a horizontal rule made up of hand illustrated red and blue stars.

Coping During The Pandemic

With pandemics, fear is normal. Nothing can pump up stress like the inability to control or predict what will happen next, especially when we’re concerned for our very lives. In fact, those two conditions are the most powerful stress boosters out there. One consequence is that when public officials fail to meet our personal expectations for taking control or providing needed information during a pandemic, it not only becomes fodder for more political arguments; it also increases fears.

The good news is that we are in fact resilient. We will get through this, the same way we’ve survived disaster for millennia. And, there are specific ways we can override the body’s stress response when it gets out of hand, perhaps even put the energy to good use in days to come.

However, just as the inner lizard causes problems during political discussions, he can lead us astray during a pandemic. Running and fighting do not really fit well with either scenario. In fact, getting too pumped up at times makes things worse. But the inner lizard does not recognize that differing survival tactics are needed for situations like pandemics and political divides.

So what do we do with all this extra energy and passion, besides stew in our own juices? Or, start doing unproductive things like panic buying, living and reliving fantasies of worst possible scenarios, or believing whatever we read no matter what the source?

Fortunately, higher-functioning parts of our brains have the ability to override fight or flight. We do have the option of refunneling that energy into activities like appropriate preparedness, staying informed, and following the advice of health experts. But then what?

We cope by using these three steps: noticing the feeling, intercepting it, and replacing any unhealthy reactions or impulses with something useful.

Here’s one way to go about it. When feeling anxious, frightened, or angry:

  • Be kind to your inner lizard. After all, he must live with this built-in negativity bias that always suspects the worst. Thank him for pointing out the existence of a threat. That way he knows he’s been heard, and need not continue pressing the panic button. Compassion toward the self or others has been found to reduce or even block anxiety.
  • Slow down your thoughts. Activities like mindfulness, meditation, and relaxation techniques are good for this. Even a hot bath or leisurely walk in the park may help. You cannot both slow down and give in to lightening-speed gut reactions at the same time. Afterwards, you will be better able to think logically, put things in proper perspective, and move on to useful problem solving.
  • If you feel especially wired up, find an exercise activity you enjoy. It doesn’t matter what kind. It will help use up the extra adrenaline.

Here’s another way to notice, intercept and replace excessive anxiety:

  • Note that, in this present moment, you are actually fine. Your heart still beats, you are still breathing, and the ground is still solid beneath you.

If you’ve been involved with the National Conversation Project for long, you’ve likely already developed your own personal strategies for keeping your cool when discussion gets heated. Those very same strategies may also prove useful for coping with the stress of a pandemic. Now is the time to dig deep. What hidden strengths and resilience might you bring to bear during this new challenge?

Never forget—our social support systems are especially healing. Even when sequestered we can stay in touch with loved ones by phone, email, and social media. And given our usual busy lives, this pandemic also offers a chance to reestablish or build on dialogue and intimacy among those with whom we’re sequestered.

There are many other ways to handle stress during a pandemic. Experts have prepared a number of valuable resources that provide suggestions for coping during this time, such as the following:





“We need to talk.” The conversations that paralyze and free us.

I hate sending that text. I hate exclaiming it in a call. I hate it. Just seeing the phrase sends shivers up my spine and I know I am not alone. But once the phrase is uttered or texted or simply conveyed in *that look* we have reached a point where some internal calculation tells us not talking is leaving us in an even more uncomfortable, unbearable state than that critical conversation would create. So we succumb to the inevitable – that every relationship and even our own personal well-being is completely dependent on communication. Problem solving just doesn’t happen through avoidance as much as we wish it would. But we also succumb to another, more wonderful, inevitable truth at the same time. Our feelings matter. Our opinions matter. Our perspective matters. And it is finally time we convey them.  

Ripping the Band-Aid off to start the healing.

We have learned from these conversations that sometimes for our own healing, ironically enough, we have to figuratively rip the Band-Aid off – without causing even more pain, we simply need to stop beating around the bush and engage in this thing we are trying so hard to avoid. So why are we so intent on avoiding something causing such pain? We generally don’t like change or loss and often, by the time something requires this cringe-inducing phrase, we have realized that this conversation could completely change or even jeopardize an important relationship.

Or, it could create an even deeper connection and more rewarding relationship. Because you understand each other, know each other, trust each other, lean into each other on an entirely new level. And at the end of it all, we lose the emotional burden that has been building in our silence.  

The preparation it deserves.

But these conversations do deserve some time, some delay, to be thought out. I find it interesting that for an interview or a presentation we will put the time and work in to ensure we communicate as effectively as possible. But when it comes to our relationships, the things that tend to matter most in our lives, we sometimes forget to put the same amount of work into the moments we need to communicate the best.

As a trained marketer, I appreciate that communicating best requires us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes – to try to understand how they might interpret what we are saying or how we are saying it. Is our tone aggressive and accusatory? If we heard it, would we listen or would we shut down and simply get defensive? Do we have a clear goal in this conversation or are we simply shoving emotional burden from our shoulders to theirs?

We sometimes think our words will make perfect sense because they have been rolling around in our head long enough we can barely see any other perspective. But we have to remember that our friend or spouse or relative or coworker has not spent time in our head, hearing out thoughts. Seems like a simple concept – but it tends to only be simply understood in retrospect.    

So, we need to talk.

We are stuck in what feels like the most divisive, hate-filled, polarized time in recent history. We are all on edge, we are all emotional, we are all in need of some amount of healing – the unburdening like what I described above. But we are more likely to shut down and avoid conversation or simply take to social media and scream into the ether. But we can’t afford to do this – we have reached that calculation where avoidance and holding the burden will only cause more harm. It’s time to talk. It’s time to heal our own emotional burdens and the close relationships in our lives. It’s time to heal the ever-increasing open wounds in our society. But this will take preparation. This will take calming our extreme emotions, not to silence them, but to leave room to understand others’ – so in turn we can better communicate our own. We also need to understand that if we are asking others – friends, relatives or complete strangers – to listen to our story and our perspective we have to give the same respect to them. This is hard and painful and uncomfortable but it’s the only way to release our own burden and if we prepare ourselves for these conversations, the benefits could far outweigh the momentary discomfort. Your emotions matter. Your opinions matter. Your perspective matters. All of ours do. So, we need to talk. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Today. And we need to listen.

National Week of Conversation is April 17-25. How are you planning to participate? Conversations with loved ones? Conversations with strangers? Make sure to follow National Conversation Project to keep up to date on specific conversation events you can participate in.


Conversations Make a Neighborhood: A #ListenFirst Perspective on A Beautiful Day in the Neighborthood

Since we're together, we might as well say, Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?”


Most of us live in some type of neighborhood. When we feel connected to kind neighbors, it’s a beautiful thing. But given how many of our neighborhoods don’t fit that image, the thought of cheerfully singing Won’t You Be My Neighbor can seem even more make believe than Daniel Tiger or King Friday XIII. Indeed, the spirit of Fred Rogers depicted in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood stands in stark contrast to the distance and division now defining our collective American neighborhood. Yet this film inspires a new path for us today. 

We are in the midst of a cultural crisis. Increasingly, we don’t just disagree; we distrust, dislike, even despise those who see the world differently. Most of us see fewer things that bind us together and have few or no friends who are not like us., Rather than connect with people, even difficult ones, as Fred Rogers did, we too often dismiss others as enemies with bad intentions, threats to be avoided. We’re failing to see the humanity, the dignity in one another. We’re withdrawing from conversations, fracturing relationships, and fraying our social fabric. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level. 

Fred Rogers, as vividly illustrated by this uplifting film, habitually found the innate goodness and dignity in all people. He was ever-curious to learn their story. He suspended judgement and extended grace. He was fully present. He focused his conversations on the other person. He listened first to understand. 

We believe conversations—the kind Fred Rogers mastered—are the best way to foster relationships that make a neighborhood. And healthier neighborhoods create a stronger social fabric for our country as a whole. Turning the tide of rising rancor and deepening division in America begins in our neighborhoods. 

Of conversation, Rogers said, “Anything human is mentionable; anything mentionable is manageable” and “if you want to talk to me, I should want to talk to you.” Mr. Rogers understood the transformative power of conversation to create connection with those around us. The journalist Rogers befriends in this story, Tom Junad, observed that “sometimes we get to change a broken world with our words.” 

In Tom’s 1998 Esquire magazine profile of Mr. Rogers—on which this film is based—he wrote, “Mister Rogers is ... losing to … our twenty-four-hour-a-day pie fight, to the dizzying cut and the disorienting edit, to the message of fragmentation … and yet still he fights.” Those words feel even more poignant two decades later. While Mr. Rogers is no longer with us, this movie calls on us to continue his fight.

As Joanne Rogers tells Tom in the movie, Fred is nothing we can’t be ourselves. “If you think of him as a saint then his way of being is unattainable. He works at it all the time. It’s a practice.” May this movie and the brokenness in our own neighborhoods move us to practice. 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood paints a picture of what we could be, how we could live. It’s a picture of humanity, humility, goodness, and grace. Today is not such a beautiful day in our neighborhood, but it could be. Fred Rogers showed us how. Now it’s up to us. 


Pearce Godwin—“the national voice for bridging divides”—is Founder & CEO of Listen First Project, Executive Director of National Conversation Project, and leader of the #ListenFirst Coalition of 250+ partner organizations. He catalyzes the #ListenFirst movement to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. 

Graham Bodie is a listening scholar, educator, and consultant in the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. As Chief Listening Officer for Listen First Project, he advocates for the role of listening to help depolarize American culture. 


Rapid Response Conversations on Guns in America

National Conversation Project

September 11, 2019

Contact: Pearce Godwin
Phone: (828) 773-2586
Email: [email protected]

Following Mass Shootings, #ListenFirst Coalition of 250 Organizations Is Providing Skills, Resources and Opportunities to Understand People of Different Perspectives on Guns and Move To Solutions Together.

Americans of all stripes including political leaders are talking about guns in the aftermath of recent mass shootings. Most conversations are happening within like-minded echo chambers. The #ListenFirst Coalition seeks to break down those silos toward a true national conversation across differences on guns. #ListenFirst #GunConvo

National Conversation Project powered by the 250 member #ListenFirst Coalition has launched Rapid Response Conversations on Guns in the aftermath of recent mass shootings that have grabbed the attention of Americans across the ideological spectrum. The #ListenFirst Coalition believes that conversations across differences on this issue are vital for the nation to address the challenge and move forward together. Virtual and in-person conversations are being planned coast to coast welcoming people of widely diverse perspectives on guns in America. 

"With more than 40 people killed in four shootings since July, the FBI reports a worsening trend, currently averaging an active shooter every other week. This has caused many Americans to reflect on how to best address the situation, how to appropriately balance liberty with security," says Pearce Godwin, Executive Director of the overarching, collaborative National Conversation Project. "This has traditionally been an incredibly challenging and contentious issue as we've been unable to agree on the nature of the problem, never mind the solution. Some have said the answer is more guns, while others have said the answer is fewer guns. It's hard for an issue to get more polarized or intractable than that."

"But mass shootings that deeply disturb everyone of good will across all perspectives present an opportunity to wrestle with this issue together in good faith," Godwin continues. "Our Coalition of organizations seeking to bridge divides of all kinds to mend the frayed fabric of America, is anxious to see these conversations across differences take place in communities across the country and pleased to offer conversation guides, tips, opportunities, and resources to support them. New research from More in Common reveals that we aren't as far apart on the gun issue as we think. Who's that person in your life with whom you've been curious to talk about guns? Invite them to have a courageous conversation in which you both listen first to understand."

See resources and upcoming conversation opportunities on the National Conversation Project Guns & Responsibility page.

National Conversation Project offers four principles for conversations across differences:

  1. Listen first to understand
  2. Be curious and open to learning
  3. Suspend judgement and extend grace
  4. Maximize diversity of perspectives

#ListenFirst + #GunConvo

What is National Conversation Project?

There is growing, even violent, division in communities across America. We’re withdrawing from conversations—eroding relationships and understanding—fraying our social fabric. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level. Experts say the solution is to cultivate more positive social connections. Thankfully, 75% of Americans are willing to practice conversations across divides, and 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign to that end. National Conversation Project—powered by ~250 organizations—is that campaign.

National Conversation Project seeks to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. We promote annual National Weeks of Conversation, #ListenFirst Fridays, Rapid Response Conversations on urgent topics, locally-focused #ListenFirst movements, and any conversation inviting people of all stripes to revitalize America together. NCP is an overarching, collaborative platform that aggregates, aligns, and amplifies the efforts of ~250 partners to mainstream conversations in which we #ListenFirst to understand. www.nationalconversationproject.org #ListenFirst

National Conversation Project is supported by the generous donations of Sustaining Members including Listen First Project, Common Ground Committee, ProCon.org, Living Room Conversations, AllSides, Big Tent Nation, Bridge Alliance Education Fund, Civicus, Essential Partners, Hyland Software, Issue One, Mediators Foundation, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, National Institute for Civil Discourse, National Issues Forums, Outreach Experts, Sacred Discourse, Someone To Tell It Too, Take Back Our Republic, and Urban Confessional. We welcome any individual or organization to power this movement of conversations across differences as a Sustaining Member of National Conversation Project.

Reference: Civility in America VII: The State of Civility, Weber Shandwick
Reference: The Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart, More in Common



Nominate for the Civvys!!

Nominate a Collaborator for the Civvys on #ListenFirst Friday – Caroline Klibanoff

If you’re in need of inspiration and hope, look past all that divides us to focus on the people bringing us together – the collaborators. The Civvys Awards are accepting nominations through Monday, July 15 at civvys.org.

On this #ListenFirstFriday, I want to share something that has helped me keep the faith when it comes to the future of our nation and our democracy, even when it seems like hyperpartisanship, division and entrenched attitudes prevail.

As the program manager for the American Civic Collaboration Awards (also known as the “Civvys,”), I have had the privilege every year to read through a broad swath of nominations that paint a much brighter picture of America than you might see on your social media feed or in the news. The Civvys celebrate exemplar cases of collaborative work at the national, local and youth levels, and the nominations we receive are nothing short of inspiring. Each year, I’m bolstered just by learning about the relentless efforts of Americans from coast to coast to improve their communities and pursue a better future, and I am deeply invested in listening to how they got it done and what they’ve learned.

Last year, for example, Civvys winners included a civics education platform reaching over 5 million K-12 students (iCivics), a dialogue program between the Syracuse Police department and the local community (El-Hindi Center for Dialogue at Interfaith Works), a college campus model for civic engagement and community outreach (Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation), and a pioneering virtual voting platform used across North Carolina schools (First Vote NC). We were so moved reading all of the inspiring nominations that we even created a Committee’s Choice Award to honor the work done by a group of middle-schoolers in Montevallo, a small, rural Alabama town, who petitioned their mayor to create a Junior City Council that now has representation at the “adult” City Council meetings. The kids are alright – we just have to listen to their ideas!

But it’s not just the winners and finalists that are leading the way. All of the Civvys nominees demonstrate the effectiveness of collaboration, from every corner of the country, in politics and governing, in neighborhoods, schools and faith communities, and in workplaces large and small, using the power of listening to understand each other and working across the aisle or even just across departments or roles. Many submissions note the “contagious” effect of this kind of work, where nominees have inspired similar efforts in other states or with other audiences, and we believe that sharing these stories can help communities “catch the bug” of civic engagement and collaboration.

I know it can be all too easy to focus on what divides us, on the insults and injuries of living in a divided nation, and to stay crouched in our corners, scanning for the next piece of horrible news or attack on our “side.” But if we can suspend the defensive position for a moment, long enough to listen, more hopeful stories emerge. Stories of the collaborators, the problem-solvers, people who refuse to get mired in the hate and fear and simply get to work. By sharing and listening to their stories, we can give collaborators their due.

You can help us find more of these stories to tell by nominating a project, person or organization for a 2019 Civvys Award by Monday, July 15 at civvys.org. If you can think of work that inspires you, that gives you faith in the future of our nation, that uses collaboration to achieve their goals – chances are they’re a good fit for the Civvys. Tell us about them, so we can tell the world, and so we can all look forward to a brighter future, led by those who work together and #ListenFirst.


Using Free Writing to Listen to Yourself

This post was contributed by Claire Pearce, Coach and Facilitator, for #ListenFirst Friday (June 21, 2019). Find out more about Claire's work here: https://www.cpsdayoff.com/

I first discovered ‘free writing’ about five years ago when I was advised to attend a weekend course (‘Free writing’ is writing without stopping, not worrying about spelling, grammar or content, often for a set amount of time.) I wasn’t that hopeful (my sister was the writer, not me), but signed up anyway as I trusted the person who recommended it to me. Normally after a weekend workshop I would feel tired, groggy, not ready for work the following Monday.

After writing all weekend I felt alive, energised and excited. One of the main things I loved about it is that it’s not about writing something ‘good’, a ‘piece’, a ‘story’ - writing is the goal in itself. It’s a brain dump, a confessional, a playground for your pen, time off from your thinking brain.

Alot of what I wrote initially was pretty dark. Lots of backed up stuff that had had nowhere to go for many, many years. I’d at last found a tool that helped me to deal with difficulties, emotional or otherwise. Writing gave me a way to finally start listening to myself. I’m not even sure I realised that I wasn’t.

As well as absolute nonsense, creative nuggets, or nothing of note, writing can bring your ‘stuff’ to the surface. It finds a way of sneaking in to what you’re writing. When this happens to me, I write about how I’m feeling, or what’s come up, or both. Writing into the feeling has always brought me out on the other side. That’s what’s so great about writing. It’s immediate and it’s totally adaptable to any subject or situation.

After the course, I made pretty much everyone I know have a go at free writing, I couldn’t help myself. I learned and read more about it, and then started running my own workshops - free writing for fun, creativity, self reflection, writing projects, and as it turns out, for connection.

Free writing on your own is great, and just the writing itself is a really valuable experience. For me though, writing with others and sharing what you write is really what it’s all about. Hearing yourself reading your own words can be profound (even if you’re reading them out to yourself), but sharing – warts and all - really connects the reader and the listener (who is just a witness, not a critic). The reader gets heard, the listener realises it’s not just them that has a crazy whirlwind spinning around in their minds. This is why free writing is the perfect thing to try on #ListenFirst Friday.

So do yourself a favour and give free writing a go right now:

Get a pen and paper

Ideally find someone else to write with (someone who has the same good intention as you), but it’s great if you’re on your own too.

Use this prompt ‘Listening first means…’

Set the timer for five minutes and write!

Keep the pen moving - don’t think about what you’re writing.

Keep the pen moving - don't edit or worry about grammar, sense, neatness, or spelling, just move forwards and don't look back.

Keep the pen moving - if you get stuck, you can change subject, write the same word repeatedly, write about having nothing to say, anything.

When you’ve finished, have a read to yourself - judgement fee (everyone writes weird and nonsensical stuff - anything goes).

Then, if you’re with someone else, share what you’ve written. If you don’t want to read what you’ve written word for word, just talk about what came out, how it was etc. If you’re on your own, you can still read it out loud. Yes, it’s a little strange, but it might just surprise you.

If you want to carry on writing, you could pick an interesting word or sentence from what you’ve just written and start again.



Education Teaches us to Learn, Learning Comes from Listening

In the summer of 2016, on a research fellowship to study the effects of poverty on American K-12 education, I lived in three  communities—Cotulla, Texas, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, and a few neighborhoods of Cleveland, Ohio—and drove the 7180 miles between them in my mom’s blue Mazda CX-9. I knew little about each community or the issue I was researching, and I was willing to admit it. Therefore, in order to learn, I had to listen.

After two months, I had discovered a whole section of the country that was before unknown to me, and came away with fresh perspectives, insightful research, and, best of all, many new friends. If that trip can’t be the prototype of the antidote to our current critical illnesses— polarization, social isolation, and inequality of opportunity—then I don’t know what can. My research became my senior thesis and what follows are the concluding thoughts about what I found on the road. They get close to the point of what it means to #ListenFirst ...

“Many characterize ours as a nation divided, polarized to the point of dysfunctional. The nation’s new and defining -isms and characteristics reveal its flaws; protectionism suggests fear, nationalism suggests vanity and false patriotism, globalism suggests treacherousness, inequality suggests the self-interest and indulgence of the powerful, and our nation’s neglected schools suggest terminal ignorance. These seem to have become the realities of our time, the defining markers of our generation. Venture from Miami to Seattle, from Cheboygan to Corpus Christi—or, as I did, from Massachusetts to Cotulla, to Pine Ridge, to Cleveland, and back again —and this is what you will find, many say. I disagree.

I found a much different nation during my time on the road, one full of vast and resplendent landscapes and kind-hearted, hardworking, and immensely capable people. One of battered but well-bound communities, of common courtesy and curiosity. One down, at times, on hope, but ready to believe. One that laughs at jokes, says, “Good morning” to passersby, and enjoys a chat. One inclined toward righteousness and honesty. One of optimism, fairmindedness, and ideas—many, many ideas. One that cares, deeply, about our children. One that welcomes the stranger. Perhaps more than any other, this fact gleaned from the trip affirmed the endurance of the better nature of the American character.

The problem is not the -isms and trends so many bemoan, the problem is we’ve come to believe them and see them in ourselves. We’ve let an extreme, out-spoken, and delusional few define the American identity. We’ve given in to adversity and hopelessness. In the people I met, I saw hopelessness much more than I saw helplessness; but not the kind of hopelessness that doesn’t know what a good thing looks like, the kind that bubbles up again and again, only to find itself unfounded. We are not, though, on the whole, the people those -isms, characteristics, and out-spoken few portray. My repeated presence as the stranger across the country exposed this. In every community, I was welcomed graciously and treated with kindness and respect. A fearful, self-interested, and ignorant nation does not welcome the stranger. A generous and dignified nation, intent on progress, does. Let’s not forget what we seem already to know.

And it won’t work if we don’t listen to those with experience, those in the middle of it. Education teaches us to learn, and learning comes from listening. Inherent in that action is humility, curiosity, and confidence. As Thomas Jefferson suggested so many centuries ago, we will not get very far unless we are informed. Learn first, inspiration and action will follow. The answers exist. We simply need to find them; to believe in better days and to listen.”

Inspired by my experience and the example of projects like #ListenFirst, I, along with a bipartisan group of accomplished journalists, academics, clergy, military men and women, business people, activists, and friends from my trip, have started a  nonprofit. Our organization is called “Us.” It seeks to inspire friendship and collaboration between disparate groups of Americans of all generations in an effort to heal political polarization and provide fewer degrees of separation between our nation’s most distinguished people and our most neglected communities. It is our greatest hope that these times of fear and uncertainty leave us with a sobering perspective on the consequences of division in our country. And instead of falling apart, this realization might help us come together in a web of new social relations that reform the unity so essential to our great democratic experiment.


Happy #ListenFirst Friday!

David McCullough


Americans Don't Need Another Civil War, We Need Marriage Counseling

Americans don’t need another civil war, we need marriage counseling

by Kristin Hansen, AllSides.com

A recent academic study found that America is now more politically polarized than at the end of the Reconstruction Era, following the Civil War [1]. An even more recent opinion piece in the Washington Post raised the alarming spectre that “[after 150 years] there is talk of violence, mayhem and, increasingly, civil war,” further asserting that “fears that once existed only in fiction or in the fevered dreams of conspiracy theorists have become a regular part of the political debate” [2].

For the sake of ratcheting down my own anxiety meter -- and hopefully yours as well -- may I propose a different lens through which to view our current schism:  America doesn’t need another civil war. What we need is marriage counseling.

Think of America like a marriage on the rocks.  You know, it's like waking up one morning, rolling over in bed, looking at the person you've been married to for decades, and suddenly being gripped by the feeling that you've become total strangers.  How could this have happened?  How did we drift so far apart?  I don’t even know you anymore!

In hindsight, as Americans, maybe we have been a bit too quick to paper over our differences in order to preserve the marriage. To honor our vows of shared citizenship.  And to demonstrate our unshakable faith in the vision -- articulated so eloquently in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution -- that we are destined to “form a more perfect union.”

Well, if we didn’t already suspect it, the 2016 election and its aftermath confronted us with the hard truth that our union is far from perfect.  With so many conflicts, grievances, and resentments now dredged up to the raw surface, America’s relationship woes can’t be downplayed or swept under the rug any more.  Maybe no one’s moving out yet, but we’re definitely sleeping in separate bedrooms.  Leave me alone. I can’t even stand to be near you. Just the sight of you makes me sick.  

Making matters worse, our politicians, media, and social media seem to take perverse pleasure in fanning the flames of our marital discontent. He’s a jerk. I never thought she was good enough for you.  You can do better.

Here’s the thing: married couples fight. And when we fight, we are almost always desperate to be right, to “win” the argument at hand.  We argue over substantive and trivial things. Sometimes, in fact, one of us is just plain right, and the other is just plain wrong. When arguments become too intractable, behaviors too unjustifiable, or feelings just too plain hurt, marriages can end.

In many ways, America can feel like a bad marriage these days.  But ending this marriage, even if we had the faintest idea how to do this, is an option that most of us aren’t prepare to consider.  So it appears we’re stuck with each other, no matter how unromantic the prospect.

And if the goal is to stay together, then trying to win every marital dispute at all cost isn’t necessarily the best long-term strategy.  Instead, as any happily married octogenarian or experienced marriage counselor can attest, staying together “til death do us part” requires a considerable amount of listening, empathizing, negotiating, compromising, and seeking shared rather than lopsided victories.  

Looking for common ground in a troubled relationship can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially when we are convinced (and our friends and family provide further validation) that we are right, that we are the injured party.  I don’t need him.  I’m better off on my own.  She never understood me anyway.    

But if, as Americans, we are not willing to do the hard work that lifelong relationships require, then we are almost certainly destined to continue drifting apart.  Towards what end, exactly?

So let’s prove the warmongers and the naysayers wrong.  Let’s avoid the temptation to feel righteous, even when we are pretty sure that we are right.  Let’s stop listening to the voices telling us that Americans’ differences are irreconcilable, and that we’re better off going our separate ways.  

Instead, let’s switch on our “inner marriage counselors” and dedicate ourselves to listening, empathizing, compromising, negotiating, seeking common ground, and ultimately strengthening the ties that bind us as Americans.  Let’s roll over, look at that stranger sleeping next to us, take a deep breath, and commit to making this challenging relationship work.


[1] Christopher Hare, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal, DW-NOMINATE (continuing research study)

[2] “In America, talk turns to something not spoken of for 150 years: civil war,” Greg Jaffe and Jenna Johnson, Washington Post, March 2, 2019

About the Author

Kristin (Jordahl) Hansen is Strategy and Technology Advisor at AllSides.com, AllSides4Schools, and Mismatch.org. In her words: Recently I have been inspired to engage in the growing “bridge movement” across America to remove filter bubbles, reduce polarization, bridge the partisan divide, and restore democracy. I am currently serving as a strategy and technology advisor to four interrelated organizations that have helped to shape this emerging movement, with their pioneering tools for educators, students, citizens, and civic organizations:  AllSidesAllSides for SchoolsLiving Room Conversations, and Mismatch.




How Listening, Not Money, Changed My Neighbourhood in Zambia

How Listening, Not Money, Changed My Neighbourhood in Zambia

by Matthews Monde

In 2017, MATHEWS MONDE was named one of Zambia’s "most innovative health workers" by the country’s Ministry of Health. Here, he tells a story of how he made a name for himself, by listening.

If we’re honest, we probably all sometimes pretend to listen: our mind might wander; we might think it’s enough for a person to feel like they’ve been heard; or we might want to tick an imaginary (or real) box that says “yes, I have consulted others”.

I’m from Zambia, which (in monetary terms at least) is one of Africa’s poorer countries. And I’ve spent much of my life in the rural south – a region that tends to be ignored by government and development agencies.

Most people here lead modest, subsistence lives. And when outsiders do pay us attention, it’s normally to do something to us. Sometimes with good intent. Sometimes not. In either case, listening is a token gesture, not a serious activity. And so the community goes unheard.

But when this status quo is upturned, and when genuine listening takes place, great things happen.

And I can show you how.

I’m a Community Health Worker by training. In recent years, I’ve done this in two roles: one in Zambia’s Ministry of Health, and one in a small voluntary group in a community called Chabbaboma. This group of local people is part of a wider organisation called Arukah Network, which is geared towards unlocking community potential through local collaboration.

In both of these roles I helped on a sanitation project. But each project achieved very different results. 

At the Ministry of Health, I was tasked with distributing concrete latrine bases to various communities that did not have flush toilets. These bases are very simple: a big hole is dug in the ground, and the latrine base covers the hole. I delivered them to a central location in one community. People could then take and use them as they please. And so it was free provision, done with good intentions. But it failed. Few people wanted to use them, and so they sat and gathered dust. They were dark and uncomfortable places, but worse than that, they would sometimes collapse because the bases did not support the structure of the hole.

Some years later, our little community group began its own sanitation scheme. But this one was very different. No construction took place. No building materials were provided. And no training was given. Instead, we simply visited homes in small groups and began asking people “what do you do to stay healthy?”. And then we listened.

This led to some fascinating conversations. One family showed us a latrine they’d designed and constructed themselves. It was made of locally-sourced, renewable wood, which was fashioned into a cylindrical shape to be lowered into the ground. On top of this was placed a wooden base. It was cheap, renewable and strong. And the family offered to join us in sharing this idea with others in the community.

So this is what we did, and people loved it. There are now about one hundred and fifty of these latrines in use in the Chabbaboma area, and local health centres have since reported a decline in diarrheal disease.

The Ministry of Health project had a big budget, while this community project had none. But our community project prevailed where the government failed for one reason: we listened.

And it’s not simply that this local solution was comparable to the government one. No, it was superior: it used renewable materials, it was stronger than its concrete counterpart as it supports the shape of the hole as well, and it was also better ventilated than the dark, unpleasant structure of the concrete model.

I have since done something unusual for someone in my position: I’ve quit a comfortable government job. I did this because these and other experiences have taught me that listening is not simply a nice gesture. Rather it belongs at the core of efforts to build healthy and resilient communities. It’s taught me that if we really care about our communities, then we all must #ListenFirst.

About the Author: Mathews Monde is an award-winning health worker from rural Zambia, and a member of Arukah Network. Mathews roots his work in a process called SALT. This podcast introduces SALT, by asking the question “what if the best way to impact a community is simply to listen to its members?”. 

About Arukah Network: Our network helps to launch and nurture local groups of people who work collaboratively to serve their communities. We call these groups ‘Clusters’. In each Cluster, members work to build relationships, support one another, share in training and form partnerships. The aim is to increase the health, wellbeing and happiness of our communities, and ultimately, to inspire wider systems and social change. Or as we call it, 'Arukah'.

 As a network, we meet together locally, internationally and online, to learn and support one another as we serve our communities. We gather and share our network's expertise and wisdom, so that communities can solve complex challenges. And we amplify community voices, so their wisdom is understood and acted upon by policy makers.

Become a member of Arukah Network to learn more from people like Mathews, to share your own experiences, and to find support to create similar change in your own community


National Week of Conversation 2019 Combats Social Polarization

National Week of Conversation 2019, Beginning Tomorrow, Encourages Americans of All Stripes to Enjoy Real Conversations Across Differences in Which All #ListenFirst to Understand

200+ Organizations in the #ListenFirst Coalition Have Joined Forces to Address the Cultural Crisis of Division and Dehumanization in America. In-person and virtual conversations will bridge divides coast to coast during National Week of Conversation 2019, April 5-13. 

National Week of Conversation is a bold annual occasion when people with diverse perspectives #ListenFirst to understand. Through in-person and virtual conversations coast to coast exploring any topic of interest, people of all stripes intentionally convene with the goal of mending our frayed social fabric and revitalizing America together. The first NWOC was in April 2018.

Individuals and organizations are invited to host or join conversations during NWOC 2019 and use the #ListenFirst hashtag to invite others and spread the message. A current map of planned in-person conversations can be found at NationalConversationProject.org.

"America is facing a cultural crisis as we no longer just disagree but dislike, distrust, and even despise those who see the world differently," says Pearce Godwin, Founder of Listen First Project and Executive Director of the overarching National Conversation Project. "We have infected ourselves with a virus of outrage and offense that's reached a pandemic level and is attacking us from within. This social polarization not only threatens our democracy but is destroying close personal relationships. A nation founded on universal ideals of freedom and opportunity has become one of sectarian strife."

"But together we can turn the tide of rising rancor and deepening division. We can transform the toxicity of tribalism into positive connections through conversation. We can disagree without disconnecting," Godwin continues. "We know from surveys that 100 million Americans want to see a national campaign to address this crisis. National Conversation Project is that campaign. Thousands of people have already committed to listen first to understand. Each one of them is tipping the scales toward a stronger and more equitable future for our nation and better relationships in our daily lives. Understanding that there is a lot of anxiety and distrust preventing conversations across differences, we look forward to engaging as many Americans as possible in this #ListenFirst movement during National Week of Conversation."

A recent study by More in Common called Hidden Tribes confirms the appetite and opportunity for this mission. A substantial majority of Americans are exhausted by our polarized national conversation. This Exhausted Majority believes people "need to be willing to listen to others," that "we need to heal as a nation," and that "differences between Americans are not so big that we cannot come together." All of the tribes identified by More in Common ranked "America’s political divisions" as a high priority issue, the only one on which all tribes agreed. Yet "most Americans feel a strong sense of pride and gratitude that they are American." As More in Common suggests, our national identity -- idealistic, hopeful, and inclusive, centered on freedom and opportunity -- can be the force that unifies us to overcome this polarization.

As Americans engage in conversations across a myriad of topics -- those that matter most to them and their communities -- we also encourage everyone to consider a central question: What could a more perfect union look like?  

In addition to that primary question for the week, we'll spark conversations with the daily questions below.

  • Friday, April 5: Who would you love to have a conversation with?
  • Saturday, April 6: When have you been most proud to be an American?
  • Sunday, April 7: Where do you go to escape polarization?
  • Monday, April 8: What would make conversations more fun?
  • Tuesday, April 9: How do you disagree without disconnecting?
  • Wednesday, April 10: When did you last shift your perspective and why?
  • Thursday, April 11: What voices or perspectives are missing in your life?
  • Friday, April 12: Who is someone from the ‘other side’ you admire?
  • Saturday, April 13: When have you felt truly heard? What was that like?

What is National Conversation Project?

There is growing, even violent, division in communities across America. We’re withdrawing from conversations—eroding relationships and understanding—fraying our social fabric. 75% of Americans say this problem has reached a crisis level. Experts say the solution is to cultivate more positive social connections. Thankfully, 75% of Americans are willing to practice conversations across divides, and 36%—more than 100 million people—want to see a national campaign to that end. National Conversation Project—powered by 200+ organizations—is that campaign.

National Conversation Project seeks to mend the frayed fabric of America by bridging divides one conversation at a time. We promote National Weeks of Conversation, #ListenFirst Fridays, and any conversation welcoming people of all stripes to revitalize America together. NCP aggregates, aligns, and amplifies the efforts of more than 200 partners to mainstream conversations in which we #ListenFirst to understand. www.nationalconversationproject.org #ListenFirst

National Conversation Project is supported by the generous donations of Sustaining Members including Listen First Project, Common Ground Committee, ProCon.org, Living Room Conversations, AllSides, Big Tent Nation, Bridge Alliance Education Fund, Civicus, Essential Partners, Hyland Software, Issue One, Mediators Foundation, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, National Institute for Civil Discourse, National Issues Forums, Outreach Experts, Sacred Discourse, Someone To Tell It Too, Take Back Our Republic, and Urban Confessional.