Be a bridge builder across differences

Building a bridge from both directions for the Hoover Dam

Want to be a bridge builder across differences based on neuroscience? This article from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley offers great insights. Starting with that article as an experienced mediator and negotiator that focuses on conflict resolution additional commentary is provided that expands on some of the observations to help you work with others to overcome conflicts or disputes. Read on to learn more.

The article offers five ways to have better conversations across differences. These are to

  1. Listen to their story
  2. Try not to take anything personally
  3. Be a bridge, and not a barrier
  4. Lean into discomfort
  5. Set norms to create a safe and brave container

The commentary that follows uses similar headings, highlights key points from the article and offers additional thoughts to enhance results.


Listen to the other party


You have a story. Everyone has a story. The question is what is their story? This is probably the most important task. Listen to them. Let them talk for at least 10 minutes. No matter what they say, suspend judgment and do not offer advice. Instead think about what they are saying and what questions you can ask that demonstrate that you are listening with the intention of learning more.

Take the time to understand where they are coming from. Feel their pain.

Work on fostering trust. Use listening techniques actively by paraphrasing, asking open ended questions, summarizing, and empathizing with the other party. Try to find ways to connect with the other party.


Do not take things personally


This is hard. When you feel attacked, the natural inclination is to attack back. You still need to protect yourself. If you can try and help the other person grow by asking questions that may help that person, see things from a different direction. What if you were me? What if I were you? Can they expand on the statement made? The phrase “tell me more” may encourage them to relate even better to where they are coming from. Avoid escalating the situation.

Take a deep breath or several deep breaths. Slow down. Be empathetic.

Try and relate to the other party. Work to de-escalate yourself when you feel you have been triggered. Be aware of how you are feeling and why. Continue to be courteous. Work with the other person. Give yourself positive self-talk with self-distancing. That is use your own name and encourage yourself to remain calm, focused, and keep in mind you are there to help the situation. You can do this.

This will help you avoid impulsive behavior and negative reactions. This may allow you and them to rephrase a negative statement into more of a neutral commentary. They may even have said something they had not intended. This gives them a chance to rephrase what they said. By giving grace and offering a peaceful approach this may help the other party reflect and de-escalate their rhetoric.


Encourage authenticity


By taking the time to build trust it is possible for you and for the others involved to give everyone the opportunity to be authentic. Promote trust by first taking stock in yourself. What are your biases, stereotypes, and hinderances that prevent you from being your true self with others? Understand how these can impact your own ability to be honest.

Demonstrate openness, integrity, honesty, and acceptance of others.

Avoid blaming others or yourself.  Emphasize kindness when working with difficult people. Focus on the problem. Listen and hear the stories and perspectives of others. This will give both of you permission to be your authentic selves.


Focus on the problem


What is the problem? Why is it difficult to address? Why is it uncomfortable. Think about these questions ahead of time and how you can change your perspective from looking at this as a problem to instead looking at this as an opportunity? This can be a growing moment. This is the time for you to lean into the area of discomfort and work collaboratively to address something both parties care about. I like the article’s commentary to say

“This is difficult for me, but I’m going to continue nonetheless.”

Let the other party always finish and have their say. Don’t interrupt. You may be surprised at what you may find out. Sincerely keep asking yourself, what else should I be asking?

Pay attention to yourself and how you are feeling. If you are starting to tense up notice this and ask yourself why you are tensing up. What is causing you to be triggered? Notice this and take several deep breaths. Keep focused on the prize and what you are trying to do. This will help you continue even in a tense situation.


Process check


In order to set up the process for success, do you want to have some ground rules that everyone can live by? This is a process check. If you all agree that there should be some rules to go by before entering into a difficult conversation, work together to develop what these might be. They need to be owned by the participants. Let the participants come up with their own rules. Here are some example ideas.

  • Come prepared
  • Be present and on time
  • One person speaks at a time (you could have something like a feather given to whomever is speaking)
  • The person speaking is not to be interrupted. They should be given enough time to complete their thoughts
  • Speak from the “I” perspective
  • Keep an open mind
  • Everyone gets a chance to be heard
  • Be gentle on the people and tough on the problem
  • Discuss the undiscussable
  • We honor confidentiality
  • Someone will document follow up action items
  • Keep a bin of other things to address outside of this meeting




By considering the five suggestions presented here with patience, work, and care coupled with suspending judgment, it may be possible to find our shared humanity with one another. When we do that, we help one another to bring out the best in each other. As we find ways to authentically connect with each other, listen actively to one another, and educated judiciously we build bridges and negotiate closure. This is the idea from The Collaboration Effect. See Peaceful Resolutions for ideas on how to overcome conflicts.

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]