Lessons Learned from South Africa that We Can All Apply to Bridge Our Divisions

We seem more divided today than ever before. Most people are afraid to approach divisive topics for fear of damaging a relationship or embarrassing themselves. We only consider what could go wrong with a conversation versus what could go right. So we don’t try, allowing assumptions, biases and stereotypes to fester. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I lived in South Africa from 1996 to 1998. It was two years after the end of apartheid, after Nelson Mandala was released from prison and became president. I got to experience what it was like for a country to transition from a deeply divided apartheid state to a unified democracy.

Much of this was made possible through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was founded in the belief that truth was the only means by which South Africa could come to a shared understanding of their past in order to forge a new identity in the future. The commission, led by Desmond Tutu, held hearings across the country in churches and community centers, where victims of crimes under apartheid and perpetrators of crimes could come forward and share their stories in the spirit of seeking understanding and healing. 

The stories were aired on TV every Sunday, which helped spark a spirit of listening, learning and relationship-building across the country. I saw before my eyes how an intentional effort to uncover and understand the human experience common among all of us beyond race, culture and political affiliation healed an entire country.

With that experience in mind, I am making a conscious effort to never walk away from the opportunity to find common ground through conversation even when it seems impossible. So far, I have not regretted any of my attempts and am amazed at how a single conversation can replace biases and assumptions with empathy and understanding. And the good news is, I’m not alone. I’m having more conversations with people about having conversations with people lately! If we keep it up, I think we can make the workplace (and the world) a whole lot better…one conversation at a time!

View the inspiring interviews with people who are leaning into challenging conversations over a host of sensitive topics – race, politics, religion and more. And download my Bridging Differences Through Dialog Playbook for simple tips on how to have productive conversations across differences.

In these difficult times, honest dialog is at least a small positive step we can all take in the right direction.  If you are inspired to bridge differences through dialog or have your own story to share, join in!

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Beth believes a positive, connected and committed organizational culture is critical to business success. That’s why she combined her 25 years of corporate leadership and management consulting experience with her expertise in diversity and inclusion and positive psychology to launch, The Brimful Life, a consulting firm that works with executives to strengthen their leadership skills and transform their leadership teams and organizational cultures to better support the organization’s vision and strategic goals. In addition, The Brimful Life podcast series, keynote presentations and workshops inspire and equip leaders to put people and culture first.

Beth has lived and worked in London, Tokyo, Johannesburg, Bangkok, Boston and New York City. She has a BA in English Literature from the University of Virginia, a MA in International Relations from Tufts University and an MBA from Columbia University.

Beth lives a brimful life by spending time with her husband and three kids and with running, speed skating and watching cooking competition shows on TV which is ironic because she hates to cook.

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