We hear a lot right now about our collective societal need to find common ground. This place sounds so mystical and eludes us as our citizenry grows further apart. The state of our society today is divided, to be sure. Some say we are more divided than ever as a nation, and research attempts to confirm that sentiment. A Pew Research Center study from the end of 2017 shows that since the mid-1990s, political divides have more than doubled, from 15 percent to 36 percent based on 10 key measures.
I must believe that in our American history, divides have been deeper when we consider the Civil and Vietnam wars. But I will say that we are divided in different ways because we connect in new ways. We are adjusting to what meaningful dialogue is in 2018. Technological advances have made our society stronger in many respects, but an absence of face-to-face connection leads to a lack of personal connection and true relationships, making it much easier for divides to grow so wide that we no longer see each other.
Recently, a former Montana legislator recalled a colleague who was a foe on the House floor, but a friend where it mattered most. They would passionately disagree over policy but at the end of the day, share family stories over a meal. The foundation of their personal relationship was strong enough to guide them to true collaboration on major pieces of legislation. They would both give a little bit to meet in the middle.
This is but one example of finding common ground in uncommon places.
As citizens, we expect our elected leaders to model such behavior today. We expect a certain level of civility and collaboration. At a minimum, we expect the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Unfortunately, from behind a screen of anonymity, vitriol is now commonplace. While some leaders may not meet our expectations, we can model our desired behaviors for each other. It is up to us.
One of my favorite new friendships is one that took me by surprise. My friend Janet and I come from different parts of the state, generations, industries and political ideologies. Upon meeting her, I knew right away that she was going to teach me something important, but I needed to pay attention. I had the opportunity to see her in person every month for seven months, giving time and space for us to understand who we were and why.
Janet and I connected over our mutual passion connecting all areas of Montana — corner to corner, east and west. Even though we may vote differently, we’re committed to working together to bridge divides that exist in our state. I saw our common ground opportunity because I took the time to listen deeply to her story and understand what motivates her beliefs. Her motivation is the same as mine. We both want to create a community where Montanans can thrive. We are much more alike than I first imagined.
We don’t always have the opportunity that Janet and I had to see each other face to face in a structured way, but I challenge all of us to get out from behind the screen and engage with someone you might not otherwise. Over a cup of coffee, a meal or a good old Montana microbrew, let’s give ourselves the opportunity to listen to and learn from someone who is “different” than us. We may just realize that what unites us is so much stronger than what divides us.
Chantel Schieffer is the president/CEO of Leadership Montana (www.leadershipmontana.org).