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Improve Your Communication Skills With The “Bridge And Tunnel” Method

By Liz Guthridge

Date Published: Feb 22, 2022

Can I tell you a story?

Years ago early in my career, my employer offered me a transfer between the Detroit office and the New York City headquarters. I grabbed the opportunity. Ever since I was a kid growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, I had dreamed about living in Manhattan.

I loved life in the “Big Apple,” walking to work, the gym, shops, restaurants, the theater and other entertainment without having to deal with a car. Many of my new officemates noticed I was taking full advantage of the bright lights of the big city. Several colleagues noted I was spending more money on rent, but saving time, enjoying the conveniences and avoiding being a “B&T.”

Improve Your Communication Skills With The “Bridge And Tunnel” Method

What’s a “B&T” I asked? “B&T” (or “BNT”) they explained was a "Bridge and Tunnel" person who commuted into Manhattan. BNTs took buses and trains from the New York City boroughs, Long Island and the rest of the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut).

Back then “Bridge and Tunnel” was a pejorative term indicating the class difference for those who couldn’t afford to live in Manhattan, the highest priced of the five boroughs. (According to the Urban Dictionary, the “B&T” slang has now evolved to denote differences in culture awareness, values and attitude, thanks to the ongoing “hipsterization” of popular culture.)

Well, I was hardly a Manhattan sophisticate. My high school’s cheer for home football games in Sand Springs, OK, was “Kill, kill, blood makes the grass grow.” No way did I have the chutzpah to refer to anyone as “B&T” in New York City.

Fast forward to today. The "bridge and tunnel" expression can evolve yet again. This time it can serve as a positive metaphor to support us humans as we talk in this era of heightened anxiety, polarization and distrust. In particular, we can use “bridges and tunnels” to navigate the tensions we often experience when individuals talk at us rather than with us, which often happens during storytelling or regular conversations.

When you intentionally “bridge,” you work to strengthen your connections to others as well as their subject matter and the situation. Your goals are twofold: 1) show your respect as a fellow human being and 2) confirm that you’ve listened and know what they’re saying. You don’t have to agree with them; instead, you’re acknowledging them and their expressed point of view.

One of the best ways to bridge is to use the “looping” technique developed by mediators Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein and explained in their 2009 book, Challenging Conflict: Mediation Through Understanding. Looping is a three-step process. First, you listen to the other person, paying close attention to what they’re emphasizing. (This can be different from what you find important.) Second, you synthesize what they’ve said and state it back to them. Third, ask them if you accurately heard them. Feeling heard is a powerful sensation for anyone.

As for “tunnels,” when you make the effort to tunnel, you dig into the details to improve your understanding. By taking the time to excavate, you also show respect as well as express interest to delve deeper into their content.

Asking clarifying questions is an effective way to tunnel. Three useful questions or statements include: “Tell me more.” “Can you give me some examples of what you’re talking about?” “That’s interesting. I’ve not heard that fact before. What are your sources?” The point is not to play “gotcha,” but instead to slow down, draw others out and work toward having a healthy exchange of words and ideas.

These acts of “bridging and tunneling” can be helpful with both conversations and storytelling. The latter continues to grow in popularity as an influential way for people to get their messages across and for good reasons.

When you tell someone a story, you command the space. You appeal to their emotions, encourage them to drop their guard and join you in looking at the world in a different way. And when done well, you may get them to care enough to grasp your intended message and possibly change their mind and even move into action. (To understand the science behind storytelling, check out neuroscientist Emily Falk’s essay, "Op-Ed: Why storytelling is an important tool for social change.")

By contrast, good conversatio