Although there are many aspects of this pandemic that are bringing us closer together and breaking down barriers between people, our country and our world continue to be incredibly divided along political and ideological lines, which has significantly negative consequences for each of us and all of us. As I write about in my new book, We’re All in This Together, while it isn’t easy or often encouraged in a real healthy and productive way, our ability to connect with people who see things differently than we do, politically and otherwise, is so important, especially right now.
I was on a plane a few years ago flying from Fort Lauderdale to New York. I’d spoken at two events in south Florida, was flying up to New York for some meetings, then on to Boston for another event, and then back to Florida for my final event before heading home. It was a crazy but exciting week. I was in full-on work/travel mode, which means I had tunnel vision—focused just on getting to where I needed to get to, taking care of myself physically so I’d be ready to go when it was time to speak, and getting as much work done as possible while on my flights and in my hotel rooms.
I was working on my laptop even as people were still boarding the plane that afternoon. Sitting on the aisle, I had to get up when the two people who were in the window and middle seat came to sit down. I greeted them briefly. They were together—a man who looked to be in his mid-50s and a woman who looked to be close to 80, whom I assumed was his mother.
As the flight began to take off, I had to put my computer away and wait for the plane to get to 10,000 feet before I could start working again, so I started flipping channels on the live TV in front of me. I landed on CNN and was catching up on the news of the day. We reached 10,000 feet and I pulled my laptop out and began to work. I had e-mails to catch up on and I was reviewing my latest podcast episode—so I pulled my headphones out of the airplane armrest and plugged them into my computer.
About 10 minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the man sitting to my right in the window seat motioning toward the TV screen in front of me. It was still showing CNN, but I wasn’t paying attention to it and couldn’t hear it since my headphones were plugged into my laptop. Then I heard him say, “Fake news, fake news!” I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me, to his mom, or just talking out loud to himself. So, I ignored him and kept working. Then he did it again, this time more demonstratively, his voice getting louder as he pointed at the screen.
I stopped what I was doing, took out my ear buds, turned to him, and asked, “Are you talking to me?”
“Yes! CNN is fake news. It’s just a bunch of liberal propaganda.”
I was a bit taken aback by his intensity. He seemed angry, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt nervous, but also intrigued. He and his mom both had the TVs in front of them turned to Fox News. I said, “I notice you’re watching Fox.”
“It’s the only honest news on TV,” he said passionately.
At this moment I realized I had a choice. There were various ways I could avoid getting into an argument with him. I also had a ton of work that I needed to get done. But my heart and mind were racing—I felt scared and defensive, but also excited and curious. I wanted to see where this conversation might go and what might happen, so I said, “Well, I’d be careful if I were you. I’ve read some studies that say people who consistently watch Fox are the most misinformed news viewers in America.” As you can imagine, he didn’t appreciate this comment.
“Oh, I see, you’re one of those liberal elites who thinks he knows everything.”
And then we were off to the races from there. We argued about Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, immigration, the economy, climate change, the military, guns, the police, and a number of other issues. I tried to stay calm and not get defensive, but that didn’t work so well. He continued to call me names and it got heated.
It was an odd and interesting experience to find myself in a pretty aggressive debate with this man whom I hadn’t known an hour before. And while I wasn’t concerned for my safety in any way, I did find it uncomfortable and upsetting. I also didn’t really enjoy being called “wimpy,” “whiney,” “snowflake,” and other things.
As the conversation escalated, I finally said, “Stop! Look, we clearly disagree in some pretty fundamental ways about these issues. But my deeper concern is that here we are, two strangers sitting on an airplane, and you’re calling me names simply because we disagree about politics.”
Then I shifted gears completely and asked him a question. “Do you have children?” He looked at me with surprise and said, “What?”
“Do you have kids?” I asked again.
“Yes,” he said. “I have four.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s great. We have two young daughters.”
“We have two boys and two girls,” he said. “Our oldest is thirty and the other three are in their twenties.”
“So, you’ve been at the parenting thing much longer than I have,” I said. “I worry sometimes that I’m doing things (or not doing things) that might be messing up our girls. I try to do the best I can, but sometimes I wonder if I’m doing a good job as a father.” Then I asked him, “Do you ever worry about that, or did you when your kids were younger?”
He paused, looked at me in a different way than he’d been looking at me, and didn’t answer the question initially. Eventually he said, “Of course. I think every parent feels that way at some point.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “Maybe, just like as a father I try to do the best I can and think my ideas, decisions, and actions are right, with respect to some of these big political issues, I have strong opinions, but I’m not sure I know what the solutions are. Some of these challenges are so large and complex, it’s possible that the answers are much bigger and more involved than I can even understand.”
At this moment, he was looking at me like I was a little crazy, but there seemed to be some recognition of what I was saying in his eyes. He said, “I guess?”
We both laughed a little, there was an awkward silence between us, and after almost 45 minutes of arguing, we just stopped. I went back to my laptop and he went back to chatting softly with his mom.
As my heart rate came down and I sat there reflecting on the intense conversation that had just taken place, a few thoughts came to mind. First of all, I had no idea if either of us convinced the other of anything. I didn’t walk away agreeing with his ideas or political views, and I doubt he did with mine. However, I did learn a bit more about where he was coming from and felt the anger, fear, and frustration he had about the media, the country, and the state of politics, which was actually enlightening for me on a number of levels. This man who was more than 10 years older than I am, a father of four, and a fire fighter from Long Island had a very different background and worldview than mine.
Second of all, when I was being self-righteous and defensive, it was hard for me to listen, hear, understand, and connect with him in any way. However, when we talked about our children, the conversation got more vulnerable and real, and I was able to find some common ground with him, which allowed us to, momentarily at least, connect with each other—human being to human being, father to father. And in that instant, I felt more empathy, compassion, and understanding for this man sitting across from me, even though we fundamentally disagreed about some pretty important issues.
Our country and our world are intensely divided right now. Although getting into arguments with strangers on airplanes may not be the most productive route, the only way we’re going to bridge this divide is if we’re willing to have these important and often uncomfortable discussions with each other.
If we have the courage and willingness, we can find common ground and when we do, we can have more understanding, insight, and appreciation for those who see things differently than we do. And, when we do this, we can start talking to each other about these important issues, and not just about each other to those who already agree with us. By doing this, we’ll remind ourselves and each other that we truly are in this together, and we’ll be more effective in addressing some of the biggest challenges we face collectively right now and as we move forward.
Feel free to leave a comment, question, or piece of feedback below or on my blog.
This is an adapted excerpt from We’re All in This Together, by Mike Robbins, published by Hay House Business, April 2020