In times of conflict, Emotional Intelligence can bridge racial and political divisions

It is often said that if you want to have a civil conversation, avoid politics, religion, and definitely race. But if we don’t talk about these things, how can we build trusting relationships?


The Edelman Group has been measuring global trust levels for decades and has noted an “implosion of trust” worldwide in 2017. A much-reported recent Pew Center poll showed that the majority of Democrats mistrust churches and financial institutions, while Republicans distrust colleges and the media. In this environment, everything and everyone is sorted into the category of friend or foe, depending on ideology.

It seems we distrust and tend to avoid people and organizations that do not share our values. But can we simply avoid everyone who disagrees with us or who seems like the “other”?

Nurturing emotional intelligence holds a key to reaching out across our comfort zones to build bridges of understanding. According to Six Seconds EQ practitioner Michael Eatman, the benefits of tackling these touchy topics far outweigh the costs, and the survival of humanity may just hinge on our ability to overcome our differences. The key is building trust through the practice of emotional intelligence. 

Communicating About Politics

Michael’s work with Six Seconds includes coaching and leading EQ Cafes in the United States to help people choose how they react when challenged by ideas different from their own. “In our country, many people are up in arms and alarmed. The Six Seconds’ philosophy is really powerful for allowing you to say, ‘What’s the potential that’s within me to make a choice?’ We need more words to move beyond, ‘I’m angry.’ We have to create a community where individuals know it’s possible to grow.”

Start with Self-Awareness and Recognizing Your Patterns

Given how emotionally charged these political divides can feel, how can we talk to someone who holds values opposite to our own? Michael says it starts with personal relationships and finding common ground.

“Acknowledge how you’re feeling. Dig into: ‘If I don’t like someone because of their political affiliation, what is that about? Is it about my insecurity, or about their humanity?’ The EQ process is really important for me. I get to recognize a pattern. If I’m resistant to someone who is different from me, then I can ask myself, ‘Is that a pattern for you, Michael? Who else is that pattern with? Is it with women, Jews, agnostic, atheists?’”

“When we’re dealing with the high tide of political differences, it’s about relating to others from a place of humanity. There are folks in my family that have a very different political perspective. One of my colleagues has a mother who is very conservative, while she is not. She says, ‘I can’t believe my mom is on a high horse of ‘Go President Trump!’ I said to her, ‘Even if you don’t support the president, the question is, how can you have a conversation about what really matters?’

Acknowledge someone else has a different perspective. Ask what their sense is of what’s happening in our country. We are sharing common challenges around political changes. We have to keep remembering that the wisdom not only lies within ourselves, but in our collective wisdom. We have to keep connecting. The degree to which I can connect with someone allows me to tap into our common humanity.”

Communicating About Race

As a black man in a predominantly white community, Michael Eatman finds the question of race difficult to ignore.

Michael works as Director of Community for Pike School, a private elementary school, where he is in charge of fostering dialog and connection. “That starts with communication, even between people with whom you think you have nothing in common. When I talk about racism, sexism, or any ‘isms’, the tools that Six Seconds has provided me with as a diversity practitioner have allowed me to live in the know, choose, give model, and has been instrumental in helping me to manage my emotions around these important topics.”

For Eatman, it’s all about keeping the lines of communication open. This summer he attended a training seminar with master diversity trainer and documentary film maker, Lee Mun Wah. One of Wah’s quotations really stuck with him: “I’m scared about this conversation about racism and bias all the time. But I’m more scared not to engage.”

Enhancing Emotional Literacy

One key to Michael’s success for his work in the diversity field is his ability to develop trust quickly by tuning in to the other person’s emotions. That is vital as an important skill when you talk about interacting across differences. I take a six seconds pause to consider what’s happening here when someone is talking about my race, my gender, or my size. How do I find wisdom within myself, and understand how I feel about it?”

First he had to overcome the angry black man stereotype. He recalls a colleague who asked him if he ever got angry.

“As a man of color, often times I learned to button things up nice and quick. So I said, ‘I don’t really get angry.’ Which is not really true. I’m a human being. I took a couple of weeks to think about it. Then I realized I do get angry!

Because of the situations people of color find themselves in, I could be angry all the time. The thing is, I need you to give me the space to be angry. So that when I do get angry, you don’t say, ‘There is a black person that is getting angry.’ It’s a reciprocal trust relationship situation in which you can handle my anger and then I can also be who I am.

“EQ has allowed me to be who I am, so that I can articulate what’s going on, and so I can be seen and not be feared

Talking about race and racism doesn’t have to mean avoiding conflict or offensive statements. Michael reflects, “If someone is saying something to me in an offensive way, I can communicate with them, that, as a black man, that’s really offensive, and because I treasure our relationship, I really want to make sure you understand what’s happening to me.”

Building Community Trust One Person at a Time

Connecting to each person, be it a stranger or a friend with different views, builds trust and community. Michael says it is about reaching out even when it feels uncomfortable. “The anti-Muslim rhetoric is very painful for those people I work with. We have to forge relationships, one person at a time; see who we can connect with in positions of power who will be the larger bridge builders. When I was looking at the change map, it was talking about individuals, then groups, then institutions. If you find your energy to engage, then maybe I can talk to you. Then we connect to a few more. It’s mobilizing individuals around a positive action and hope.”

Learning to Trust Strangers Using Consequential Thinking

Michael Eatman strives to be a living example to his kids of community building. It starts with trusting his own instincts by checking in with himself. Recently he was out to dinner with his family and saw a young Hispanic woman with a sign asking for money. “I saw her and I said to myself, ‘Someone else will help her.’ We went to eat, and an hour later she was still there. I was curious. I asked her what she was doing. She said she needed $100 to rent a car so she could take her driving test. I gave her a few dollars. I asked myself, ‘Do I want to engage?’ I could have said, ‘See you later.’ Instead I said, ‘If you can’t raise this $100, text me, and I’ll see what I can do.’ Even as I was doing it I was thinking, ‘Know, choose, give. Should I do this?’

A week later she called me and asked if I still wanted to help her. I had to ask myself if I wanted to go beyond the moment. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll help you.’ We met at the D.M.V. She got in my car to take her test, a perfect stranger. I was afraid she might destroy my car. But she passed the test! Her name was Athena. She started crying. She called her cousin, she says, ‘We did it!’ She hugged me twice and then she left. I thought, ‘What a way to be able to trust in humanity!’ I had to really use consequential thinking. If a person needs help, I need to get the best information I can to make this a better community.”

See other articles with Michael Eatman here:

Making Peace in Troubled Times

Teaching Tolerance

Rachel Goodman

Peabody Award-winning broadcaster and communications professional, editor, producer, and writer for effective outcomes. Ms. Goodman has been a radio producer for much of her career, specializing in short features and documentaries. Some of her work includes Southern Songbirds: the Women of Early Country Music, Pastures of Plenty: A History of California's Farmworkers, and The Boomtown Chronicles: Reflections on a Changing California. Ms. Goodman teaches journalism at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz County. Her goals are to facilitate positive change in the world through effective communication, and to continue conducting her work with the highest level of integrity possible.