Overcoming Polarization through Local Dialogue and Story-Telling

Back to Winter 2021: Volume 109, Number 4

By Joan Blades and Parisa Parsa

Building the civic muscle needed to fully manifest the Springboard for Thriving is a challenge that requires practice. Just like our physical muscles need habits of regular working out, good nutrition and periods of rest and recovery, our civic muscle needs regular care and attention if it is to restore us for a resilient and equitable future. Key to this civic muscle is not just the infrastructure of programs and policy, but also the connection of citizens that bind the muscles to the skeleton of institutional structure and provide the appropriate pressure and nutrients to make it both strong and accountable.

Civic connection and cohesion have diminished in too many places in recent years, as have our levels of trust in institutions and ability to take collective action for the common good. As our disconnections have become increasingly apparent, individuals and organizations have recognized a need to restore connections that have been strained as well as create connections that may never have existed.

Shared interests and common purpose can and do exist alongside differences. When we are in relationship with each other we often learn that our deep values are aligned and that it is our understanding of the situation and means of achieving an agreed-upon goal that we disagree on. Somehow knowing that we agree on the deeper purpose makes it easier to hold our connections and look for solutions together.

There are organizations that offer tools and programs for communities to connect or reconnect. A core purpose of all these programs is listening to understand. Setting aside persuasion and judgment to engage in truly curious listening is mind-bendingly powerful. We tend to think of listening as passive but deep listening is in truth remarkably connective. It can change everything. In fact, social science confirms that we don’t even truly hear each other until we care about each other. Once we care about each other everything changes. We move from the likelihood of lose/lose outcomes to a possibility of win/win outcomes. When we have everyone’s best ideas in the room as well as the agility that comes with connection, we can begin to more successfully address complex challenges.

Political polarization has caused people to abandon friendships and even family. Unfortunately, our media and many leaders use polarization as a means of gaining audience and popular support. Us-versus-them is an age-old tactic that continues to be highly effective. News that frightens or makes us angry is shared more widely, so news people and even artificial intelligence highlights this kind of news in our media. People at a local level are best able to combat this tilt toward division. Faith communities, school communities, libraries and individuals are stepping up to the challenge and finding the work rich, rewarding and yes, intimidating too.

The Vineyard Church in Boise, Idaho has a politically diverse congregation that started doing Living Room Conversations on a monthly basis at the beginning of 2019. These small, six-person structured conversations offer a way for participants to listen deeply to people with differing views and to be heard. At the Vineyard they chose to talk about topics that were challenging, race, abortion, forgiveness, and when an exchange on Facebook about guns got heated, they chose to have the Guns and Responsibility Living Room Conversation that month. People who were ready to die for their second amendment rights sat with people who had experienced trauma due to guns. They responded to questions that asked about their relationship with guns.

  • What role have guns played in your life?
  • Where did you learn about guns? And what did you learn?
  • Are gun/second amendment issues very important to you?
  • Is there anything you would change about current gun laws or regulations in your state or at the federal level?

There was no attempt to persuade, just groups of six people committed to listening to understand and connect. And that is what happened. Hearts opened and nuance and understanding increased. The impact was both immediate and long term.

AllSides, National Institute for Civil Discourse, Listen First, Braver Angels, Living Room Conversations, Media Done Responsibly, Bridge Alliance, Cortico, Essential Partners, One America Movement, Resetting the Table, YOUNIFY—more than 100 bridging organizations—are creating an ecosystem of connection. Different communities, individuals and challenges are best served by a variety of practices. Folks have been working hard on this issue of connecting across differences of ideology and worldview all the way back to the 1980s, and there is a solid body of literature and practice that informs their approaches.

Those decades of work in dialogue and deliberative practices have left hearts and minds opened and connected beyond what anyone thought was possible. In these times of fragmentation, in which we are funneled into smaller and smaller bubbles of demographics, dialogue practices are key to reminding us of our own complexity as well as that of others. The dynamics of polarization push us to lose our varied and malleable aspects of identity and hold fast to one (or maybe a handful) above all. This dynamic encourages us to ignore the places that yield the most opportunities for growth: the places where our values come into conflict, or where we feel torn about our loyalties and obligations. When we engage in dialogue in which there is time to think, time to listen, and time to speak, we’re invited into those places where growth, creativity and new possibilities can emerge. It’s a beautiful thing to be part of and to witness.

If these practices have been around for decades, why do they still feel like a well-kept secret?

1. Dialogue works on us deeply

One of the reasons is that dialogue works on us and in us at a deep level, but at a level that is challenging to describe to folks who weren’t in the room. Dialogue works in ways directly opposite to what we are accustomed to in social media: slowly, thoughtfully, over time and with some discomfort. Returning from a dialogue experience and trying to describe it to folks who are steeped in Twitter is like speaking a completely foreign language. As a result, the dialogue experience is treated as the outlier, and soon enough we return to the rhythm of the larger culture.

2. Not all ‘dialogue’ is created equal

Dialogue practices have sometimes earned the label of being too soft, manipulative, or otherwise not living up to the challenge and possibility of engagement across divides. Too often the term “dialogue” is applied to any gathering where people are talking—often a panel of experts followed by some questions and answers. That is technically a dialogue, but far from the kind of mutual understanding, respect, and values-deep conversation we’re advocating.

3. Dialogue process has been misused

Dialogues are also often offered as a way for institutional leaders to avoid making controversial statements or take action in the midst of protest. Even when they are undertaken with the best intentions of listening and responding to feedback, unless there is a commitment to truly changing the culture and practices, dialogue processes can actually breed distrust. Participants (especially those from historically marginalized groups) leave with the sense that this was just another time they were asked to tell their story with no meaningful result.

At Cortico, we’re building technology designed to simultaneously share the good news of what’s possible in dialogue and to illustrate meaningfully what makes for effective engagement. Our Local Voices Network captures recorded small group conversations, then transcribes and uploads them to a software platform where both the audio and the text of the conversation are analyzed and shareable. Participants, facilitators, and gathering partners can highlight parts of the conversation and share – in participants’ own words – what was most important to them. We can search across conversations for topics most salient to participants, and we can share highlights from one conversation into another, allowing folks to hear voices from other geographies, identities, or world views to be engaged constructively. We believe that gathering under-heard voices from across the landscape of the nation and amplifying them with technology is one of the ways the power of the practice of dialogue for social transformation can be scaled.

Capturing the stories, the voices, the texture of the discoveries that come when people reflect on their experiences together can start to shift the tide and create a groundswell of awareness that not only is it possible but is deeply satisfying and lasting in a way that scrolling through sensationalized posts simply can’t match.

Here’s an example of how it can work: Like many police forces across the country, the Madison, Wisconsin Police Department faced a lot of public criticism over the use of force, including a finding of “legal but questionable” actions in the handling of the police killing of Tony Robinson, a black teenager in the midst of a mental health crisis, in 2015. After the abrupt resignation of the police chief in the fall of 2019, the Madison Police and Fire Commission (PFC) reached out to the Local Voices Network (LVN). With the support of the mayor, they wanted to be sure to collect community input in the hiring process.

LVN was asked to convene a series of small group recorded conversations for deeper stories than could emerge from the PFC’s planned “town hall” style meetings. LVN had been convening small group conversations in Madison for 18 months, so we also had access to community conversations where encounters with police, criminal justice, and crime were raised independently. Combining analysis of the conversations convened specifically for the Police and Fire Commission with the conversations across the city of Madison in the previous 18 months resulted in a report that pulled perspectives from 48 people in 31 conversations and summarized community concerns by topic. This report led to specific questions asked in the private interview process, and the ability to play community voices for candidate responses in the public interview process.

Imagine being able to tap into an active flow of community conversations wherever you are in the nation and learning what is most on the minds of residents as told through their experiences. When big civic decisions need to be made, policy makers, advocacy groups, and individual citizens can dive into that stream of conversations to listen, to learn, and to be informed as they shape the decisions they hope will improve life in their communities. The deeper texture and complexity of the views of the community are in the timbre of their voices, the ease of their laughter, the sparks of connection that are all embedded in the qualitative data captured in conversation.

Community stories are not the whole picture of what happens in any municipality, but too often civic leaders are working only with statistics about demographic groups or political positions. Polling data necessarily removes nuance and offers only one slice of what is true. If that quantitative data can be combined with community stories, not only do we have a fuller picture of what is happening in a community, we have a community that has grown in its connection neighbor-to-neighbor. And if those community voices are heard, acknowledged and made explicitly a part of the decision process, we start to restore community trust and faith in engagement practices. A virtuous cycle.

We believe that this process of conversational connection combined with the power of machine learning and the networked possibilities of gathering conversations both across time and space can offer the resources for both recovery and resilience as we work toward equitable futures. It all begins with the solid habits of dialogue that engages us intimately, deeply, in making sense of our past experiences while opening up the space to imagine new futures. The decisions that follow about where to invest our time, our money and our attention make all the difference. Let’s build the strength for an equitable future, conversation by conversation, together.

Parisa Parsa is CEO of Cortico, a nonprofit organization working to create a healthier public sphere via its Local Voices Network.

Joan Blades is a Co-Founder of Living Room Conversations.

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