the person behind all that they do or do not value will have the chance to know others and to be known.

That said, the purpose of a Gathering is not to convince each other that our facts are the true ones. It’s to have a space to truly listen, so we can collectively unearth what’s tearing us apart from the root. This can only happen from a place of trust, and that trust can’t be built if people on either side feel there’s an ulterior motive to change them.

That is why our bridges must be built on a genuine desire to understand each other, no matter how messy or hard.

Kim, Content Editor

Sometimes those conversations need to be set to the side for the time being, and the relationship be encouraged to keep growing in other ways—shared experiences and conversations around “safer” topics.

It’s not to avoid the harder conversation entirely, forever—but to give the relationship time to grow in other ways, so there is more to stand on, before you dive back into those waters. I say that with a million caveats because I know this can be complicated and messy. But maybe some conversations, with some people, need to wait to be had until there is more time for the relationship to expand in other ways.

Toni Collier, Gathering Director, at a gathering in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Nina Faith Photography.

Toni, Gathering Director

Lean in with caution. Be curious instead of defensive. Lean into disagreement with a posture to understand, and then to be understood. I really hope people can change their posture more than their perspective. Because our perspective isn’t necessarily the evil—it’s how we handle it that’s disrupting love.

We know this isn’t easy. We know that when we ask you to wage peace, to go toward those who are different from you, it’s risky, messy, and hard.

Peace isn’t linear. Peace isn’t the absence of conflict, but the presence of listening, of reconciliation, and relationship.

Sometimes the path to peace is long and slow. It has detours and obstacles, burned bridges and speed bumps. But building a new way, a new bridge, one of shared experience and listening, that’s a connection that can withstand the fire.