BRIDGING DIVIDES: Can You Respond (Not React?)

May 2024

A participant in our webinar about taking a direct, deliberate, and depolarizing approach to controversial topics asked a powerful question: 

How do you think about responding productively to communication that is so emotionally charged, strident, and binary that it intimidates and shuts down space for good-faith dialogue and honoring of complexity, tradeoffs, and tensions?

Over a month of mulling, marinating, and meditating, I found much of the answer in the question itself. In three separate posts, we’ll look at “responding,” (the post you’re currently reading) “productively,” and “intimidates v. shuts down.”

In the days before and weeks after our April webinar, encampments protesting Israel’s impact on civilians in Gaza emerged on campuses across the country and around the world. While some were peaceful, those that became increasingly violent dominated news coverage. Day after day tensions escalated, sometimes involving law enforcement.

In the damage to people and property in the protests, we witnessed plenty of examples of unhelpful reactions. Given the history of the region and how many people have been harmed and killed there, including since October 2023, anyone paying attention to this conflict will have intense emotions, regardless of where they stand.

Which makes it even more challenging to respond rather than react. “Reactions” are driven by emotions and impulses. Even the word – re-action – implies a repetition of an action without filtering or altering. By comparison, a “response” is more considered and deliberate. While a “reaction” is often immediate, out of control, and unthinking, a “response” comes from a place of thoughtfulness and intentionality, having reflected on how to reach a constructive outcome

The difference is easy to understand here in a blog. In the midst of an emotionally charged environment, as the questioner posed, a response requires two types of safety: physical and emotional.


First and foremost, being able to respond means accounting for your physical safety. If you are alone among strident protestors, you may decide to escape, not engage. It may be safer to reach people with whom you disagree at a later date, be it in an opinion piece, a community event, a film screening, or other space for a more peaceful discussion.

But notice I said “accounting for” – not “ensuring” – your physical safety. There may be times you decide to put your physical body on the line, as in protests and rallies, or to sacrifice your health, as people do in hunger strikes. These are choices only you can make and there may be times you determine such actions are so likely to catalyze positive change that you take the risk.

People who know me may be surprised to read that last paragraph. Heck, even people who don’t know me may assume there’s never a good reason to willingly put yourself in harm’s way. To be clear, these options are not decisions to be made lightly. We all have one “wild and precious life” and may decide to risk it for the sake of a cause, whether in military service to our country – like those we honor on Memorial Day – or an issue we believe matters.


Emotional safety, on the other hand, can be harder to gauge than physical safety. Now, I have a younger brother who played football and could thrive in a post-apocalyptic world while his big sister (me) can’t throw a short pass and would perish after 24 hours without a microwave. As I write about “emotional safety,” I can picture him rolling his eyes – and if you are, too, hear me out.

We live in an era where some folks want to see considerable amounts of change as fast as possible while others feel things are moving too fast already. That’s not a veiled allusion to political parties – the same person will move along that spectrum as the topic shifts from the use of generative Artificial Intelligence (AI), laws impacting reproduction, immigration, sources of electricity, and ranked-choice voting, for example. Keeping up with these issues in an increasingly divided and divisive time can be exhausting, particularly when fighting mis- and disinformation on top of the daily grind of work, parenting, caring for aging parents, paying bills, and any number of items you can add to this list.

As if that weren’t enough already, imagine sitting down to talk with someone who disagrees with you about a topic that impacts you personally. For example, someone who supports environmental regulations that may threaten the future of your farm, or someone who opposes gender-affirming care when your child identifies as transgender. It is work to sit down and talk with people whose views are completely antithetical to our own. It is easy to call people names, call people idiots, and call people out. It is work to be in a place to call people in. (For more on what that means, watch this TED talk with Loretta J. Ross that another webinar participant helpfully shared.)

The work of engaging with someone with differing views requires staying (mostly) composed even amidst intense emotions, setting boundaries even if that means adding more time to the process, and seeking solutions even if they won’t make everyone happy. And just as we need a break now and then from physical work, we need breaks from such emotional work.

If you’re at the emotional 50-yard line with the mental equivalent of several 300-pound lineman coming at you, pass the communications football to someone on the 10-yard line for this play. While upholding our democracy isn’t a sport, it does take teamwork. It takes civic action in the form of physically – and peacefully – demonstrating a position, and in the form of being at the table for tough conversations.

In our learning sessions, we also discuss how to respond as an organization, accounting for factors like reputation and funding. As an organization or an individual, whether you are out on the street or “where the rubber meets the road,” being able to respond rather than react is central to effective advocacy.

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO

Read our next post on the responses that are productive and resources to support these types of engagements.

These blogs share my perspective on big topics and I’d love to hear yours. How do these ideas land with you? Do they raise more questions? What elements did I miss? Please use the form below to keep this conversation going.

(Photo of calm, pastel sea by Harli Marten.)


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