Reclaiming Conversation and Civil Disagreement

November 17, 2020 Updated: November 17, 2020

In the aftermath of the 2016 elections, many were shocked by the country’s polarization. Stories soon followed of families falling out and personal or professional relationships deteriorating. Over the past four years, the polarization seems to only have increased. But there are also indications that the average American does not want to hate his or her neighbors.

Soon after the 2016 presidential election, the organization Braver Angels (then named Better Angels) brought 10 Donald Trump voters and 10 Hillary Clinton voters together in a room in southwest Ohio to see if a civil conversation could take place. Not only was the workshop a success, but the organization has grown over the years.

“We have about 12,000 members across the country and alliances in all 50 states and we’re growing quickly,” said Ciaran O’Connor, chief marketing officer of Braver Angels. O’Connor is a liberal Democrat who worked on the 2012 Obama campaign and 2016 Clinton campaign. In the aftermath, he realized maybe he didn’t understand half the country, which led to his joining Braver Angels, which keeps its own organization strictly bipartisan with the staff half “red” and half “blue” at every level.

A major reason for the organization’s growth, O’Connor said, is that many people are looking for healing.

“A lot of people are dealing with relationships that have been strained by political division and political polarization,” he said.

Disagreement itself is not a bad thing, but the new polarization goes far beyond. If people who hold different policy opinions are immediately demonized, we erode civility, interpersonal relationships, and society at large, he said.

Counteract Your ‘Inner Polarizer’

Braver Angels began building its workshops by taking lessons from family therapy; workshop architect and co-founder Bill Doherty is a professor who worked with couples on the brink of divorce. The goal is neither to create agreement between both sides nor to create centrists.

Some of the workshops bring a mix of citizens—half red and half blue— together in a room for a structured conversation. One teaches skills for bridging the divide, and another takes more of an inward-looking approach, guiding participants to understand and work on disagreeing constructively instead of demonizing and ridiculing those they disagree with. This year, Braver Angels has also hosted many debates on divisive topics such as race-related policies. With the pandemic, events have moved online. Though the workshops are no longer face to face, the new format has allowed for greater participation.

For all of this to work, participants have to first abandon several expectations: that the conversation will convert or persuade, that the conversation will be logical, or even that everyone will be equally open-minded in the conversation. The truth of the matter is that people are emotional about their values, which means that making discussions about facts and proof is less conducive to creating common ground than if both parties speak first about their own perspectives and stories.

It also means that participants should agree to not portray anyone as stupid, self-serving, or bigoted—putting someone in a position where they will “lose face” will only guarantee they dig their heels in, and it will create resentment, according to Doherty.

There is good reason to start this depolarization process with yourself, or in other words, making sure you’re in a position to see the decency of other people.

Epoch Times Photo
A graphic from Braver Angels shows a spectrum of perceptions of “the other side.” (Courtesy of Braver Angels)

That workshop starts by posing questions: How often do you find yourself thinking about “those people?” How often do you compare the worst people on the other side with the best people on your own side? How often do you find a rush of pleasure with friends when you ridicule “those crazies” on the other side?

If we generalize the other side as caricatures often enough, we may fall into the trap of not being able to see people as individuals, and that will prevent honest conversation. We should be able to criticize policies and ideas without ridiculing people.

“All of these techniques we’re developing are just ways to act on a more fundamental philosophical assertion, and that is the idea that ultimately there is some inherent worth and some inherent human dignity in our fellow man, and in our political opponents,” Braver Angels ambassador John Wood Jr. said.

There Is No ‘Vanquishing’

A liberal Democrat who frequently dealt with working-class conservatives attended one of the Braver Angels workshops and told Doherty he used to go up to people who had voted for Trump, or wore MAGA hats, and tell them, “You should be ashamed of yourself.” As a landlord, he went so far as to not rent to people who he knew had supported Trump. After attending a workshop on skills to bridge the divide, he thought it was interesting but hadn’t really changed his mind. “Kind of like, ‘You’re a conscientious objector, Bill, but there’s a war here,'” Doherty shared in a later workshop.

But then he attended a “Depolarizing Within” workshop. A few weeks later, he ran into Doherty and told him an emotional story.

“His eyes were moist as he told me, ‘That workshop, that really got to me, particularly that line that neither side is going to vanquish the other and we’re going to have to figure out how to get along and run the country together,'” Doherty said. In those few weeks, the man had had four conversations with Trump supporters that weren’t anything like those he’d had before; he told them that though he disagreed with them, they had every right to support their candidate, and that he supported their right to express their opinions.

Then he said, “There are people in power who want us to hate each other, and let’s not do it.”

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A Braver Angels workshop at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass. (Courtesy of Braver Angels)

Conversations, not Conversions

There is this great big fallacy that if you just explain your side slowly, clearly, tell a good story, and throw in some nice data, the other side will go, “What was I thinking?”

“And that tendency to educate drives people crazy,” said Doherty, who saw liberal Democrats express this view over and over when Braver Angels did their 2017 bus tour. Both sides can fall prey to this mindset, which is a good indication that people on both sides think they have the full truth and all the correct facts. On top of this, if people are so strongly emotional about political sides, it is an indication that there are strong emotional ties to the underlying values.

“I’ve said here that the goal is not to change the other person’s mind, but if I’m honest, I’m always hoping that, because these are important issues,” Doherty said in one workshop. Many participants agreed; it’s just human nature. “But I tell myself that the best way to be influential is to use these skills.”

In a practical sense, Doherty reminded them, people don’t change their minds during conversations. He certainly hasn’t changed his mind in the middle of one of these political discussions, but sometimes he will think back about things that were said, and he will change his mind on certain things. The change happens afterward, not during the conversation, so it’s best to do away with a sense of urgency.

He recommends people begin with one-on-one conversations, and even to reach out to someone they know who has differing stances on policies and seeking to understand their side better. But this isn’t something you want to jump into first with relatives who are already hostile about talking politics, or during Thanksgiving dinner, and this certainly isn’t for Twitter, he added.

When Doherty was putting together the skills for these workshops, he actually tried them out with an in-law over the holidays. The rest of the family stood outside the kitchen, tense with anticipation. They needn’t have worried.

“Actually with one of my relatives, with one of my in-laws, it was the best conversation we’d had in 40 years,” Doherty said.

What to Say

Doherty advises that conversations should begin with a civil tone; ask permission to pose questions, and reveal that you want to better understand that part of the country, or industry, or whatever area is relevant. Pose it as a request (“Would you help me understand …”), and people are typically flattered.

Open these discussions by acknowledging your general stance so people know where you are coming from, and if your view is nuanced, as most people’s are, do criticize policy on “your side” that you may not agree with and credit the other side when credit is due. “It suggests you’re not a fanatic,” Doherty said. If you begin the conversation by suggesting 100 percent of the facts are on your side, and zero facts support the other side, there is no engagement and no room for discussion.

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A Braver Angels workshop at Arizona State University. Workshops are currently offered online. (Courtesy of Braver Angels)

Listening Skills

The skills Doherty teaches in workshops are really just classic communication skills, but he realized while talking to people from various disciplines from therapy to interfaith ministry that no one had thought to teach these in the context of talking about politics.

Listening is key to communication, and if you remember to listen instead of just waiting your turn to talk, you can have a real exchange.

Paraphrase what the other person said back to them when they make new points, because this lets them know that you have heard and understood what they said, or have misinterpreted it so they can correct themselves.

Some workshop participants found this easier said than done, as many realized that when they paraphrased they had a tendency to add their own interpretations, suggesting and implying things that the other party did not mean, and revealing their own assumptions of people based on their policy preferences. Doing this will sound like a loaded statement, as if you’re distorting what they are saying. The paraphrase still needs to be what they meant.

This doesn’t mean you’re signaling agreement, but rather acknowledgment. The other party knows that they have been heard, and will be in a better place to reciprocate and hear your side (“I hear you; what I want to say is … “).  If you do this, you move from “yes, but” to “yes, and,” according to Doherty; the former is just taking turns sharing views and talking at each other, but the latter invites both people to think about both sides, and takes cooperation to communicate.

Listening also means asking questions, and practicing not asking “gotcha” questions, or argumentative questions. The point is not just to understand what the other person believes, but how they came to believe in it.

It’s Personal

If the government is there for the people, it can only improve our understanding of it when we see and hear how policies have impacted people. Those no-compromise areas of belief, no matter what statistics someone throws out, typically come with a story of how you or someone you knew was personally impacted. Share those personal stories rather than just talking in the abstract; they are most effective, and maximize the chance the other person will really hear you.

And if you are sharing your view and your opinion of things, say “I.”

Statements that begin with “here’s why” or talk about an eventuality like it is inevitable sound dogmatic and should be avoided (“I’m worried/concerned this will happen” versus “This [horrible outcome] will happen as a result of that policy”). Plus, if you only bring up the eventuality (“Climate change will destroy …”), people will typically respond with another policy solution and the conversation will devolve into an abstract policy debate. The other party will be less engaged, because there is no opening when you merely give a dogmatic statement.

Agreeing and Disagreeing

There is a tremendous benefit to stating what you both agree on and pointing out the agreement.

Usually, there is a similar underlying belief in a value, like justice, but very different pictures of how to get there (“It sounds like we both agree that justice is important”). Stating it can prevent those automatic assumptions (“They must be against equal opportunity”) and invites goodwill, because it is human nature to reciprocate.

People in workshops found that when they gave validity and agreement to something their partner said, the other person wanted to be able to return that, too.

There will likely be more disagreements than agreements, however, but this is probably already obvious to both people in the conversation. We can soften those flat-out disagreements by stating that our perspective is very different (“This one is very personal,” “It’s probably no surprise that I completely disagree here,” “We see this one very differently”). That way, we aren’t escalating the intensity of feelings, Doherty said, but just agreeing to disagree.

Maybe at some point, the conversation partner will escalate emotions, or try to turn it into an argument. We should give the person the benefit of the doubt first, without returning provocative statements, and we shouldn’t respond to baiting questions. Instead, we can re-state our view. And then if, after attempts at civil disagreement, it becomes clear the other person has no intention of having a conversation, we can exit the discussion in a “low-key way,” Doherty said—politely, or perhaps with some humor.

The Dinner Table

“People want respect, not agreement,” said Jason Atkinson, who in the aftermath of the 2016 election brought diverse groups of people together for civil conversations over dinner.

Atkinson is a filmmaker, writer, and public servant who served 14 years in the Oregon Legislature. His documentary, “A River Between Us,” tells the story of the largest river restoration project in American history. The Native community and partisan groups on both sides were deeply divided. Atkinson learned while he covered the project that in order to save a river, the people needed to be healed first.

This gave him the idea that what he’d seen after the 2016 elections didn’t arise because we couldn’t all agree, but rather because people didn’t feel heard, and they didn’t feel respected.

So Atkinson, a student and admirer of history, did what Thomas Jefferson did.

“He would bring the best people together for dinner, he would sit down last, host conversations on everything from literature and science to politics and foreign policy,” Atkinson did.

These “Jefferson Dinners” have become a movement: 8 to 14 people come together at one table, with diverging views and backgrounds, and dine together while discussing one topic the host chooses and shares with the diners in advance. You can learn more at JeffersonDinner.org and even host your own or request an invite.

Atkinson filmed these dinners (TableShow.online). He wanted people to see these conversations in action, and duplicate the format. He invited diverse groups of people and sat them next to people who were very different from themselves, hoping to mirror the makeup of our own country. He hoped that everyone would find someone they related to, sitting at that table.

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A “Jefferson Dinner” brings together 8 to 14 people with diverging views and backgrounds to dine and discuss a topic chosen by the host. (Courtesy of Jason Atkinson)

“Something magical happens when people break bread together and there’s this shared experience of, you may completely disagree with the person sitting next to you, but then you’re still going to humbly ask them to pass the butter, you know?” Atkinson said.

Atkinson chose questions like “Have you ever experienced civility that changed the course of your life?” and “Has there been a time in your life when you experienced grace at just the right time?” As the moderator, he tried to help bring out the stories of the people attending.

“What I learned, and what I think everybody took away, was that when you have dinner and you’re forced to listen, you start to enjoy the people you’re having dinner with. You find out that there is a beautiful fabric across the country, that people really do want the same thing,” Atkinson said. “And if you listen and go through those shared experiences of not what somebody believes but the story behind why they believe it, and the human fabric of it, it’s a beautiful thing.

“People are not divided as we might see on television, people actually want the same thing. The big takeaway is people want respect, not agreement.

“It really showed through those dinner conversations because people want to feel respected, and if they feel respected it’s OK to disagree; it’s all good if someone is actually being heard by being respected.”

We don’t see much or any of it if we turn to national media, and if we put all of our hopes for people in those national politics, we will end up seeing partisanship over people.

“There’s no respect there, there are just talking points,” Atkinson said. “People’s lives aren’t talking points, they’re people’s lives, and they’re to be respected.”

The people he invited to dinner were happy to accept; they didn’t hold a wariness of disagreement and, on the contrary, were excited to take part in building an example of civility.

Atkinson agrees polarization has increased, but he’s also seen people realize partisanship isn’t what truly matters.

“Where I live, Oregon, was just ravished by these terrible forest fires, and the investigation has not been completed but the belief is that those arsons were politically motivated. In one community, 1,200 families lost everything—no more house, gone. Now the national news only covered it for a day and they’re certainly not going to pick up on the political motivations, but what happened in the absolute hopelessness of that situation is people came together, and started to help people who lost everything,” Atkinson said.

“So while people are polarized, in the midst of that what makes our country so beautiful, we watched as these houses were restored and families were put back together.”

People helped them, no matter who they were, and people accepted help, no matter who was helping. “It didn’t matter if they were for Biden or they were for Trump, none of that mattered … so yes, people are polarized, but what you see on the national news is just not America,” he said.