Bob Bordone on Reducing Political Polarization

With the United States mid-term election coming up, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about political polarization and what we in the mediation field can do about it.

You might have seen the excellent Beyond Intractability project being run by friends Guy and Heidi Burgess (you can check out their excellent introductory article and invitation to participate here). I just contributed an article to their project that focuses on the use of positive reframing to address polarization (you can see it here) that reads in part:

‘A knee-jerk accentuation of the most inflammatory component of a counterpart’s argument may make it easier for your side to “win,” but a deliberate attempt to understand and engage with the strongest part of your counterpart’s argument will bring us closer to true deliberative dialogue.

Utilizing positive reframing in your political conversations — e.g. demonstrating that you have really heard the core contentions of the other side, and that you are willing to engage with the strongest part of their argument — is unusual these days. But in my experience, when you do it, the response from the other side is usually surprise, gratitude, and a more open mind.’

I also really liked the video above from my friend Bob Bordone, which provides some good options for tackling polarization. As he notes, we are less polarized than the media portrays. Stories of conflict get more clicks and eyeballs than stories about shared interest and equanimity, so the media ecosystem is feeding this narrative of polarization to all of us — which is reinforcing the trend.

But as Bob notes, we are not helpless in turning the tide of polarization. He provides four tips that everyone can follow to change the narrative:

  1. Work actively to build relationships with people who see the world differently than you do.
  2. Seek out news sources that give you a variety of perspectives.
  3. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Before you retweet or repost something that sparks partisan outrage in you, ask yourself: is sharing this going to be constructive in making positive change? Or will it make the problem worse?
  4. Believe you can make a difference. If we all do our part, we can collectively reduce polarization. But if we conclude that our efforts are hopeless, we’ll probably see these partisan divides continue to rise — along with gridlock, anger, and potentially violence.

Mediators are conflict specialists, and we know what it looks like to move a dispute from impasse to agreement. The time is now for all of us to use our skills not only for the benefit of the parties we work with, but for our society as a whole. Our country needs us more than ever.


Bob Bordone

Bob Bordone, a Senior Fellow at Harvard Law School and the Founder and former Director of Harvard Law Schools Negotiation Mediation Clinical Program. I'm also the Founder and Principal of the Cambridge Negotiation Institute and have written and taught on negotiation, mediation, and conflict resolution for more than 20 years. MORE >

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