From comedians to the media to business leaders and politicians, I have heard these

words spoken what seems like a zillion times. 

“Our nation is divided.”

How many times have you heard, seen evidence of, or thought the same thing? It’s literally everywhere, from the flags we fly in our front yards, to the background we choose for our social media. Many of us are as committed to our stances as we are unsettled by the growing division between us.

We want unity, but many of us don’t know how to get there. Whether we’re at home, at work, with friends, or volunteering at a community event, people are sharing their opinions about everything from gun control, to women’s reproductive rights, racism, immigration, climate change, homo/hetero/trans sexuality, and even tattoos and balding. How do we maintain our integrity while protecting our humanity in these difficult times?

Stitching America Back Together

We want to live in safer, cleaner, more supportive, and kinder communities, but howdo we get there, especially when there’s another political election looming on the horizon? What can we do or say to help the people within our communities and our country to reunite?

This is a big questionand I’m not about to claim that I have the answer because I don’t. But I had an experience just a few weekends ago that taught me some things about what might be helpful for when a person gets trapped in a difficult conversation. Here’s what happened.

With a passion for locally grown foods, Yvette, my wife, and I signed up as volunteers for the farmers market in Lewes, Delaware. I was in the back lot, directing traffic, and Yvette was in the front lot. Thirty minutes into my two-hour commitment, I met Craig, a recent transplant to the area, who spoke several languages. I love languages. I’m studying Italian and I enjoy meeting new people. We initially hit it off. We even exchanged numbers.

From Connection To Recoiling   

The first few minutes were filled with greetings in about five different languages. It was exciting. And then Craig said, “I’m married, but I don’t wear a ring because I don’t like my wife.”

My first thought was, That’s an interesting come-on line. My second thought was, This guy is limited. 

“Well, that’s interesting,” I said, ready to refocus on the job at hand. Of course, that’s when traffic slowed and I had nothing else to do.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, Craig said, “You don’t wear a ring. Are you married?”  

Shit, I thought, I don’t want to deal with this guy’s ignorance. Rather than skirt the topic, as I often do, I got right to it. “Yes, my wife is right over there.” I pointed in the direction of the other parking lot.

His jaw dropped. “No way! You can’t be gay. You’re too pretty!”

When Compliments Make You Cringe  

Unsure of what to say to what was supposed to be a compliment, I walked away to “check on” the parking situation. Later, when I shared this experience with a friend, she offered a potential response for future reference, “I recognize that you’re trying to compliment me, but that’s not really a compliment.”    

When I came back, Craig was there waiting. “I don’t have a problem with gay people anymore,” he continued, “at least they’re honest. These trans-people though. I mean if you’re born with a penis, you’re a guy… So be a guy.”

Are you serious, I thought. You have no idea what I believe, or how offensive you’re being! Recognizing the uselessness of “schooling” this guy, I tucked my anger to the side and summoned my curiosity. The more curious I am, the less afraid I feel.

A few minutes later, with very little response from me about his opinions, Craig moved onto the next hot topic: abortion.

“I’ve met people who are the product of incest and rape. They still deserved to live,” Craig said, “most of these women are using abortion as a contraceptive. It isn’t right and should be stopped.”

Angry and agitated, I wanted to purse my lips, furrow my brows, and ask if he had ever taken the time to get to know anyone who has had an abortion. Again, given the way he spoke about his wife, something told me that he was struggling and perhaps limited in his ability to consider other perspectives. I wasn’t sure what I could say to such a person, so I decided to simply listen.

Restoring Our Union

Several minutes later, and after walking away to direct traffic several times, Craig asked, “What do you think about all these topics?”

As much as I didn’t like this guy’s opinions, I also didn’t want my reactions to create more fear and division between us. While his opinions felt shitty to hear, they didn’t need to scare me. He could have his opinions, and I could stand in my choice to respond to all of it with kindness.

After I got over my shock that he asked my perspective (most people don’t ask), I leaned back and recalled my reaction to the first time I heard the request for “they/them” pronouns. “Honestly, Craig, I thought it was stupid. Then, several months later, I realized that I was just being lazy.”

Reuniting Through Sturdy Bridges 

“In a world,” I continued, “that is struggling as much as ours, I think we need to stay open and curious. We need to be willing to be uncomfortable and still listen with openness. We need less judgment and more love.”

“There is such a thing as ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ Misti,” Craig shot back, “the Bible doesn’t just teach love, it also teaches judgment.”

You Might (Not) Be Right 

Feeling numb and powerless over the hold religion often has on people, I looked at him and said, “You might be right, Craig.” Just then, Yvette walked up with orange cones in her hands, indicating the farmers market would soon be closing. I sighed in relief and wished Craig a good day. However, before I left, he gave me some vegetables. And the next day I was stunned when he sent me the following text: People don’t know how much you know, until they know how much you care.

When we are open and curious, instead of closed and defensive, people like Craig can come in and espouse their beliefs without throwing us into a tailspin of reactivity, self-righteousness, anger and indignation (i.e. fear). It’s true… our nation is divided, and many of us are terribly afraid of what we stand to lose as Mother Nature right-sizes the landscape. And so, we grab our shields and swords, refuse to listen, and wind up creating even more fear.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Listening with acceptance and reflection allows us to have an encounter with real and vulnerable human beings. When we see each other more clearly, we will find our shared humanity. By focusing on this deep listening and allowing one another to speak openly without judgment, we stand a chance to heal our divisiveness and our great nation.

9 Strategies For Reuniting A Divided America

Luckily, there are many strategies for how to handle a difficult conversation. It has been found by the American Psychological Association that being calm and open is more effective than aggression. I’m not saying that you have to accept or agree with a perspective you find morally reprehensive. But I’m saying that if you are stuck in a conversation with a person you don’t agree with, some strategies are more effective than others for avoiding a major conflict. And some could even result in beginning the road to healing.

The following are some simple strategies for transforming divisive conversations into healing interactions:

  1. Tuck your reactive emotions to the side.
  2. Summon your curiosity.
  3. Avoid taking their opinions or approaches to topics personally.
  4. Keep your sense of humor… We are all a bit quirky.
  5. Avoid reasoning with unreasonable people.
  6. Find something to agree with… “I thought that was stupid too.”
  7. Meet them with unconditional acceptance.
  8. Stay open—“you might be right” doesn’t mean they are right. Rather, it assumes there’s still so much to learn, and it’s an excellent way to demonstrate openness while creating an easy exit from the conversation.
  9. Remember the goal: To Reunite.

Kindness has a ripple effect that cannot help but make its way back to where it began.

Here’s to your greatness, 

Misti Burmeister

Misti Burmeister helps companies and leaders motivate and inspire excellence. For nearly 20 years, she has facilitated communication that results in trust, increasing engagement and productivity across generations. Make sure your communication is coming across the way you intend, visit