Can We Help Heal Divided Communities?

One Therapist Hits the Road with the Better Angels to Find Out

William Doherty

Editor's Note: This piece is excerpted from a full feature that appears in the November 2017 issue.


Before November 2016, I was a standard liberal in politics: an Obama-loving, Planned Parenthood–supporting, immigrant-friendly, big-business-wary Democrat. Hillary Clinton was to be the apotheosis of a tide of history toward women's rights—and minority rights would hopefully follow in her wake. Republicans and conservatives, I thought, would either become moderate or the victims of inexorable demographic shifts in the political Blue direction. Donald Trump would turn out to be a scary and comical footnote in political history.

But as Yoda would put it, "Wrong was I, and on every count." Not that I didn't do my small best to ward off such an outcome. During the campaign, I wrote a Citizen Therapist Manifesto against Trumpism, which garnered some 3,800 signatories and a fair amount of national media attention. The manifesto declined to diagnose Trump but called him a threat to American democracy and to the principles of healthy human relationships that psychotherapy stands for. Unfortunately, I was shouting in an echo chamber, unable to persuade even the handful of conservative therapists I knew of the disaster I felt their vote would bring. In their view, four to eight more years of Democrats would be the sure-fire disaster.

During this tumult, I discovered a new professional mission—to work on healing the divide among ordinary Americans—or in couples therapy terms, to prevent a long-term civic divorce. I was still as opposed to Trump as ever, but I knew the anti-Trump battle would be well-staffed, while the struggle to bridge the bitter divide among our fellow citizens could easily fall to the wayside. Whether Trump is impeached or serves out a full term, or (gasp!) two terms, we'll still have to live together as Americans. So I decided to start a membership organization called Citizen Therapists for Democracy, thinking the healing we could contribute to would take place in our offices. That's our main territory, after all, not the community.

But then came a phone call from David Blankenhorn, founder of the start-up nonprofit Better Angels, which focuses on political and affective polarization in the country, and tries to counter the decades-long trend toward viewing people who differ from us politically not just as uninformed or misguided, but as ill-motivated and dangerous. 

I'd worked with David on a project that brought together gay-marriage advocates and religious-liberty advocates to search for understanding and common ground. He told me that when he'd talked to his colleague David Lapp, a Better Angels leader, shortly after the election, they saw a stark contrast: Blankenhorn's Manhattan neighborhood was in shock and grief after the election, while Lapp's community in Southwest Ohio was practically dancing in the streets. (Lapp is a conservative who didn't vote for Trump or Hillary.) They realized that if there was ever a time for Better Angels to try something bold on political polarization, this was it. So they decided to invite 10 Hillary supporters and 10 Trump supporters from Southwest Ohio to spend a weekend together seeing if they could meet each other as concerned Americans and not as enemies.

My first reaction was excitement: This is what the country needs right now, for starkly divided people to break bread and talk together! But when I asked David about the plan for the weekend workshop, he admitted he didn't have much of one, beyond getting Reds and Blues together. I froze, thinking how disastrous this could be without the right container for a volatile conversation. I quickly checked my calendar to see if I was free that weekend and then tentatively asked if my help might be useful in designing and facilitating the weekend. Indeed, although that's what David had been hoping for, after hanging up the phone, I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.

This was in December of 2016, and the weekend was a big success, leading to a report to the nation signed by that Ohio group, an NPR interview that resulted in a deluge of invitations from around the country to bring our Better Angels workshops to local areas, and plans for a subsequent Ohio weekend workshop with a new group that was filmed for a forthcoming documentary. We had little funding, but the two Davids and I also decided to do a summer bus tour called One America, where we'd travel from the Midwest through New England, and then south through Mid-Atlantic states and Virginia.

The Tour Begins

We launched the tour with a bang: a Fourth of July concert in Southwest Ohio featuring quintessentially Blue and Red musicians: Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame) and Richard Lynch (a country music star who'd founded a local county Tea Party). Music transcended politics, and the Better Angels tour was underway on a high note, an experience of group harmony we'd have to call upon when things got hard along the way.

The next evening, we arrived at the Elks Lodge in Lebanon, Ohio, for our first three-hour workshop. Although I was nervous, I started to find my groove as I went over the ground rules. "We're here to explain our views and listen to others, not to try to convince others to change," I told the participants. "We'll speak for ourselves and not try to represent an outside group. We'll stay with the spirit of each exercise and not editorialize when the question on the table is what we learned from listening. And we'll give the facilitators permission to intervene when one of us veers off from the task at hand." I asked for a nonverbal assent from group members after I read each ground rule, which I got in the form of nodding heads. The ability to be both permissive and limit-setting was crucial to the success of these workshops.

To start, we plunged into the fishbowl exercise, where one group sits in a circle to answer questions while the other sits outside the circle to observe and listen, and then the groups switch places. At this early stage of the tour, the questions I posed to the fishbowl mainly focused on what people liked or didn't like about Trump, and what concerns they had about their own party.

This first group of Reds were mostly strong Trump supporters. They said they'd voted for him because he's a businessman, not a politician, and because of his tough stance on immigration. As for reservations, they don't like his tweets, and a couple of Reds said they were afraid that his ego would drive us to war. As much as I disagreed about their support for him, I was glad that they expressed their views in a calm, nonantagonistic way for the Blues to hear without the pressure to respond.

In their fishbowl, the Blues gave the standard reasons for opposing Trump: his character, his lack of policies and understanding of foreign affairs, his views on immigration and women and minorities. They delivered these critiques in calm tones, and were pretty open about their reservations regarding their own party: big money, no positive agenda (just resist), career politicians who'd stopped listening.

The participants were mostly positive at checkout: proud of themselves for having a civil conversation. Many saw common ground in wanting the best for the country. Personally, I felt the workshop was reasonably successful, but nowhere near the level of the two evening workshops I'd done in my home state of Minnesota. No one here, for example, left gushing about having more hope for the country. Maybe Minnesota isn't America, I thought, and these bus-tour workshops will be tougher sledding.

The next day's workshop, in Dayton, proved my concerns valid. The participants seemed tense on arrival, with most of them heading straight to the table instead of mingling and chatting. This group of Reds strongly opposed abortion, using language like "baby killing," but they were also clear about their reservations regarding Trump. When the Blues took their turn in the fishbowl, a Middle Eastern immigrant woman started with a passionate speech about how Trump hates immigrants and she fears for her safety. This spurred a vehement blast from another woman about Trump's despicable character.

The emotional decibel level was completely different from the strong but pleasant sharing of viewpoints in the Red fishbowl. Other Blues took slaps at the Red position on abortion by noting that Blues care about the whole of the life cycle, not just before birth. I found myself hoping that things would even out when I asked the Blues about their reservation about their own side, but they were tame on self-criticism, not going much beyond wishing their leaders could explain liberal values and policies better.

Fortunately, a positive moment came when a Blue healthcare professional gave a moving statement about how she'd been able to treat a large group of cancer patients after Obamacare and was now worried that they wouldn't be able to stay in treatment under the Republican plan. These comments were helpful to the Reds, some said later, as it helped open up some ground for understanding.

On the Road Again

In Nashville, we got to try a one-day version of the Red/Blue workshop, which begins in the morning with a stereotypes exercise, created years ago by family therapist Dick Chasin, that involves each side meeting separately to generate the top four common but false stereotypes of their own side. Then they come up with what they believe about themselves instead, while asking if there's any nugget of truth in the stereotypes before presenting it all to the other side.

We did this exercise several times during the tour, and here's what most often came out. Reds see Blues holding these stereotypes of them: racist, antiwoman, xenophobic, uncaring, Bible thumpers. Blues think Reds see them as: baby killers, arrogant, big-government lovers, unpatriotic, "snowflakes." This exercise gets all the worst stuff out on the table right off the bat, giving people the opportunity to say, "This is what others think of us, and here's how we really see ourselves." And when people own up to the possible kernels of truth about the stereotypes (not all groups do this well), it's powerful.

Another big advantage of the day-long workshop is that people have lunch together, and I could tell from the Nashville participants' laughter that they were loosening up with each another as they ate their sandwiches and crunched on chips. In the afternoon, the fishbowl exercise went far more smoothly than in Dayton, leading us nicely into the final exercises of the day: generating questions for the other group and sharing in Red/Blue pairs what action steps they were going to take based on their experience of the workshop. Collectively, we felt a sense of real momentum. A Christian and a Muslim said they were going to visit each other's faith community, and most people signed up to work on a document describing their experience of the day in ways that might benefit the broader community.

Given the level of enthusiasm we witnessed, the Better Angels team was excited, even as we reminded ourselves that this was just one group, with a number of anti-Trump Reds, and that we may be seeing the result of a strong self-selection effect among the kind of people coming to these events. Because my wife, Leah, and I needed to go home from the tour for five days, I spent the rest of the evening preparing my colleagues to be lead facilitators.

Revising Our Approach

When I rejoined the tour, we decided to revamp the three-hour workshop to start with the stereotypes exercise (something that gets negativity out in a constructive way), followed by a fishbowl exercise that focused on two questions: why do you think the values and policies of your side are good for the country, and what are your reservations or concerns about your own side? We now realized that the Trump-saturated questions we'd been asking had come right out of the December workshop in Ohio, when focusing on why people had voted for Trump or Hillary made more sense.

I realized that the major movement in these workshops came when each side showed humility and vulnerability. As in couples therapy, breakthroughs happen when each partner owns a piece of the problem, rather than assuming the high ground from which to point out the other's flaws. That's why in the Better Angels workshops we always ask paired questions: how does your side make America better, and what are your concerns about your side? Almost always, the other group softens, rather than pounces.


As with therapy, miracles are scarce. A few weeks later, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a Blue woman's op ed, referring to her experience. "With the possibility of directly responding removed, I found my ability to listen greatly improved," she wrote. "I heard my Republican neighbors talk about how their Trump signs had been stolen or defaced, how their kids were bullied for being Trump supporters, how neighbors stopped speaking with them after the election. Their pain was clear. It was a struggle at times to just sit and listen, but it was also an odd relief to know that it was the only option. My defenses were lowered, and I could focus and genuinely hear all of what my neighbors and community members were saying."

Although we didn't heal America or any part thereof, our One America Bus Tour made me bilingual for the first time in my life: I can now speak both Red and Blue. I remain appalled by Donald Trump in every possible way, but I'm no longer appalled by everyone who voted for him or who didn't support him but remain loyal Republicans. As a therapist, I'm trained to understand people locked in conflict, but the challenge in the public arena is that I'm part of the conflict. I do have a dog in this fight, and I'm scared for the future of our democracy because of Trump and Trumpism. But the experience of moving so far outside my personal comfort zone and meeting so many people with a different view of the world left me more hopeful that my fellow citizens don't really want a civic divorce and, if offered the right container for conversation, will choose to access the better angels of their nature.


This blog is excerpted from "Is There Hope for a Divided America?" by William Doherty. The full version is available in the November/December 2017 issue, "Our National Blame Game: Can Therapists Help Find a Way Forward?"

Read more FREE articles like this on Cultural, Social, and Racial Issues.

Want to read more articles like this? Subscribe to Psychotherapy Networker Today!  >>

Or, find articles just like this one in our Archives on the new, enhanced Networker mobile app! Click here for more details

Photo © Justin Sullivan

Topic: Cultural, Social & Racial Issues

Tags: 2017 | arguing | bill doherty | communication | community | community mental health | conflict | doherty | fighting | political divide | politics | William Doherty

Comments - (existing users please login first)
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment

Thursday, November 23, 2017 8:05:59 AM | posted by pay someone to do your dissertation
Together, we felt a feeling of actual momentum. A Christian and a Muslim said they were going to go to each different's faith network, and the majority signed as much as work on a document describing their enjoyment of the day in approaches that might benefit the broader network.