Never in recent memory has our country experienced such deep divides in our politics and discourse. People of good will and spirit are unable to understand each other or bridge their differences across not just political lines, but also racial, cultural, and religious ones. As a result, decision-making and progress feel thwarted and stalled.
Americans hunger for creative and civil approaches to improve our democracy and people’s lives. Since 2009, Convergence—the nonprofit where we both work—has been helping leaders at all levels choose collaboration to address critical issues of public concern, recognizing that no one group or perspective holds all the wisdom on how to solve big problems. We have successfully brought together leaders and doers—many who never thought they could talk to one another—to build relationships, identify breakthrough solutions, and find ways to work together.
We pick issues where division has prevented progress, research the possibilities for dialogue, and bring together 30 leaders from across the country and the political spectrum for face-to-face meetings over the course of a year. They get to know each other, realize they have more in common than they thought, and find ways to make change collectively.
Nobody thought it was possible. How could:
- teachers’ unions, charter school advocates, school administrators, and technology companies create a shared vision of K-12 educational excellence?
- grocery manufacturers, convenience stores, consumer advocates, national food retailers, insurance groups, and public health organizations find ways to collectively reduce obesity?
- health care experts—some who helped design the Affordable Care Act and some who worked to dismantle it—come together to offer bipartisan recommendations to help resolve the health care debate roiling the nation?
To help participants move from diatribe to dialogue, we draw upon the following approaches and practices. If you’re a community activist, a librarian, a teacher, or just a concerned citizen, each of these could also be applied in your own context or community.
1. Do your homework
Before you invite anyone to participate in a dialogue on a controversial topic, identify and reach out to a variety of individuals and organizations that are directly affected by the issue. Begin to build relationships with them and learn from their experiences. Find out about the current relationships among the various potential participants. This will help you broaden your view of the issue, learn where conflicts and common ground opportunities exist, and help determine what kind of results a dialogue might produce.
For example, if you want to engage individuals with diverse perspectives to discuss improving K-12 education in your community, prepare by talking in advance with teachers, administrators, parents, school board members, community activists, business leaders, and students to hear their ideas, concerns, priorities, and experiences.
2. Set up the conversation for success
When tackling a tough issue, it is important to shape the conversation in a way that will make it attractive for people with different viewpoints to want to join it. Narrow the conversation and clarify what parts of the issue will and won’t be addressed. Choose neutral, non-biased language to describe the issue. These steps help reduce tensions and make action across viewpoints more likely.
If you want to have a community dialogue on the topic of guns, you can shape the conversation for collaboration by focusing on “reducing gun deaths” or “strengthening gun safety/responsibility” instead of using triggering words like “gun control” or “gun rights.”
3. Create ground rules
To promote safety and trust among a group, work with the participants to establish an agreed-upon set of ground rules and norms for the conversation. Ground rules help keep the dialogue respectful and bring discipline to the conversation.
Some examples of ground rules are:
- Allow everyone to feel welcome to contribute.
- Be eager and open to listening to a variety of options or ideas.
- Check your own tendency to dominate or criticize.
- Be curious about where the conversation is going.
- Be fully present and reduce outside distractions.
4. Share values, fears, and interests
Shift the conversation away from people defending their points of view and invite them instead to speak to their values, fears, and interests. One way to do this is by encouraging participants to share personal stories about their experience with the issue and the change they wish to see in the world. This fosters empathy, trust, and strong relationships as people connect on a human level.
In a conversation about poverty in the United States, you could encourage people to talk about a time when they were financially insecure, how it felt, and how they got through it.
5. Be a matchmaker
Try promoting new relationships among participants by inviting people with different perspectives to sit together for small group conversations, meals, or icebreaker activities. While people may be initially reluctant or uncomfortable, you’ll see after a few meetings that participants begin doing it themselves.
Sit the religious leader next to the women’s rights activist, the tenant’s group next to the housing developer. Help them discover each other’s humanity and overcome their mistrust and stereotypes of one another.
6. Identify shared principles
Help participants identify a set of shared principles that they can agree on. This creates a foundation for consensus solutions to develop.
In 2012, we convened a group of very diverse leaders who were working to reach agreement on how to best finance high-quality long-term care services and supports for the elderly and the disabled, an issue of debate for three decades. The group’s work was grounded on a set of principles that helped them reach eventual agreement, including:
- Allow older Americans and younger people with functional and/or cognitive impairments to live as independently as possible, and with maximum autonomy and choice in the services they receive and the setting in which they receive them.
- Support those family caregivers who are the bedrock of supports and services for those who require personal assistance. This may include encouraging employment practices that support family caregiving.
- Address varying risks, needs, and choices with a mix of private and public solutions.
- Assure that any public program is fiscally sustainable.
Sometimes, it will take several attempts to refine a set of principles that everyone can agree on. It is worth the time and is an essential building block for future substantive agreement.
7. Connect individually with each participant
If the group is meeting on a regular basis, take time after each meeting to connect individually by phone with as many participants as you can, including people who may have missed a recent meeting. These conversations may generate new ideas, help develop next steps, and air and resolve tensions. They will illuminate what participants are struggling with, where there is momentum towards agreement, where relationships are frayed, and where new ones can be built.
In those conversations, ask them how they feel the dialogue is going, what is concerning them, and what should be addressed in the next meeting.
8. Create opportunities for learning together
Learning together can be a way to stimulate new thinking among participants and help people move beyond old arguments on a divisive topic. It can also reveal existing areas of agreement and possibilities for collaboration that had not been previously apparent.
Have participants learn together about the history of efforts on an issue, have guest speakers come to share expertise with the group, or arrange “listening” conversations with people who are directly affected by the issue.
9. Allow space for open disagreement
Recognize that there may be times when the conversation gets heated or confrontational. Allow space for disagreement to happen openly among participants. Acknowledge it in the moment in a way that helps the group to work through it honestly, while upholding the ground rules that ensure a sense of safety, trust, and respect.
If participants are in conflict, try saying, “I can see that there is tension around this issue. Let’s see how we can move through the tension through hearing people’s perspectives and also keep in mind the ground rules of the group as we keep going.”
10. Provide extra support to reach agreement
As a dialogue moves towards reaching final agreement, keep the lines of communication open among the participants, as well as between them and you. Remember that unresolved issues among them may resurface at this stage. Make sure every voice feels heard and reflect back where you are noticing areas of agreement and compromise.
Once the structures are in place to promote trust, relationships, and healthy dialogue among people of different viewpoints, the creative tension of those differing views can yield uniquely innovative and enduring solutions. The process can lead to new and lasting relationships, a shift in perspectives, and fruitful future collaborations.
Now more than ever, we need diverse leaders, organizations, and individuals at all levels to choose collaboration first.