It’s 8:30 in the morning, and I’ve arrived at what looks like a Model UN event. Dozens of high schoolers and their teachers are flowing into the University of Southern California’s Galen Center, dressed in their debating best and bantering in various languages. “Hello, My Name Is” badges bob in the dark conference room like fireflies.

JSA students gather for a discussion. JSA students gather for a discussion. © Junior State of America Foundation

All of these students are members of the Junior State of America (JSA), and they’re used to spirited exchanges about government. But they’re here today to practice a different diplomatic skill: having thoughtful conversations across political boundaries. When workshop leader Brooke Deterline—a cofounder of the Courageous Leadership consulting firm—saw civility flying out the window after the 2016 elections, she wanted to foster a kind of baseline empathy in a hyper-partisan time.

“People say, ‘When I try to have these kinds of conversations, they go really badly,’” Deterline says. Such verbal blowouts often breed simmering resentment and fracture relationships. “It’s easy for caring people to act in ways that aren’t aligned with their values.” 

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Deterline wants to teach people how to cultivate compassion for others even when they don’t agree with them, which she sees as necessary for a divided country to find a shared vision for its future. She sees JSA’s members—engaged kids whose partisan loyalties haven’t yet jelled—as ideal emissaries for her message. She’s also banking on the power of social contagion: If young influencers like these can set an empathetic standard, she thinks, others may follow suit, shifting the overall tone of discourse.

Staying civil during heated political discussions without giving any moral ground is a knife’s-edge venture. Still, Ken White, JSA’s CEO, is eager for his students to give it their best shot.

“This is an opportunity to see if there’s a way of more deliberately encouraging young people to have these experiences—giving them the training and techniques,” says White, who is also Deterline’s partner. “You’ve got to figure out how, without compromising your values, you can bring more people into the conversation. And that’s hard as hell.”

Hosting courageous conversations

From the start, Deterline makes clear that what she’s about to teach is the conversational equivalent of t’ai chi—a philosophy focused on holding back, not charging forward. “I used to think courage was giving somebody a piece of my mind,” she tells the students. “It’s acting with an open heart in the face of conflict. It’s about inspiring the best in others. It is a choice, and it also is a muscle.”

Deterline became an expert in what she calls “courageous conversations” through working with her mother, psychologist Lynne Henderson, who developed a program called social fitness training for anxious clients. The social fitness model involves rehearsing before challenging conversations—thinking through potential roadblocks ahead of time to create a positive outcome.

After the 2016 election, while everyone around her shifted into hyper-partisan mode, Deterline saw an opportunity. Maybe, she thought, the same strategies she and Henderson were using to help people have courageous conversations could also help them navigate fraught political exchanges. She drafted a pilot curriculum, traveled from place to place presenting it, and got large-scale organizations like JSA and Rotary International on board.

Deterline’s approach turns on helping workshop-goers recognize just how dramatically fear affects their actions in a tense political dialogue—and how to contain the impact of that fear. To kick off discussion, she asks the JSA kids to share what they do when they’re afraid.

“I feel like people act differently when they’re in fear,” one girl offers. “You tend to say really mean things because you’re fearful of them winning over your argument.”

Another student adds, “If we’re stressed out about something, we won’t have the courage to try something new.”

Deterline tells the kids they’re right on target. What often shuts down conversations across the political aisle, she explains, is when our brains go into what she calls “the red zone.” “When we’re stressed, our natural compassion is cut off,” she says. “We don’t want to have compassion for the lion if we’re actually in a life-or-death situation. Our bodies are getting ready to fight or flee, sometimes freeze. It happens in less than a second.”

Of course, when Aunt Lucille argues for a total immigration ban, it’s not really a life-or-death situation. But biochemically, it can feel as though it is. Our hearts begin to gallop, and stress hormones like cortisol rush through our veins. When we’re in this state, “we actually limit our capacity to think clearly—we start to see the world as if it’s very simplistic,” Deterline says. We are also more likely to lash out, attacking someone in ways we later come to regret. Reeling from the contempt we’re projecting, or sensing that we’re not listening to what they’re saying, the other person often responds in kind.

Going from red to green

Deterline’s core message is that when you notice your brain heading into the “red zone,” you can take steps to divert its course.

One way to move into a less-charged “green zone” is to focus your mind on something larger than simply winning the argument, like looking for moral views you and your conversation partner share. “Try to identify a shared value and have a conversation about that,” Deterline tells the students. “I may disagree with you on how to have more responsible gun [ownership], but I can agree with you that we both want greater safety for ourselves and our families.”

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Another way to ease out of the red zone is to consider your broader purpose for having the conversation in the first place. If you’re focused on one-upping the other person or convincing them they’re wrong, your exchanges can become as automatic—and as adversarial—as traded blows in a fencing match. (I fall back on this tactic often, and I don’t think it’s done any good.) But if you truly want to understand what motivates members of the other party, you’ll approach the exchange in more of an open, questing mode, since you’ll be free of the self-imposed pressure to change the other person’s mind.

“When you move from red to green, you can feel it,” Deterline tells the students. “You’ll be like, ‘I love this work. This is really important.’”

Deterline has the kids practice finding a larger purpose for their actions to help them move into the “green zone” during difficult conversations, whether they’re about politics or not. In one practice session, a student named Wendy says she wants to speak up for a teacher other students were making fun of. She’s held back in the past because she’s afraid she, too, might get bullied.

If that happened, Wendy’s friend Joshua asks her, would she still want to intervene? “Is it worth it?”

“It would have been worth it,” Wendy concedes, “because I would have been helping another person.”

Practice makes you better

Dialogues like these get me thinking about my own larger purpose—my reasons for engaging with those on the other side of the political divide. Is it even worth it to have these kinds of conversations, given the potential for rancor and resentment?

As with so many things, it depends on whether you take a short- or long-term perspective. If my short-term comfort is front of mind, there’s no way I’m going to start a conversation with a Limbaugh-listening relative about why women deserve equal pay for equal work. But if I’m thinking more broadly—perhaps about what’s good for society at large—I might be willing to have that tough conversation so I can speak up for one of my cardinal values: my belief that all human beings deserve fair treatment.

Deterline encourages workshop participants to practice “courageous conversations” like these on the spot. She says anyone can do the same thing by enlisting a friend who’s willing to have a mock dialogue about a contentious issue. If the rehearsal goes well, it will give you the momentum you need to have the real-life conversation you’re planning. If your approach flops, it’s a sign you need to fine-tune and practice more before taking the dialogue live.

But Deterline stresses that no matter how much you practice, you’ll make more headway in these dialogues if you have genuine friendships with those you’re talking to—if they feel like you acknowledge them as more than a set of partisan beliefs.

In a short exercise, Deterline reveals just how elusive such cross-aisle connections can be.

“We’re going to see how many people you’re friendly with on the other side of the spectrum,” she begins. “If you have 10 or more friends on the opposite side, stand over there.” The room erupts in gales of laughter. “If you have 5 or more friends in a different party, [over there]. If you have one or more, stand in the middle.” After a grand shuffling of chairs and bodies, most students end up standing in the middle. “When we do this with adults,” Deterline tells them, “the most popular answer is zero.”

That lack of normal, everyday relationships across party lines, Deterline says, helps explain why many political interactions have become so fraught and extreme. “The only way to open people’s minds is to create some sense of connection and belonging. If I feel like you care about me, I’m much more open to your point of view.”

Can tolerance live with intolerance?

Members of the Junior State of America (JSA) gather at the University of Southern California’s Galen Center. Members of the Junior State of America (JSA) gather at the University of Southern California's Galen Center. © Junior State of America Foundation

Overall, Deterline’s engagement tactics seem like sensible ones, and I’m curious to give them a try when I talk to loved ones on “the other side.”

But I’m still uncomfortable with the thought of staying open-hearted and connected when someone says something racist or dehumanizing (“Those people should go back to their own country” or “Journalists should be strung up from trees”). If we don’t push back hard against such inhumane rhetoric, aren’t we morally complicit in it? I think of what the philosopher Karl Popper once said: “If we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. We should therefore claim ... the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”

When I raise this point with Deterline after the workshop, she says you can air moral objections without cutting off the flow of connection. In place of outright denouncing the other person’s views, she suggests an approach The Opposite of Hate author Sally Kohn calls ABC—for affirm, bridge, and convince. If someone you’re speaking with throws down a casual xenophobic comment, for instance, you could start by affirming the other person’s concern (“I get that you’re worried that someone who comes into the country from elsewhere might take your job”). Then you’d “bridge” by sharing a fact-based statement on the issue (“Did you know illegal immigration rates are much lower now than they were 10 years ago? It’s not as big a threat as some people make it out to be”).

Finally, you’d “convince” by stating your view that xenophobia is wrong and that everyone deserves equal treatment. “If you can tell a personal story, it has the most impact,” Deterline says—an anecdote that encourages them to see the situation from a different perspective. When someone says something to her that’s racially insensitive, she mentions that she has a family member who faces discrimination regularly and that she can’t imagine what it’s like to be in that position. Speaking up is especially crucial when a member of the targeted group is present. “Use that as your motivation to respond,” Deterline says—it shows the targeted person you care enough to intervene.

The ABC approach still seems somewhat conciliatory, given the damage hateful political speech can do to members of targeted groups. But as University of Copenhagen political philosopher Klemens Kappel points out, there’s a pragmatic argument for keeping the lines of communication open. Most of us know from experience that insisting someone’s wrong does nothing to change their mind, and studies show it can actually entrench them further in their position. In calm dialogue, you can make psychological headway with someone even when rational arguments seem to fail, Kappel says. “Conversation is also about creating the idea that we’re in this together, that although we disagree, I don’t regard you as my enemy.”

Taking the long view

When you acknowledge another person’s humanity despite their views, Kappel argues, you exert more social pull on them, so you stand a greater chance of influencing their beliefs—though this may, admittedly, be a long-term project.

“There’s a question of what’s effective. Can I help someone to change their attitude or at least their behavior by being gentler in my criticism? Perhaps. And, if so, I probably should,” says political scientist and In Defense of Human Rights author Ari Kohen, who has frequent discussions with people across the aisle. When human connection exists, he notes, you can motivate others to change by using subtle social flattery. “I’ve said, ‘I’m surprised to hear you say that. That doesn’t really align with my image of you.’”

Keeping things civil while standing up for your beliefs is a very tall order—and those who feel up to the challenge must be hyper-aware of the temptation to water down their convictions for the sake of keeping the peace. If expressing my human rights values means alienating someone who doesn’t share them, I know I’m going to express those values anyway.

Still, I’m encouraged that the JSA workshop students seem open to the possibility of engaging with those who believe differently. Victor, who’s sitting at my table, tells me he wouldn’t shut someone else out for their political choices. “In my family, it’s whoever has the better views,” he says. “It’s not about what parties they’re from.”

In a post-workshop assessment, Deterline says, 84 percent of the kids reported being “very” or “extremely” more likely to have a courageous conversation with someone about an important topic. Unlike many adults, the students seem to understand intuitively that productive dialogue isn’t about making converts. It’s about cobbling together whatever common ground can be found, and then making a good-faith effort to see if anything can grow in it.

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