Sharon McMahon: “Have the humility to change your mind, and encourage others to do the same”

Have the humility to change your mind, and encourage others to do the same. There is absolutely no shame in saying, “I have learned so much more about this topic, and based on all the new things I’ve found, I’ve changed my mind.” This is not flip-flopping, this is learning. This isn’t a character flaw, […]

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Have the humility to change your mind, and encourage others to do the same. There is absolutely no shame in saying, “I have learned so much more about this topic, and based on all the new things I’ve found, I’ve changed my mind.” This is not flip-flopping, this is learning. This isn’t a character flaw, it’s a strength. Demonstrating that you can change your mind when presented with new evidence inspires others to do the same. In the words of Adam Grant, “If you like being right, the fastest way to get there is to stop being wrong.” Change your mind and tell others why you’ve changed your mind. That is humble leadership. That’s the kind of person others want to follow.

As part of our series about 5 Things That Each Of Us Can Do To Help Unite Our Polarized Society, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharon McMahon.

Sharon McMahon (@SharonSaySo) is a former high school government and law teacher who earned a reputation as ‘America’s Government Teacher’ amidst the historic 2020 election proceedings for her viral efforts on Instagram to educate the general public on political misinformation. Through a simple mission to share non-partisan information about democracy, Sharon has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers online, affectionately called the “Governerds”, who look to her for truth and logic in a society plagued by bias and conspiracy.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My mom married a man she met one time and moved us to Northern Minnesota, where we knew no one. I started reading the newspaper every day, beginning at age 12 when I had a paper route. Every morning, I would arise before dawn to put on multiple layers of clothes to protect against the frigid temperatures, and I would read news stories as I walked from house to house. By the time my route ended at a large apartment building, I had read most of the paper, except for the last few I caught up on while riding the elevator. I later bought a subscription to Newsweek with my babysitting money, took the bus to the library to check out issues of The Economist, and started attending college at age 16.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I had a fantastic teacher in 11th grade who ignited my passion for political science. I started reading the newspaper and subscribing to magazines like Newsweek, using my babysitting money to pay for them. I became a high school government and law teacher and married someone with a Ph.D. in political science. It’s safe to say that I have been deeply immersed in this work since the age of 16, and my interest in it has never waned.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

My podcast, The Sharon Says So Podcast, launches in July 2021, and I am hard at work on my book proposal. I hope to have a book out in 2022 or 2023.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My grandfather was a beloved high school teacher and coach, and he always told me how smart I was and how much I was capable of achieving. He always told me not to underestimate myself and that there is a lot to be learned from putting yourself out there and getting knocked down. Staying in the safety of your home, however, teaches you nothing.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?

On my very first day as a teacher, I bounced into the classroom, certain I was about to be Michelle Pfeiffer in the movie Dangerous Minds. I cheerfully asked everyone to take their seats. One boy in the back of the class refused to sit. I asked him nicely again if he would mind finding somewhere to sit. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I’m not going to sit down, you ugly wh*re.” That boy was later shot in the leg by a rival gang member and was out of school for several months. When he came back to school, he said to me, “I am sorry I said that. I don’t think you’re that thing that I called you.” He spent the rest of the school year keeping everyone else in mind, telling them that they aren’t allowed to talk back to me and that they needed to have respect and do their work.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I have read the book Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt many times, and it holds such a place in my heart. Not only is it an incredible memoir, but it also showed me the impact that teachers can have on someone’s life and gave me so much hope that no matter how dire my circumstances, the best is yet to come.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” — William James

So often, we fall prey to the mistaken belief that no one cares, nothing we do matters, that our small acts are of no consequence. When in reality, what we do matters a considerable amount. We might think our one small candle makes no difference, but one candle has the power to eradicate darkness. And one candle can light many others. It’s much better for each of us to do a little bit, acting as though what we do matters than if we rely on a small number of people to do everything.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is influencing others to achieve their personal best and highest good. It’s not about creating fear or coercion, it’s about inspiration and influence. It’s being someone people want to follow. One of the things I always have in the back of my mind is: would this make my grandparents proud? Would I want my mom or my kids to see this and know this about me? I want to leave behind a legacy of leadership that future generations can emulate.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The polarization in our country has become so extreme that families have been torn apart. Erstwhile close friends have not spoken to each other because of strong partisan differences. This is likely a huge topic, but briefly, can you share your view on how this evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

There are several factors at work. I would posit that we are not more polarized now than we have been in the past, we just know about it far more. Cable news and social media have created the perfect conditions under which we can quickly find information that is scary or angering, and then it’s very easy to share that information with the touch of a button. People then find themselves triggered by the information being shared, and it’s easy to fire off a reply from behind the screen. It’s not that we are more polarized, it’s that we are able to demonstrate our true feelings more widely and quickly.

I have no pretensions about bridging the divide between politicians, or between partisan media outlets. But I’d love to discuss the divide that is occurring between families, co workers, and friends. Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your experience about how family or friends have become a bit alienated because of the partisan atmosphere?

I have a good friend whose own father has stopped speaking to her because they don’t see eye to eye politically. She recently had her second baby and contacted her dad to let him know he had a new grandson. Her dad replied that he was sorry the baby had to grow up being raised by people who refused to acknowledge the “truth.” My friend was only looking to share her joy with her dad, not to start a political conversation. But he let his political viewpoints completely obscure what should have been a very happy moment for him and his daughter. My friend has had to completely grieve the loss of a parent.

In your opinion, what can be done to bridge the divide that has occurred in families? Can you please share a story or example?

I hear from so many people daily whose families have been ripped apart by politics over the past year. It’s heartbreaking. The best advice I have is to try and maintain the relationship. Look at it this way: say you have a relative that you think is way off the deep end. You can either scream at them, “STOP SWIMMING! GET OUT! THIS POOL IS STUPID!” in which case, they will be very unlikely to listen to you because they are currently enjoying themselves. By maintaining the relationship, you can be the one to sit on the edge of the pool. When your family member is ready to get out, you can be the one they swim to. You can be the one to offer them a hand to climb out. If you’ve ended the relationship, they are left floundering.

How about the workplace, what can be done to bridge the partisan divide that has fractured relationships there? Can you please share a story or example?

In order for people to listen, they first need to feel heard. We need to let go of the idea that all conversations must end in agreement. Many of our best ideas have come as a result of compromise, where a conversation between multiple people that began as a disagreement resulted in something meaningful and enduring — the US Constitution is one such example. Rather than just saying, “Let’s just agree to disagree,” which indicates a certain finality and signals that you’re not interested in learning from the other person, try saying, “Wow, that’s interesting. I would like to hear more about that sometime soon.” And then pick up the conversation at an appropriate time. Listening to learn yields far more intellectual development than just listening to respond. Listening to respond so you can argue your point means you haven’t learned, you haven’t grown and only furthers the perceived divide.

I think one of the causes of our divide comes from the fact that many of us see a political affiliation as the primary way to self identify. But of course there are many other ways to self identify. What do you think can be done to address this?

When you offer someone respect, even if you believe it’s undeserved, they are much more likely to offer you respect in return. When you understand that most people are just doing the best they can with what they have and that they are making the best decisions they’re able to with the information available, you’re better able to see that the world of politics is not us vs. them, black vs. white, good guys vs. bad guys. That the reasons people have for making the decisions they do are extraordinarily nuanced. We are more than just the box we checked on a ballot. Every human brings something extraordinary to the world, and we would be well served to realize that we cannot work for each other’s mutual destruction. We need each other.

Much ink has been spilled about how social media companies and partisan media companies continue to make money off creating a split in our society. Sadly the cat is out of the bag and at least in the near term there is no turning back. Social media and partisan media have a vested interest in maintaining the divide, but as individuals none of us benefit by continuing this conflict. What can we do moving forward to not let social media divide us?

Know yourself. If you know that following a certain media company on Instagram triggers you, create a boundary around it. Much like an addict needs to exit the situations that enable their addiction, some of us need to exit situations that we find triggering. If opening Facebook every day leaves you feeling nothing but despair, create the conditions under which Facebook is inconvenient to hop on. Choose to read your news or set a timer for your media use to help create external cues to remind you of what’s best for you. Remember that you are of no good to the world if your mental health is in crisis. Know yourself. Protect your boundaries.

What can we do moving forward to not let partisan media pundits divide us?

Stop watching the news and read it instead. It’s way more difficult to get worked up emotionally without the scary sound effects, ominous music, angry voices, and headlines streaming across the screen. Reading fact-based news articles instead of analysis and editorials can keep you informed without feeling assaulted by current events.

Sadly we have reached a fevered pitch where it seems that the greatest existential catastrophe that can happen to our country is that “the other side” seizes power. We tend to lose sight of the fact that as a society and as a planet we face more immediate dangers. What can we do to lower the ante a bit and not make every small election cycle a battle for the “very existence of our country”?

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” Know that the pendulum always has and will always continue to swing, and that process is normal and necessary. I always like to remind myself that we NEED more than one political party. Working to destroy the other political party is extraordinarily dangerous, and that two or more parties are what’s best for America. Some of our best ideas have been compromises, and the other party serves as an important safeguard to our freedoms. Rather than being gripped with terror at the thought of the opposing side coming into leadership, look at ways you can help create HEALTHY political parties. Refuse to be a part of the problem. Refuse to step into the fray of the partisan name-calling. Hold up your candle in the darkness, and be the change you want to see reflected at you. We are not victims. Our political system was proactively created this way on PURPOSE. This is how it’s supposed to work.

Ok wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Don’t underestimate a small gesture. Don’t underestimate dropping a coworker an email that says, “I appreciate you,” don’t underestimate buying someone else a cup of coffee, don’t underestimate sending your child’s teacher a thank you note. You don’t know how that small gesture can change the trajectory of someone’s day. Every person is one decision away from a completely different life. Changing someone’s day can change their life and the lives of those around them.

2. Practice being interested in other people. Instead of interpreting every conversation as an opportunity to evaluate the worthiness of another human being, try just being curious about where they’re coming from. Ask them open-ended questions like, “Can you talk more about why you feel ___________? I am so interested to hear more.” Listening to understand doesn’t obligate you to agree. But it does help you grow and can strengthen the relationship between you.

3. Know that there is a time and place for different conversations. If things get heated between you and someone else, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I am so interested to hear more about your take on this — let’s come back to this next week.” Then come back to the conversation when you are feeling ready. Leaving the door open preserves the relationship, and preserving the relationship (assuming the relationship is a safe one to be in) is the only chance you have to influence them for good in the future.

4. Tell people what they’re doing right. Our leaders often only hear from us when we are unhappy about something. We never tell them when they do something well. Think about how that would feel at work: you never receive a performance review in which your boss tells you what you’re doing well, you only receive hundreds of pieces of hate mail every day. What if we stop yelling at our leaders and start incentivizing them to do the right thing by giving them positive feedback? “Dear ______________, I really appreciated the way you tried to extend an olive branch to Representative ________________. I admire your bipartisanship and am proud you represent me and my state.” Tell them when they get it right. Positive feedback is a powerful motivator.

5. Have the humility to change your mind, and encourage others to do the same. There is absolutely no shame in saying, “I have learned so much more about this topic, and based on all the new things I’ve found, I’ve changed my mind.” This is not flip-flopping, this is learning. This isn’t a character flaw, it’s a strength. Demonstrating that you can change your mind when presented with new evidence inspires others to do the same. In the words of Adam Grant, “If you like being right, the fastest way to get there is to stop being wrong.” Change your mind and tell others why you’ve changed your mind. That is humble leadership. That’s the kind of person others want to follow.

Simply put, is there anything else we can do to ‘just be nicer to each other’?

Yes. We can stay out of the comments sections of news organizations on social media. They are a hot mess inside of a dumpster fire inside of a train wreck. I have yet to see one person who feels hopeful about humanity after reading and participating in arguing with trolls.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Absolutely. Things have been far, far worse for Americans in the past (and are far worse for some around the world now.) There was a time when over 600,000 Americans died fighting fellow citizens for their right to own other human beings. There was a time when the government rationed how much meat, dairy, oil, and fruit every family was allowed to have. There was a time when Japanese Americans were forced to give up their homes and businesses to live in internment camps. I could go on and list dozens of examples of how we used to be worse off than we are now. And yet, we continued to grow and progress and work (albeit slowly at times) to better all Americans. The work is far from over, but we have made significant progress, and I have no doubt we’ll continue to make significant progress in the future.

If you could tell young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our society, like you, what would you tell them?

That most of the best and hardest things in the world have been achieved by people simply starting. All you need to do is start. You don’t have to have a plan to change everything, and no one expects you to. The weight of the world does not rest on your shoulders. No one can do everything, but all of us can do something.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

George W. Bush and Michelle Obama

How can our readers follow you online?

Instagram: @SharonSaySo

Facebook: @SharonSaysSo

Twitter: @sharon_says_so

This was very meaningful, and thank you so much for the time you spent on this interview. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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