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ASU experts' prescription for post-election healing: Listen carefully

Hearing the other side and working together can move us beyond a divisive election

November 08, 2016

Tomorrow the presidential election will be over, and friends, co-workers and family members who have been bitterly divided will need to move forward. But how?

One way is to stop talking and listen, according to an Arizona State University expert on interpersonal communication.

“I think one of the things that gets in the way is that we think that we have to agree with people when all we really have to do is hang in there and make them feel understood,” said Vincent Waldron, a professor of social and behavioral sciences in the School of Social and Behavioral SciencesThe School of Social and Behavioral Sciences is part of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. at the West campus. He studies communication in the workplace and forgiveness.

A New York Times/CBS news poll released Nov. 3 found that 82 percent of those surveyed were disgusted by the state of American politics.

“A lot of anger I hear is from people who feel like they’ve been dismissed and haven’t been taken seriously. That’s a basic need that everyone has,” Waldron said.

Genuine forgiveness might be needed for those who were hurt by the insults hurled during this extraordinarily harsh campaign between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump.

“Forgiveness is an alternative to revenge,” he said. “You could hold this grudge forever. But we might decide to let it go because other things are more important — our relationship with family members or having a democracy that functions.”

Waldron said that 24-hour nature of social media is fueling people’s anxieties more than in previous elections.

“On social media, people can go to the well again and again and again, to their own little community and see this stuff magnified. It blows up that sense of outrage, and the other side becomes demonized and evil,” he said.

Co-workers will have to move on in a personal way with each other, but the country will have to heal on a national level as well, according to Thom Reilly, director of the Morrison Institute for Public PolicyThe Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a research and community service unit of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. at ASU. He was optimistic that it can happen.

“There’s no question it’s been a divisive election. But the country has dealt with divisive elections before, and we’ve been able to wade through it,” he said.

“Obviously, whoever wins the presidency needs to set the tone from a national perspective by both reaching out to individuals who feel that their issues were not addressed and by following up.”

Reilly sees the surge of independent voters in Arizona as one potential way forward.

“In our research, we found that Republicans and Democrats go to certain news sources that reinforce their worldview, and who they talk to about politics is limited. But independents have a broader range of news sources and a broader range of individuals that they talk to,” he said.

“One-third of Arizona voters don’t want to align with the Republicans or Democrats, and it’s growing. Maybe independents are a way to bridge the dialogue,” he said.

To stave off further divisiveness, Americans who are not alike must gather in peaceful, productive ways to forge bonds, Reilly said, and a system of national service for young people would be one way to do that.

“By requiring every young person to serve in some capacity — military, through a teaching corps or environmental corps — it would bring people together who normally wouldn’t be and put them in places where they could interact and form social and political identities with people who think differently than they do.”

The Morrison Institute is nonpartisan but still tries to address controversial issues with people of differing outlooks.  

“We create safe places where people of different political ideologies can come together to talk,” he said.

“It sends a message that it’s a big tent, and we’ll allow for civil discourse.”

So tomorrow, co-workers who have been on opposite political sides will come together in the workplace with winners and losers.

Reconciliation is next, Waldron said.

“If you’re the winner, don’t gloat. You’ve got to be sensitive to the fact that they already feel bad. This is your moment to be that supportive co-worker and try to make it right,” he said.

“If you’re on the losing side, you have to take the high road,” Waldron said.

“I think it would be a good idea for people who have had conflicts to put it in the past and say ‘Let’s focus on what we can agree on.’ ”

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