Several polls show that the public may be more aligned on managing the novel coronavirus than what is playing out in public debate. For sure, surges in Covid-19 infections in some states have exacerbated the partisan bickering over response measures. The country is experiencing fierce partisan debates on how much to open up the economy, the value of masks and who is responsible for and at fault for what.
Often in the past, the silver lining of a crisis is that it brings people together. So why isn't this crisis, especially now when our country seems so divided, uniting us as we might hope? And what can we do about it?
At this moment, many among us fear that our choice is uncomfortably stark: Either we all stay home and avert larger-scale loss of life but lose our livelihoods, or we all go to work and restore the economy but increase the number of lives lost. Conflicts like these lead us to think in "either/or" terms and often result in heated disagreement or gridlock. There is a better way to deal with the current debates and the myriad economic, health and other impacts from the pandemic that we will be addressing for years to come.
It is appropriate for the public and experts to have differing ideas about how to solve urgent and complex issues. The trouble arises when we stop believing we have shared goals and values — and when we lack the trusting relationships to bridge the divides. Conflict itself isn't a problem; the key for our democracy is how we deal with it.
We can all agree we need to honor the important goals of keeping people healthy and fostering a strong economy. The devil is in the details. As we all grapple with Covid-19, here are four guiding principles based on our experience leading multiple consensus building projects involving people with different backgrounds and points of view.
Focus on shared goals and values. Although individuals and groups hold different positions, they are generally motivated by the same big picture goals (such as health and a strong economy) and core values (such as fairness, responsibility, freedom and compassion). The issue is not about different goals and values; it's about finding the right balance among them to address the current challenge.
Put yourself in the shoes of others. To identify mutually acceptable solutions, understand the needs and interests of the other side. Ask open-ended questions and listen to others' viewpoints rather than immediately preparing a rebuttal. Consider the most reasonable arguments of the other side and don't overreact to messengers who are overly strident and not representative of the whole group.
Devise integrative solutions. Listen well to understand the other side's needs and then collaborate to develop creative solutions that include the most important needs of everyone involved. These solutions may require some give and take, but the goal here is not to find split-the-difference answers but rather "win-win" solutions that don't compromise fundamental principles. These solutions will not only be more acceptable to all parties but will often be stronger and more comprehensive.
Give others the benefit of the doubt. Very few people get up in the morning wondering, "How can I make the world a worse place today?" Most people, most of the time, care about how to make the world better. To solve a problem with others, it is essential to look for and connect with the goodness in them.
Based on extensive experience bridging divides on complex and polarizing issues, we know the principles we recommend work. They are deeply needed now at the federal, state and local levels. For those who want assistance in deploying them, there are people throughout the country trained in mediation and related skills who can help.
With so much at stake today, we need to see the value of engaging differing viewpoints to solve challenging issues, recognize that we share values with most people with whom we disagree, and foster relationships in spite of differences.
This may be the only way to generate wise and durable solutions to our most pressing problems.