Four people are sitting on the shore, forming hearts with their hands.
Source: Photo by Noorulabdeen Ahmad/Unsplash
If there is anything we have learned over the past few years, it is that we are more different than we are the same.
For a country that has “United” in its name, it feels like we have never been so divided, and the path forward towards any sense of common ground or unity feels, for many, more uncertain than it has ever been.
Indeed, according to research from the Pew Research Center in 2021, 59 percent of US adults say they find conversations across these differences “stressful and frustrating,” up from 50 percent in May 2019. How do we come together and solve our most divisive and deep-rooted problems if we can’t even talk to one another?
Frequently I’m asked what someone should do if they are in a mentoring relationship with someone who looks different than them or has different beliefs, values, or life experiences. The easy answer, and sometimes the best answer, is to help that person find someone else with whom they have more in common.
It’s always easier to connect with people who are just like us, after all. But it’s important that this not become the default response. Indeed, leaning into these sometimes-difficult connections and conversations is exactly what we need more of right now.
Finding ways to connect across differences is how we learn and grow. And the good news is that the skills to make it happen are ones we all can develop through intentional practice.
From Shared Values to Challenge Networks
Effective relationships are often built upon commonality or affinity. We are attracted to people who remind us of ourselves. We are drawn to those who think as we do, who affirm our worldview and beliefs.
Sometimes there is a great benefit to these connection points. It’s much easier to be in a relationship with someone who shares your values and goals and will be a tireless supporter and champion of your choices. When reaching out to someone on LinkedIn or some other platform, it’s helpful to identify a point of shared connection (“We both graduated from the same school!”).
And these sorts of affinity-based relationships can create blindspots regarding our deficits or weak points. Affinity bias creeps into workplace hiring and promotion decisions, limiting access for those who would otherwise deserve it. Choosing a life partner who shares your beliefs and values is probably a good decision. Surrounding yourself with people who never challenge your assumptions or decisions will lead to limited growth, opportunity, and personal and professional learning.
Today’s research and best practice suggest we all should think in terms of building robust networks of people who can help us grow and learn. These networks strengthen access to opportunities, broaden perspectives, and diminish the likelihood of any one person having too much sway over our choices and decisions. A network mentality lessons the likelihood of affinity bias because it increases the diversity and quantity of inputs.
A challenge network is intentionally built to increase the number of voices challenging one’s assumptions and perspectives. In his book, Think Again, Adam Grant notes, “We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions.” But to build an effective network, you must first know how to develop effective individual relationships.
Mentoring Strategies for Connecting Across Difference
Whether in a formal mentoring relationship or simply trying to talk to someone with a different point of view, effective mentoring strategies provide time-tested tools for connection. And at the end of the day, no matter how strong our differences are, we can build real, meaningful connections with other human beings if we choose to do so.
The next time you are in conversation with someone with whom you do not share much in common, try using the strategies below.
- Before you make assumptions, get to know them as a unique individual. We each bring a long list of assumptions into every interaction. We assume how someone is going to act or react. We assume we know everything there is to know about a situation because of our own experience. We assume that we know who this other person is, based on appearances, hearsay, or superficial interactions. Before you jump to conclusions based on unfounded assumptions, think of the person standing before you as a unique individual with worthwhile experiences and knowledge of their own. And then let them tell you their story.
- Ask questions. One of the ways you get past assumptions and get to know someone is to ask questions. Lots and lots of questions. Not in a “you’re here to defend your dissertation” sort of way but in an “I’m genuinely interested and curious about you as a human being and just want to learn more” way. Use those old school, who, what, where, when, why, and how open-ended questions you learned when you were young. Before you jump in to prove a point or explain their situation, think: Is there another question I could ask first? Privilege learning over knowing.
- Listen to learn, grow, and build relationships of care. I firmly believe and will die on this hill that you can learn from everyone you meet, regardless of their political affiliation, faith tradition, level of education, race, ethnicity, or anything else, because learning is all about your openness, curiosity, and attitude. It has absolutely nothing to do with what the other person is willing or able to give you. So, when you ask those questions, truly listen to what the other person has to say. Don’t listen to win or to come up with the next best response or even the next best question. Just listen. Give the other person your full attention. Because their story, whatever they are willing to give to you, is worthy of it.
- Offer and accept feedback with grace and humility. Feedback is a gift. It is one of the best tools we have for learning and growing because it allows us to see ourselves through someone else’s eyes if we are open to it. Feedback challenges our deeply held assumptions and to thinking about things differently. And as we all know, feedback can be painful and can destroy relationships when not delivered well. So, when offering feedback to another person or accepting it from another person, always do so with the relationship in mind. Before you react, ask yourself: How important is this relationship to me?
- Set and uphold clear boundaries. Finally, while it may seem counterintuitive, we build effective relationships when we set, communicate, and uphold clear boundaries. Building a relationship across differences does not mean letting someone walk all over you. It does not mean diminishing yourself so that another person can feel powerful. It does not mean letting go of your beliefs, values, and moral center to make someone else feel better. An effective relationship is always built on trust, and trust starts with clearly communicated and respected boundaries. If the other person is not willing to respect your boundaries, or if you are not willing to do the same for them, that relationship is destined for failure.
The long and short of it is that connecting with people who are different from us–politically, socially, in terms of background or experiences, or a host of other items you could add to this list–is hard work. It’s always easier to take the path of least resistance. It’s easier to surround ourselves with people who always agree with us. And while not everything about life has to be difficult, no one ever said it wasn’t going to take work.
Building effective relationships is no different. But the good news is, just like any other skill you want to develop, it will get easier with intentional practice. Is it going to solve our great political divide? Maybe not. But just maybe, one person at a time, with a bit more listening and a bit more openness to learning, we can get a little closer to this idea of unity we hold so dear.