At his many talks and conferences, john powell,” the head of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley, likes to tell the story of a pastor who, hearing that he ought to build bridges with people who are very different from him, asked powell a tricky question, “john, are you saying I should bridge with the devil?” powell’s response to the pastor always gets a laugh or two: “ Maybe don’t start there.”

The powel goes on, making a distinction between building what he calls short bridges and long bridges that I find handy as heck. “Build short bridges and become more practiced, become more skilled at building bridges,” he says. “And then, at some point, you may need to re-question, ‘Who are you calling the devil?’”

Bridging is the answer to sorting, othering, and siloing. It’s what we do when we step out of our silos and try to see things from a different point of view. It can take patience, humility, and a good heap of courage. But it works.

Research keeps showing us that the more you mingle with people in your “otherized” out-groups, the less prejudice you’ll feel against them. In fact, a study of 515 other studies found that chatting in person with someone from an out-group cut down prejudice 94 percent of the time. But it’s not just about prejudice. Bridging fights back against your out-group biases to sharpen your judgment – even when it’s your job to stay impartial. In one study of how federal judges make their calls in the courtroom, liberal judges’ opinions moved to the left when they worked with other liberal judges, and conservative judges’ opinions moved to the right when they worked with other conservative judges. But when liberal and conservative judges worked together, that dampened their ideological tendencies. In both cases, what made the difference wasn’t exposure to information or education, but people. 

We don’t interact with ideas, causes, or beliefs. I picture all of these proxies peeling off us like invisible, skintight masks and just floating away, leaving us, all of us – the only ones who make and unmake this world we live in – rubbing our eyes and blinking. 

The way I see it, we interact only with each other. We sort into our groups, push off our others, and settle in, too often and too deeply, to silos that keep us from seeing each other for who we really are.

No us can see a them clearly without opening our eyes wider than we’re used to and building bridges to span divides we fear are too big to cross. You know what? They might be. But the most important thing about a bridge isn’t that it’s crossed, but that it’s there. That is exists and is maintained so that one day, when someone who’s been nervous is ready, it can hold their weight, carry their truth, and expand their world.

From “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times” by Mónica Guzmán