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A Way to Get Beyond the Politics of Division

We need to value problem solving over partisanship. There are lessons to be learned from international negotiations.

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America is dangerously divided. Instead of a national dialogue, a vicious partisanship tears our social fabric and impedes government's ability to get things done. It's time for a new approach.

Before becoming a state senator, I worked for the United Nations for 10 years on negotiations and conflict analysis -- first in Iraq, then in Jerusalem and Syria. Lessons from international negotiation help explain our own divisions and point to a way out.

How have we gotten to this frighteningly divisive point in our history? To start, major shifts in our political process, media and economy since the 1980s have encouraged division. Gerrymandering and massive increases in campaign contributions have incentivized partisan rhetoric. Social media amplifies these divisions. And as the U.S. economy has shifted away from manufacturing, working-class wages have stagnated.

Each change since the 1980s has heightened the feeling so many Americans have of being under attack -- the belief that other groups lack respect for your group and are indifferent to your needs. It feels like a duty to stand for your community when it seems under threat. As a result, we have reached a stalemate in politics and government.

From a conflict-resolution perspective, stalemates are not bad; they can open the way to engagement. But first each side must recognize that they cannot move beyond stalemate and reach their own goals without the other side's consent. We need a new approach to the political process, one that values problem solving over partisan combat. There are three simple steps we can each take to undercut division in our politics and conversations and find our way back to collaboration and progress.

First, people need to be heard, and they need to feel heard. A recent MIT study showed positive attitude changes on the part of a group holding one view of an issue toward a group holding an opposing view after members of the first group were given the opportunity to explain their cause to someone in the second. The opportunity to share one's story with those on the other side of an issue is critical, and posting online is not enough. Creating the opportunity for people to explain their stories and concerns -- through town hall meetings, deliberate conversations and in personal interactions -- is essential.

Second, we need to reach out to the other side of an issue. It's not easy: Part of the problem is that the changes of the last 30 years have created identity groups and intensified loyalty to existing ones. That can lead to dynamics such as boosted confidence in positions, dehumanizing of others, simplistic evaluations of complicated issues and more. But to truly get what your group needs and to produce results that will last, you need engagement that meets the underlying needs of all sides. Power -- defined as getting others to work with you for your needs -- grows from relating to each other and understanding the other side's underlying objectives. But you need to engage for that to happen.

Third, the goal should be to solve problems, not to win debates. When differences emerge, start by creating a process to identify the underlying needs and objectives of those on all sides of an issue. This means not automatically attacking the position of the other side without trying to understand their experience. The full range of local and national issues could benefit from this approach, from local projects to overcoming racism.

Skeptics may label this approach to problem-solving politics as giving in, but it's much more likely to get you what you need in the long run. Problem-solving politics won't satisfy those who make a living -- or a political career -- out of insulting opponents. But for the rest of us, it will get to solutions that work by focusing on underlying needs.

It is time to demand that elected officials and thought leaders not play into the old divide-and-rule tactic. We have to remove social support for that approach and reward efforts to meet fundamental needs through problem-solving politics. This is how we can confront and address the conditions that have led to crippling partisan division and create a more productive government. We can create a style of politics and communication that sets an example for the world.

A Massachusetts state senator who worked for the United Nations on conflict analysis in the Middle East
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