Reviewed by Jean Arboleda
TALKING ACROSS THE DIVIDE
By Justin Lee
272 pp. TarcherPerigee.
Raise your hand if you were online during the incredibly divisive 2016 elections. There was a lot at stake, and we all felt the urge to fight for the truth as we see it.
Now keep your hand raised if you’ve ever felt like it would be easier to just dismiss or ignore a friend, than to discuss a thorny issue that both of you feel strongly about. You know you’re both just going to end up frustrated with each other, so you might as well not engage in the first place.
It’s understandable, the temptation to sweep things under the rug and pretend that you understand your friend’s opposing views, or that your aunt doesn’t really believe in “fake news”. But the truth is, that’s even more of a reason to talk to them.
We’re living in an increasingly polarized world. Everyone is divided on crucial issues, and our algorithm-induced virtual echo chambers are making things worse. However, while the problem has become clear as day, the solution still remains slightly hazy. Enter Justin Lee’s Talking Across The Divide, a useful blueprint on how to reach across the aisle and find a common ground for people to talk openly and let the truth come out.
Justin’s background as a gay man who grew up in a deeply conservative Catholic hometown, and his subsequent career path as an activist and speaker, lends credibility to the book’s main premise. He’s been on both sides of the divide, so to speak, and knows from first-hand experience how devastating it can be.
His proposal: strategic dialogue, a more effective way of reducing tension and changing attitudes and beliefs. Perhaps it sounds passive and abstract, but strategic dialogue is meant to complement, not replace, action. Trust me, arguments alone don’t change minds (especially arguments held in the comments section!). You have to understand where someone is coming from, and what their inner motivations and core beliefs are. And to know that, you have to be willing to talk – and more importantly, to listen – to them.
I won’t get into the details, because Justin does a pretty good job of discussing it thoroughly, but it goes roughly like this: The first step is to set the scene for the dialogue and ensure that the other party is willing to engage. The second step, and by far the hardest, is to use strategic dialogue to try to overcome their barriers. Listen to them, find out what they really want, and try to find a win-win situation. The next is to get them to listen to you through the use of strategic storytelling – because sometimes, logic and common sense isn’t enough, and real, authentic stories are powerful tools to break through to people. It already sounds hard on paper, and it’ll be even tougher in real life. That’s why the last step is to repeat, evaluate, and repeat again.
What’s interesting about this book is how it invites you to reflect on your personal beliefs and behaviors as well. Perhaps sometimes you are part of the problem. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but more often than not, both sides are at fault.
Though the book is well aware of the difficult challenges that lie ahead, the author remains hopeful that we can fight our way out of the polarization that is tearing us all apart. Maybe you’ll change their minds, or maybe you won’t. But wouldn’t you rather attempt to build a bridge than build up a wall?
Talking Across the Divide by Justin Lee will be available soon at Fully Booked stores. To reserve a copy in advance, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jean will try anything once. She has, at different points in her life, worked in government, interviewed international celebrities, and been the social media manager for several brands. On any given day, she would rather be reading, preferably surrounded by puppies. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @jeanarboleda.
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]