In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, America was divided. More than ever opinions were polarized, rational arguments fell on deaf ears, and people were either excitedly elated or desperately deflated. But often we see that such difficult times are the catalysts of extraordinary ideas.
In this context of political clashes, Justine and Tria started focusing on building empathy in their community, one conversation at a time. “We realized many people didn’t know anybody from the other spectrum of the votes,” explains Justine.
Their idea? Encouraging open and meaningful conversations by inviting groups of 6 to 10 people with differing political viewpoints to sit down and have dinner. Make America Dinner Again (MADA) was born.
They quickly set up a solution: they built a website, pitched to the press, and started getting contacted by interested people from all sorts of backgrounds and political views. Their first dinner was two days before Inauguration day, and they haven’t stopped since then. “We’ve organized close to 200 dinners across the country,” says Justine.
Dinners aren’t established to change minds, “the value of these encounters is in smaller and slower increments of change. People build trust between each other.” And indeed, this is the idea—to help build a better understanding, it’s all about having conversations that actually matter.
How do you find common ground between guests with very opposite views? The starting point is always the human story behind why people think the way they do. These stories and the feelings they contain are the triggers of empathy—the first step toward bridging the gap between opposing views. Justine puts it like this:
“By learning more about each other, our intentions can be better informed. This may or may not change our votes, but the better we understand each other, the better we become as individuals and as a society.”
And how do you do this? Put active listening at the very heart of every interaction.
The MADA team encourages guests to stop thinking about what they want to say and instead focus on where their counterpart is coming from. Simple? Not really.
“Talking about sensitive topics can be difficult and potentially hurtful, so the dinners follow a specific structure with clear guidelines in place,” says Justine. She explains some of their techniques. “Each guest has a small bell that can be used to signal to the facilitators when the conversations are getting a little too heated. The bells are rarely used, but guests find it reassuring to have them there just in case.”
“We also move away from arguing about facts that people heard on the news—this is not a debate,” she continues. The point is to focus on each guest’s personal story, so they emphasize questions to uncover why people feel like they do. “What is something in your life, relationship, or upbringing that makes you think like this?” Justine admits it can get intense, “often people have to pause to really think about it.”
The lean MADA team doesn’t keep track of all the connections that guests make at dinners, however they have observed positive outcomes: “We’ve seen a few people make the shift from strangers to friends,” says Justine.
Some of the best moments happen once the dinners finish, as guests stay behind to continue their conversations, trade contact information, laugh together, and hug goodbye as new friends. “It’s just nice to see that it’s actually possible to have cross-aisle conversations. They don’t have to end in despair, animosity, or frustration. It can be healing, or at the very least, informative,” she explains.
And the conversations continue. “We also have an online discussion group of over 700 members throughout the country and across the political spectrum.”
They also polled people about how they feel interacting with opposing viewpoints. “Outside of the MADA context, the most common word people used was ‘frustrated.’… inside of the MADA group, the top word was ‘curious.'” Curious.
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Currently, dinners are organized in chapters across the country, from San Francisco to New York City. The MADA team can’t physically be present in all the gatherings, so they rely on organizers, or “chapter heads,” to moderate the conversations.
Justine explains: “Some facilitators have prior experience moderating difficult conversations, some are even trained as conflict resolution specialists.” And many guests go on to become hosts and moderators, building understanding in their communities by keeping these conversations going.
Fast forward to the present. As we face the 2020 US Presidential election, the stakes of its outcome will no doubt make the gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats wider. Shall we all start putting meaningful conversations into practice?