“We need to talk.” 

When uttered, these four words have the power to instill fear in the hearts of spouses, children, and employees alike. They aptly describe the situation we face as a nation today. 

The problem? Toxic polarization – the way we demonize each other across differences. Most of us have few or no friends who have different political preferences. We think “other people in America” pose the biggest threat to our way of life. We are finding it more and more difficult to say what we believe without the conversation devolving into utter chaos. Unsurprisingly, we shut down. We don’t talk. It’s a problem we can all hear, loud and clear.

The good news is that most of us want to talk. Most of us believe it is crucial for everyday Americans to be involved in finding solutions to the problems facing their communities. In a time marked by deep-seated divisions along ideological, political, and social lines, the need for constructive dialogue has never been more pressing. 

Since last August, 19 graduate students seeking a degree in Integrated Marketing Communications at the University of Mississippi have been planning and preparing for the seventh annual National Week of Conversation (NWoC). They are helping provide real opportunities for people across the country to build bridges of understanding and empathy. Each of them committed to the course because they understand that beneath our differences lie shared humanity and common aspirations. They’ve been learning and applying concepts from Collective Impact and Reflective Structured Dialogue and are both inspiring and encouraging to work with. 

At its core, NWoC embodies the principles of empathy, respect, and openness – values that are essential for a thriving democracy. When people take the time to really listen to others, they learn. They learn that we really aren’t that different, that we share many of the same values and aspirations, something reinforced by findings of several studies. They learn that others, like them, desire to make positive change in our communities. They learn, as Brene Brown has written, that “people are hard to hate close up.” 

These students are being courageous enough to put aside their own agendas and listen to the experiences of others. They are finding that this desire to listen across our differences is shared by the majority of their peers. And they are standing up opportunities to work together despite forces working to tear us apart. 

But don’t take their word for it. Experience it yourself. Find an event to attend, here, and be with the nearly 80% of Americans who believe in creating more opportunities for people to talk across their differences. And who knows, maybe you’ll learn its not as scary as it sounds after all.  

Graham Bodie is Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Media and Communication in the School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. When asked what he does for a living he responds, “I teach people to listen.” More importantly, he has been able to work with a group of dedicated students for several years to plan and execute the National Week of Conversation, a yearly campaign launched by Listen First Project in 2018 that seeks to provide opportunities for people to #ListenFirst across their differences. This year, those students have put together an amazing set of promotional toolkits and events for the Better Together Film Festival that features film screenings across the country including Tupelo and Oxford. Several of them contributed to the writing of this piece.

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