Back to the Jul-Aug 2020 issue

Bridging Divides During the COVID-19 Crisis

By Mariah Levison

We all hope that the COVID-19 crisis brings us together. It would be a nice silver lining in a time when our country is so divided. However, the tenor of the debate over business restrictions, nationally and locally, is one example of how the stress of this crisis can tear us apart.Illustrating the bridging of ideas during the pandemic.

Right now, cities and the state are wrestling with how to meet two very important needs — health and economic security. Many among us fear only one of these needs can be met. Either we can place restrictions on businesses and avert larger-scale loss of life but lose our livelihoods, or we can all go to work and restore the economy but increase the number of lives lost.

Conflict has a toxic impact on our brain, leading us to think in “either or” terms — but there is a better way to deal with the myriad economic, health, and other COVID-19 impacts that we will be addressing for years to come.

Developing solutions

Minnesota has invested in building government and community capacity to develop solutions that meet the diverse needs of its citizens. Using the science of human behavior, several dispute resolution organizations in Minnesota help elected and appointed public officials, as well as the community at large, work together. They find that they can solve problems by understanding each other’s point of view, identifying the needs of everyone involved, and developing solutions that address and integrate these needs, rather than taking an adversarial approach.

Today’s difficult public policy issues are complex — especially managing the response to COVID-19. People do and should have differing ideas about how to solve these issues. The trouble arises when we lose the belief that we have shared values and when we lack the trust and relationships to bridge the divides. Conflict itself isn’t a problem, but dealing with conflict effectively is key to a healthy democracy.

Guiding principles to resolve differences

Everyone can agree that our approach to managing COVID-19 should be one that integrates the important needs of health and economic security. That might seem obvious, but when we get down into the details about how to do that, it gets harder. So, as your team wrestles with how to best manage COVID-19, work to follow these guiding principles:

  • Recognize and focus on shared values. While individuals hold different positions on controversial issues, they are generally motivated by the same core set of values such as fairness, responsibility, and compassion. Remind yourself that the other side isn’t without values but, in fact, shares many of your values.
  • Explore the other side’s perspective. To identify mutually acceptable solutions, it is important to be able to generate options that address the interests of the other side. Ask open ended questions and listen to learn about their point of view, rather than to prepare a rebuttal, to help identify their interests.
  • Commit to developing integrative solutions. After listening long enough and well enough to understand the other side’s needs, work hard to develop creative solutions that address (or integrate) the most important needs of everyone involved. This kind of solution will not only be more acceptable to all parties but will be a better solution because it will resolve more aspects of the problem.
  • Find the good in everyone. Very few people get up in the morning wondering, “How can I make the world a worse place today?” Most people, most of the time, do what they believe is best. In order to solve a problem with someone, it is essential to find and connect with the goodness in them.

In the middle of extremely trying times, it’s important to see the value in having different ideas about how to address complex issues, and to recognize that we share values with people with whom we do not share ideas. We can foster relationships in spite of different ideas, and we can develop integrative solutions to our health and economic challenges together.

Several Minnesota organizations offer direct services, training, and other resources for assisting government and community in bridging divides over difficult issues. If your city needs support in working through a difficult issue related to COVD-19 or other public issues, contact the League of Minnesota Cities Collaboration Services (www.lmc.org/collaboration) or the Minnesota State Office of Collaboration and Dispute Resolution (www.mn.gov/admin/ocdr) to request assistance.

Mariah Levison is director of the State Office of Collaboration and Dispute Resolution. She wrote this article in collaboration with staff from the League of Minnesota Cities, Association of Minnesota Counties, Dispute Resolution Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Community Mediation Minnesota, and the nonprofit organization Braver Angels.

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in the Pioneer Press.