As a professional communicator who has spent more than two decades uniting decentralized organizations — from academic medical centers to universities to federated nonprofits — around shared strategies, stories and experiences, one might assume I’d be able to deftly navigate the divisive politics that have shaped America — and the world — over the past several years.
While I have always prided myself and my team on bringing together diverse ideas, individuals and institutions to create an additive impact, the past five years — irrespective of political ideology — have been the most challenging of times.
The destabilization of once trusted institutions, disinformation across emerging and established media, and the alarming rise of hateful rhetoric has made it increasingly challenging to find common ground.
For any of us who have had to navigate extremely difficult political terrain to achieve
a successful and shared outcome, here are four strategies for productive engagement and shared action:
- Equip People with Tools to Distinguish Fact from Fiction
In a post-truth world, where fiction plays an increasingly outsized role in “news” and social media, it can be almost impossible to find common ground. In fact, in a study by Pew Research Center, wherein Americans were asked to distinguish factual from opinion-based statements, Democrats and Republicans were more likely to identify statements as fact if it favored their side or validated their point of view. The uplifting takeaway from the research, however, is that those individuals who have high political awareness are much more likely to be able to distinguish fact from opinion.
We must prioritize political awareness and education in our youngest members of society through nonpartisan organizations like News Literacy Project, and equip them with the tools and resources necessary to not only distinguish fact from fiction, but stop the spread of misinformation.
- Work from a Shared Set of Facts
The term “two Americas” is an oft-used phrase to talk about social stratification in the United States — the growing gap between the haves and the have nots. However, over the past four years, it’s grown to encapsulate the growing polarization in the country, and two associated realities.
For those of us who work with organizations that compose a spectrum of backgrounds and perspectives, it is simplistic to assume there are just two sides. Much like our understanding of identities — which are multifaceted and complex — we must understand where people are coming from, what has shaped their points of view and values, and how to find common ground — even if we don’t always understand or align with their thinking or beliefs.
One strategy we’ve found to be successful when working with multiperspective organizations is to actively collaborate to shape a quantitative research instrument.
If we can align on the inputs, we’re much more likely to achieve consensus on the outputs, and associated implications and action steps.
- Show Benefits to Both Self and Society
Having conducted or overseen brand research for many years, we have a long view on what motivates human behavior. Irrespective of sector, issue or initiative, we’ve found drivers almost always cluster into three buckets, namely, 1) do I fully understand what the organization, offering or issue is, 2) do I feel emotionally connected to it, and 3) do I believe that organization or offering will deliver on its promises and/or that the issue is achievable.
When you consider these shared behaviors, it’s clear to see why some brands or causes gain traction and others fail. The traction behind ESG (environmental, social and governance) commitments and adjacent ideas or frames lies in their perceived benefit to the business (i.e., consumer affinity, employee loyalty, cost saving, innovation), while advancing the greater good. Now, it’s fair to say that there will always be naysayers or skeptics, but the business case is compelling, and is increasingly demonstrating in concrete ways that companies can do well and do good. By applying this philosophy more broadly, and showing benefits to both the individual and collective, without tradeoffs, we’re more likely to move people to sustained action.
- Co-Create the Future We Want to See
By intentionally and consistently engaging key audiences throughout the process
— from information to validation to activation — we’ve found far greater success in driving understanding, deepening engagement, and inspiring ownership and action.
In the social sector, the acceleration of “trust-based philanthropy” and amplification of collective impact initiatives indicates that this approach of collaboration and co-creation is here to stay.
Now, let’s work together to apply these four proven strategies, and close the divide for good.