The antidote to today’s divided world: Meeting face-to-face
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When I look back on my experiences in three different presidential administrations, some of my best memories are of meetings. No, not the sorts of meetings that could just as easily be resolved with an email. I’m referring to the kinds of gatherings where people share their stories, exchange ideas and debate solutions to society’s greatest challenges.

As chief of staff for first lady Laura Bush, I had the honor of accompanying her to summits and conferences in the United States and abroad. Whether visiting small towns or large cities or remote villages overseas, we met with and listened to the experiences of mothers and fathers, teachers, schoolchildren and so many others. We hosted global health leaders and other experts for a first-ever White House summit on malaria, and we organized multiple conferences to strategize on how to expand best practices to improve literacy around the world. We launched an international partnership for breast cancer treatment, bringing together representatives from the State Department, MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and health leaders from around the world.

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More recently, I’ve chaired the summit planning committee for the White House Historical Association, convening a gathering of presidential scholars and historians, and presidential descendants to share their historical expertise and firsthand experience. As a member of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council, I’ve met with countless awe-inspiring and brave women who are eager to share their stories of rebuilding their country after years of Taliban rule and war.

One constant during my career has been the power of building professional relationships through face-to-face interaction. No email or virtual PowerPoint presentation is a substitute for the value of shaking another person’s hand and sharing a greater sense of purpose through the power of human connection.

At face-to-face meetings, participants find it easier to ask questions, revisit topics that need further exploration and brainstorm ideas for future events and initiatives. Professional relationships and friendships form over coffee in the morning, a luncheon panel discussion, detailed questions at a workshop and relaxing over dinner.

We leave these meetings with fresh ideas, a greater sense of other perspectives and new contacts in our field. By listening closely to others, and being listened to, we also come away with a real sense of empathy and camaraderie.

This kind of conversation and natural human connection can be too rare in the age of social media; yet it remains essential to our growth as a global, interconnected society based on mutual understanding.

When we’re behind our computer screens, it’s easy to devolve into angry, unproductive language where nearly every issue seems divisive. When we meet face-to-face, the effect is just the opposite. We realize just how much more we have in common and we come respect each other’s differences.

I’ve seen the value of meeting face-to-face and eye-to-eye firsthand and believe it’s essential to addressing and finding solutions to the challenges that lay before us today – from health care to national security to education to taxes and trade.

For elected leaders, especially, meeting face-to-face is essential. At every level of government, from local boards to state legislatures, the halls of Congress and the White House, well planned and productive meetings provide valuable insights into improving the lives of constituents.

Face-to-face is one antidote to today’s divided world. By taking the time to meet, and building human connections rather than electronic ones, we will undoubtedly bridge our differences more easily – and discover ways to do everything better.

Anita McBride is a former assistant to President George W. Bush and chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush. She presently serves as a senior advisor to the George W. Bush Institute and was recently named executive in residence at the Center for Presidential and Congressional Studies in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C.