The 2016 presidential election caught me sleeping. Tucked inside my cozy Silicon Valley "bubble," I'd missed the signs of a radical shift in the American electorate. I'd become disconnected, oblivious to the experiences of millions of my fellow citizens. So I started making plans to get outside my bubble—to go on the road and talk to people as diverse as I could find to better understand what happened and why. Calling it "Pop the Bubble: A Conversation Road Tour," I mapped out a route from California to Washington, D.C., being sure to arrive in time for the inaugural parade and the Women's March the next day.
Such a tour felt like the right thing to do, but the more I thought about it the more my doubts grew. What am I doing? I asked myself. How will this make a difference? Who will I talk to and how will I meet them? The whole idea was beginning to feel irrational. But then one evening I was sitting in the kitchen with my 23 year old son Will (pictured above, next to me), and spontaneously asked him if he wanted to come along. Even though it meant negotiating a leave from work, his response was immediate and positive. Clearly he needed this trip too. From that moment on, backing out was never an option.
So I put the word out about our journey to everyone I could think of, asking for names of people who'd be willing to either gather a group or meet with us on their own. Many friends, colleagues and relatives stepped up, and soon we had a number of scheduled conversations spread along our route—like the conservative Libertarian we met with in a coffee shop in Reno, Nevada; the grieving group of teachers we met with at a small community college in Bowling Green Kentucky; and the small gathering of young black men we met with over pizza in Durham, North Carolina.
And then there were the serendipitous conversations we never could have planned—like the local man we met one evening at a Louisiana gas station, who wondered if Hillary Clinton was in jail; or the black Vietnam war vet we met in Birmingham, Alabama on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, who told us how his wife had lost her sister, and her eye, in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
These and many other conversations gave us much to think about as we drove often long distances between each scheduled stop. And in the evening we'd think about them again, as we transcribed, edited and posted the conversations on our blog.
By the end of the tour it felt like we'd learned something. The conversations took us beneath the surface of our divide to the deeper currents, where it was possible to see how we might move forward. Here are three of our most important insights:
It’s about relationship. Yes, our economic, social and political divisions are real. But they’re symptoms of a deeper cause: Our disconnection from one another. For various reasons and in various ways, we’ve all retreated inside bubbles too small for today’s complex, challenging and interconnected world. More than ever, we need to ‘pop our bubbles’ to expand our connections and perspectives.
People want to talk. The hostile diatribes we read on social media are not what we found when meeting face to face. Yes, liberals are upset, but more than that, they want to understand and build bridges. Conservatives too, want to talk, but are more reticent for fear of being made the enemy. We have to learn how to create safe spaces for dialogue so that we can begin the process of finding, and building on, common ground.
We need new skills. To heal our nation and move forward together, we need to master some radical new skills—ones that encompass both our head and our heart. If we fail to prioritize our relationships over our positions (heart), or fail to understand the true nature of our challenges (head), we’ll never secure the future we most want for our children and ourselves.
This workshop—Difficult Conversations: The art and science of working together—is an outcome of our journey, and a response to these three insights.