Connecting Heart and Mind in Divided Times

By DANA L. CURTIS JD ’87

Dana Curtis

Dana L. Curtis J.D. ’87 is the new director of Conflict Resolution Programming at Santa Clara Law. Photo by Keith Sutter.


Canadian singer-songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen captured the fundamental paradox of conflict beautifully in his song “Anthem”:
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Every conflict presents both challenge and opportunity. Politically, we are deeply divided: There is a crack. The fundamental challenge? How to reconnect with our common humanity despite political differences. So suffering is an opportunity: That’s how the light gets in. Conflict resolution tools help us answer this call with our hearts and minds.

In the small North Idaho town where I grew up and taught high school for many years, I was woven into a community fabric, connected with others I cared about without regard to age, gender, economic status, education, or political beliefs. My community was not diverse racially and did not acknowledge differences in sexual orientation—it was a long time ago. But we knew one another as interesting and more or less complex human beings, never as onedimensional Republicans or Democrats.

A similar town is Haines, Alaska, where Hillary beat Trump by four votes. In a Morning Edition story on National Public Radio last May, the town’s family physician observed: “We’re actually hardwired to judge things around us and decide if somebody is one of us or one of them. But once you decide somebody’s one of ‘them,’ it’s real easy to say, ‘Well, if I disagree about this, maybe I disagree with him about everything.’ And suddenly I can’t find any common ground.”

Into the cracks that divide parties, mediators shine the light of understanding through deep empathic listening. When we focus our full attention, our capacity to resonate with the other’s emotional states arises naturally.

Mediation is about helping people recover that common ground. Parties in mediation not infrequently enter as “them-and-us” and leave as “us.” Warring neighbors become friends; antagonistic partners collaborate creatively to end or resume business on good terms; divorcing parents focus on a child’s best interests; and alienated family members muster the moral courage to apologize, forgive, and reunite. Where the parties can demonstrate diligence in finding resolution, they reconnect with one another and with their own nature as creative, loving, and whole human beings.

Into the cracks that divide parties, mediators shine the light of understanding through deep empathic listening. When we focus our full attention, our capacity to resonate with the other’s emotional states arises naturally. Our neurons—hardwired to fire in empathy—sadly don’t function well in conflict. It is difficult to listen to our enemies.

As I have experimented with connecting with people with whom I differ, I have found airplanes to be great laboratories. On a recent flight from Washington, D.C., I sat next to a man who operated a New Jersey construction company and a Montana cattle ranch. Our seatmate was a young woman who worked in the federal government. I eavesdropped as they discussed their divergent views about Trump’s presidency shortly after takeoff. Later, I initiated a conversation with him.

“I overheard a bit of your conversation. It seemed to go pretty well,” I said.

“Yes,” he said, “it was good.”

“I am a mediator who helps people communicate effectively across differences, and I am interested to know what made your conversation go well?” I asked.

He responded, “We spoke from our hearts.”

We had an engaging conversation about speaking from the heart. But when the conversation shifted to his political views, the quality of our discourse changed; I was less engaged and connected and less curious. In retrospect, I realize I was listening to him with my mind, no longer with my heart. As the conversation ended, I am embarrassed to admit, I offered jokingly: “Maybe next time you will vote Democratic.” I had lost my attention: My focus diminished to “How can I change him?” Instead, I might have returned to listening to understand, not persuade, him.

Listening with the heart facilitates connection. Psychological research demonstrates that exposure to the suffering of others can lead either to 1) empathic distress, causing us to suffer and withdraw out of self-protection, or 2) compassion, resulting in positive, other-oriented feelings and motivation to relieve suffering. When we listen with compassion, we not only understand another’s suffering with our minds, we care from our hearts. This caring enables the light of understanding to shine more brightly and allows us to connect.

Bill Clinton, speaking about terrorism in 2006 on the television show Meet the Press, cited as a national problem “the illusion that our differences matter more than our common humanity.” The same might be said for our political divide. If we look for what we share, we will discover that our political differences matter less than we think.

As expressed optimistically by a long-time resident of Haines, Alaska: “We will fight, we will scrap, we’ll go to the bar and have a beer together. And we’ll bounce back and we’ll be different. But … [w]e’ll still be a community that, at the base of it—at the heart of it—we love each other.”

But first we must rediscover our common humanity, and to do so we must know one another beyond our politics. Our divisions have opened the space for understanding to occur. If we can deeply listen, love may follow. When all is said and done, as Ram Dass has said, “we’re all just walking each other home.”


DANA CURTIS J.D. ’87 is the director of Conflict Resolution Programming at Santa Clara Law.

Adapted from a keynote address at Community Boards of San Francisco’s Peacemakers Awards, June 2, 2017.