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Family Therapy for An Entire Nation

Posted By Matthew P. Martin, Monday, February 26, 2018

You don't need a family therapist to realize how divided many Americans are today. Whether the conversation is about gun control, health care, globalism, the US military, or even if LeBron James should leave Cleveland, the levels of civility and communication seem to have hit new lows. Tragedies like the senseless violence in Florida magnify these divides leading to more of the same: Americans talking at and past each other.

David Brooks of the New York Times recently commented on this situation in his article "Respect First, Then Gun Control". He argues that issues like gun control become flash points in which we feel and react from strong emotions, often doing more harm than good. But for any progress to be made, he states, there has to be trust and respect first before crucial decisions are made. Hey family therapists out there, does this sound familiar?

Brooks cites the recent work of a group of citizen professionals, David Lapp, David Blankenhorn and  prominent family therapist, Bill Doherty, who are using their organization, Better Angels, to bring heavily polarized groups into the same room together for a good dose of reframing and clarifying communication. These long, humbling conversations between people on different ends of the spectrum have lead to some incredible outcomes and may signal one strategy for moving past the "tribal" thinking that seems to dominant the current airwaves. 

I reached out to Bill Doherty and asked him some question regarding Better Angels. He responded quickly:

1. What seems to drive polarization within any group or organization?
Loosing sight of the relationships when people differ on viewpoints or emotional stances.  In relationships beyond dyads, this is usually associated with forming coalitions--an insider tribe and an outside tribe. Over time, the relationships become more distant, people don't know each other well, and they objectify and stereotype each other.  Tribal loyalty replaces commitment to the common good--the overall relationship.  At a national level, the big divide is between conservatives and liberals, many of whom view the other tribe as not just wrong-headed but dangerous.  

2. How does "Better Angels" attempt to address deep divides between groups?  Through red/blue workshops where we bring together 7 people from each side for three hours or a day, in a structured process of coming to understand each other beyond stereotypes and look for common ground.  Through skills workshops (for any number of reds and blues) where people learn skills for having cross-partisan conversations.  And through Better Angels Alliances (groups of reds and blues) which spring from the red/blue workshops, with the goal of spreading the depolarization work and seeking common ground policy issues to work on (examples thus far: gerrymandering and money in politics).  We developed the workshops, took them on the road in two bus tours where we refined them, and now we are training professional around the country to moderate local workshops.

3. What divisions do you think exist in health care that CFHA members might experience? From my frame of mind, CFHA members could view health as involving the civic health of the nation, and thus get involved in Better Angels work. I certainly see it that way, and it's an idea behind being a "citizen professional." I'm also doing a Police and Black Men Project, and that again is about the health of the commonwealth.

If you are interested in supporting Better Angels, you are welcome to donate, pay a $10 subscription per year, or volunteer to help. 

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