A marriage counselor's advice for adland and a divided nation

You can't fix everything, but maybe little changes are the best victories, writes Marci Stiles.

The media frequently compares our conflicted America to a dysfunctional couple on the edge of divorce. But as a marriage counselor, I can say with confidence: I’ve seen worse.

Admittedly, our divided country is like many of the couples I work with. Neither side wants to bend. Neither wants to hear the other’s side. Both think the other is impossible to live with. Both fear opening up, being vulnerable and losing themselves to the other if they give in even an inch.

Recently, I was a part of a research project with ad agency Grey New York to understand the culture and meaning of togetherness, and how that applies to brands which are wondering whether they can make things better. Because as I understand, brands are asking themselves if they should try to play a role in bringing people together -- and what that might entail. For the research, we set up pairs of people in Denver and Dallas with opposing viewpoints and had them discuss contentious issues -- and what approaches they usually employ in real life, to face similar issues.

My personal focus was: how do you get the extremely polarized couples (or sides) to come closer and start focusing on our similarities and how to coexist and then thrive as a unit (or nation)?

The Grey research showed that people want to come together. And though brands often come across as misguided or self-serving, I personally see room for brands to help. I’m not in that business, but I know we are in a world where people are surrounded by advertising. Ads tell different stories which can be pretty powerful; so maybe ads can show people they’re understood, and maybe that can contribute to healing.

Whatever issues we have that are contributing to a split are going to follow you into the next relationship and so on and so forth. So, in the spirit of "FIX YOUR SHIT NOW!" Here’s how…

Spur unpleasant conversations. Now.
Studies show that the more people can put themselves in others’ shoes, the better they get along. And just the fact that our research participants wanted to be in the focus group tells you something; they found it worth their time to potentially have a very unpleasant conversation -- with the hope of surmounting their differences. As a country, we need to start talking about what we all really want at the core. And then we need to act as a team. How do we better our collective selves? How can we accomplish our goals?  It may start from prompting uncomfortable conversations, instead of the shiny and happy, to form teams of people who got over their differences.

Show what respect means
Respect means that you can still be united even though you have differing opinions.  Understanding that at the core all Americans want a better life for their kids to be able to express their opinions, to feel free, be able to make a decent living, to have good healthcare, etc. Those are basic human needs you can remind people of, and show, as you try to unite audiences with your messages. People (at least in my research groups) tried to actively listen; none of them raised voices or got heated, they stayed calm, they absorbed and they appeared to at least want to be respectful.  

Remind people there are gray areas
There’s an old saying: you can be right, or you can be happy, but you can’t be both. As with couples, one side can’t always be right, always get their way, or both. If they do, it creates an imbalance that leads to discord and general unhappiness.  Our nature is to feel that we have freedoms, choice and free will. If we never get heard or get our way, problems start. Show people that choices aren’t either/or.

Make people laugh even more
As a country, we need to stop being so freakin’ serious about ourselves. Remember as a kid we didn’t care what the person next to us looked like, where they were from, who they loved, if their parents made money -- we just wanted to have fun and not get grounded.  So, give people opportunities to play. Or if you’re prompting an uncomfortable discussion, don’t be afraid to use laughter to adjust the tone of the discussion.

Take small manageable steps
Big grand gestures and changes are wonderful -- but seldom stick. It’s the small little steps that can become lifelong good habits.

All of that said: I may not have an advertising job, but I know the power brands have, and their influence. You can’t fix everything, but maybe little changes are the best victories. These are the things that are sustainable, thus making them real game changers. If marketers do a little more, maybe we’ll see a lot more togetherness.

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