When’s the last time you heard someone say, “I’d like to better understand where the other side is coming from on ________?” (Name your favorite polarizing issue that’s paralyzed this country.)
Such old-fashioned open-mindedness is hard to find. Polarization has elevated partisanship to a virtue. We stake out rigid positions and tune in to talk shows or join online groups that confirm that there are only two sides to issues, and ours is the just and virtuous side. We assume terrible things about the faceless, villainous ignoramuses on the other side, whose poisonous views are threatening our lifestyle and all we hold dear. There’s no hope in trying to talk to them — we have nothing in common.
Yet, if we didn’t know where any of these seemingly crazed idiots stand on issues, we most certainly would find something in common with them. We do this regularly at social events, community gatherings or even while standing in line in the checkout lane. We connect on a human level, perhaps even become friends.
In fact, various dialogue models are built on the notion that connecting on a human basis is the key to developing a mutual understanding that leads to productive discussion. In particular, two local models have shown that once a human connection is made, even emotionally heavy, polarizing issues can be civilly discussed.
The Minnesota Council of Churches’ (www.mnchurches.org) “Respectful Conversations” project creates safe spaces to talk about controversial issues. The issues the council has tackled are among the most divisive, including same-sex marriage and guns.
Facilitated conversation moves away from debate to focus on how people came to their views and how they became part of participants’ value systems — thus forging a human connection and laying the groundwork for understanding and even empathy. The process quiets the physiological “fight or flight” response to hearing opposing views, so that real listening can begin. In post-conversation evaluations, 88 percent felt more confident having a future conversation about a difficult topic. One such participant in a discussion about guns summed up his experience: “I realized that as tempting as it is to dismiss those on the other side, doing so only polarizes them against us. By taking an extremely mild and thoughtful tone, showing great patience and respect, I was able to relate to them — and them to me — as people.”
The Minneapolis YWCA’s (www.ywcampls.org) “Racial Justice Facilitation” program provides a comfortable environment for sharing personal experiences and opinions about race and racism. The program recognizes that each participant comes from a unique, experientially based starting point in exploring racism and how to work against it. Many employer and community groups have engaged in these facilitated discussions as a means of helping adjust to an increasingly multicultural workforce and marketplace. The process draws on Native American talking circles, in which all participants share responsibility for making sure that everyone has an equal voice and is heard. Looking out for on another is a fertile seedbed for mutual understanding — and even bonding. In a recent discussion, several people of color told how mainstream humor that pokes fun at their differences makes them feel devalued and unaccepted. It was a poignant moment of solidarity and personal growth, with many of the other participants expressing chagrin that they’ve laughed at “jokes” they no longer find funny.
In both programs, the aim is not to change minds but to develop understanding. Evaluations confirm they’re successful. Once a human relationship is established among participants who think differently, it becomes nearly impossible for them to make knee-jerk judgments about the faceless group of people whose opinions or situations differ from theirs.
This is an essential first step toward finding common ground and workable solutions.
These programs offer a road map for a way out of our dysfunctional democracy.
Elected officials won’t change their intransigent behavior overnight, but deep-rooted change starts with individuals. No question, we the people can arrive at mutual understanding on issues through human connection and civil conversation. People who live at opposite poles on issues spend more time on humanity’s common ground than apart.
Rich Cowles is a Minneapolis YWCA “Racial Justice” volunteer facilitator and Minnesota Council of Churches “Respectful Conversations” participant.