An Evidence-Based Strategy for Bringing Everyone Together

01/17/2017 11:42 am ET

It is 2020. Our national nightmare seems to be coming to an end. When Donald Trump won the election in 2016, it seemed as if the nation was splitting asunder. Angry and frightened people took rash and often hateful actions, and fear and anger spread. Many media outlets— focused solely on audience share—simply amplified the problem.

But slowly, people of goodwill—black, white, Latino, gay, straight, young, old, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Republicans, Democrats, Independents—began to find others of goodwill, and a movement took hold. Increasingly, people realized that what they most valued was a nation in which each and every person felt safe, respected, and successful. They began to find others who shared these values.

Groups of people who had defined themselves by the ways they differed found that they shared important goals with people from other groups. They all wanted a good education, good jobs, and a thriving future for themselves and their children. They longed for communities that worked together to support the well-being of all people—whatever their ethnicity, religion, or politics.

The hardest part was overcoming the sense of fear, anger, and suspicion that made people avoid those who seemed different from them. But examples began to pop up of people reaching across divisions. A Black Lives Matter group that hugged opposing demonstrators. A community that found a way to bring people of varying backgrounds together to save a dying business. A protestant leader who reached out to the Muslim community. A program of Restorative Justice in Austin, Texas that built positive relationships between law enforcement and the black community.

At first, these events were so rare, they got media attention. People amplified the good news through social media – first because of the novelty, then because they realized that these acts of caring were the model everyone needed to rebuild society. And, so in 2020, our nation had moved dramatically away from the divisive course that it had been on for the prior forty years.

Here in 2017, we are faced with angry and hateful confrontations. Our immediate tendency is to fear, hate, and counterattack. But researchers like Mathew Hornsey have shown that destructive effects of one group criticizing another. People virtually always dismiss criticism of their group, when it come from people they perceive to be outside that group. If we are going to achieve cooperation that truly solves our problem, it will not come from further argument. It will not come from attack. It will come when people take the perspective of those with different beliefs. It will come from finding out what they believe—not so you can convince them to believe as you believe, but so that they get it that you are listening to them. When you do, you will discover what research by Geoffrey Cohen of Stanford University has shown: people become more open to our views when we affirm their value as a person.

The biggest obstacle to bringing people together is the fact that conflict is getting all the attention. What we need is a way to amplify efforts to reassure and protect others, to find common ground, to listen, to forgive.

We need some simple and easy ways to communicate what we stand for. Not by arguing or criticizing others, since that simply produces more arguments. Rather we stand for the warm, compassionate acceptance and support of EVERYONE.

Here is what I mean by everyone.

  • We want everyone to feel included.
  • We want to know what everyone thinks and feels, not because we will agree with them, but because in a nurturing community, different views need to be accepted and everyone needs to feel heard.
  • We want everyone to join together to listen to, respect, and help each other make their way in the world.

If your reaction to this is, “But that will fail to stand up to hateful and divisive groups!” my answer is that attacking or criticizing them simply calls attention to them and reinforces their behavior.

It has taken forty years of research in schools and families to realize that the best strategy for moving people from behavior you don’t want to behavior that you do want, is not by paying attention to or punishing the behavior you don’t want, but by modelling, recognizing, and richly reinforcing the behavior you do want.

So join the movement for EVERYONE. It will take millions of people who reach out to millions more to bring our society back from its current perilous situation. Mass and social media are currently amplifying division and conflict. But there are numerous websites and social media efforts that are promoting the prosocial media. You can lend your voice to these efforts instead. Let others know, in person or on social media, that you support a third way—not fighting the right or the left, but reaching out to everyone to join a movement toward peace, respect, caring, and compassion for everyone. And if you let me know about what you are doing, I will amplify it through my social media.

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