unify america

How to Have Your Own Common Ground Experience with Our Partner Unify America

Put two strangers in a virtual meeting talking about some of the key issues of our time and it could go any number of ways. 

Now imagine putting two strangers in the conversation who are expressly chosen because they vote differently than you. 

Does the prospect of this make your heart race? If so, it’s likely not just because of the social awkwardness of talking to a complete stranger at length about substantive, difficult things. 

These days, the thought of being paired for an hour with someone who’s different than you — values, experiences, worldview, social issues, politics — is fraught with concern, and the expectation is that it would be unpleasant. What might they say? How will you respond? Will someone get angry? 

However, what if they discover that they share a lot of the same goals for the country? And that they actually enjoy meeting each other? What if instead of wondering, “How are we going to talk for a whole hour?” you end up talking for three hours? This has happened. 

The group Unify America created this, with its Unify Challenge: matching people for a one-on-one chat with another American who might vote differently than you or is different in any number of significant ways. The goals are to break biases, switch up the information sources we feed on daily, and practice really listening. 

People sign up for any number of reasons: a workplace or school initiative; a desire to understand people who think and feel differently; an interest in what drives the current political and social climate; or perhaps a curiosity about what is “different from yourself” looks and sounds like on a personal level. 

When you register, you’re asked a number of questions about your views, are assigned a date and time and are given a log in for a video chat. Once you begin, you watch and wait while an algorithm pairs you with your conversation mate. And then their image appears on video, along with a loose script of innocuous questions to start your discussion. Where did you grow up? And something along the lines of, “How do you think your upbringing and location led to the person you are today?” Which leads eventually to, “How strongly do you feel that abortion should be decided by a unified law encompassing the country, and why?”

Here’s what tends to happen: The designers of the challenge guessed rightly that once we get to know someone, spending time in conversation about what shapes the forces in their world, we are more likely to respond with civility and really consider their point of view. Something that can’t happen on social media, or in most news stories or even opinion pieces published in the media. A person who believes strongly in, say, gun control, and that the overall moral lifesaving good of controlling who can have what might be left thoughtfully stumped when the other says they feel the same way about curtailing abortion rights. 

Unify America was launched in January 2020 to reduce contempt, teach Americans to work together, and build a diverse community to find unique solutions and solve our biggest problems.

It seems like a small thing, this microcosm of understanding and goodwill. But what if it’s not? What if thousands of small conversations like these can play a small part in reducing the anger that’s roiling our country? If so, it’s not just a small gesture between two people, a drop in the bucket. It’s an act of national repair.