How to break the argument habit

Whatever side of the blue-red chasm you sit on, dialogue can clear the smoke of polarization obscuring the divide

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Polarization is an equal opportunity phenomenon - hardly the monopoly of political candidates, activists, paid lobbyists, and televised "shouting heads." Given the fevered pitch of this election season, many of us may want to award politics and the media the polarization prize. However, few if any sectors of our society are immune from its temptation. Polarizing behavior compromises the health of some of our nation's oldest, most respected voluntary associations, social service agencies, and faith communities.

Despite our best intentions, the odds are that we all have contributed to polarization at some point, in some area of our lives. Each of us plays our part in polarization when we paint those whose views differ from ours with a broad brush; when we assume that everyone who uses the same label to describe themselves has the same concerns, values, and goals; when we act as if there are two, and only two, ways to think about an issue; when we ignore questions that might uncover new ground. Many of us have been using polarizing speech for so long that we're no longer aware of doing it.

It can be easier to recognize polarizing practices when we're on the receiving end. For example, you may recall times when you felt stereotyped, silenced, or unseen by those who have different views. Or when you were dismissed as muddled for expressing a complex perspective. Or when the language or tone of a discussion became so intolerably offensive or painful, you lost your cool, tuned out, or walked away.

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The process of polarization is easier to spot when you have a practiced ear. Notice when participants in a discussion share only their certainties and none of their doubts; when they speak as members of a group rather than as individuals with unique experiences and thoughts; when questions are rhetorical challenges or veiled statements rather than genuine invitations to share perspectives and gain understanding. These are some of the telltale signs that a conversation is moving toward an unproductive, polarizing style of debate.

Further, when listening to "experts" on radio and TV or speaking to your neighbor, ask yourself whether speakers offer only predictable "arguments," or whether new information and ideas surface. Do they express only pat positions, or do they also share underlying values, assumptions, hopes, and fears? Do they interrupt and make personal attacks, or do they listen to others with respectful interest? Do they simply attempt to persuade and refute, or do they seek to understand? These questions highlight some of the factors that help determine whether discussions are negative, attacking, and stuck in the same old unproductive exchanges, or whether conversations can become affirming, exploratory, and solution-focused.

There are good reasons to be concerned about the cumulative impact on our democracy of polarizing private and public conversations. I am alarmed by how polluted the atmosphere of our public squares has become. The smoke generated by polarized debate and advocacy has become too thick for our civic health.

In this vulnerable moment, each of us has a responsibility to stop using polarizing rhetoric and to oppose its use by others. Also we need to have constructive conversations with those who are "ideologically" different from us, even though it feels unnatural.

In the past 14 years, my colleagues and I at the Public Conversations Project have helped hundreds of people to engage in constructive conversations across the dividing lines of a range of hotly contested issues, including homosexuality and faith, the environment, abortion, and the Middle East. Participants have been attracted to dialogue for many reasons, including the promise of an alternative to bruising or frustrating exchanges they've experienced; the wish to avoid a costly protracted conflict; the desire to prevent the fracturing of valued coalitions; the wish to deescalate chronic animosity that erupted into a murderous attack.

It takes less time than you'd imagine - often less than a few hours - for people to rediscover their common humanity and begin identifying shared concerns previously concealed by polarization.

Taking the first step toward a more accurate understanding of our political opponents becomes easier when we grasp that it is not the substance of our differences - neither their content nor their intensity - that polarizes us, but the way in which we express our passionate perspectives. Polarization comes less from what we think and feel than from the ways we treat and are treated by those whose views differ strongly from our own.

We do not need to change our views, but our "attitude." It is possible to continue disagreeing without demonizing others. It is also possible to continue disagreeing about some issues while working together on others. Most of us recognize this in some areas of our lives.

One reason I know this comes from the dialogue that I helped facilitate between six Boston-area pro-choice and pro-life leaders in the years following the 1994 fatal shootings at two Boston-area clinics that provide abortions.

Their conversations had a paradoxical effect: Their mutual caring and understanding deepened, and they all became firmer in their original views about abortion! They held strongly to their core beliefs even as their embrace expanded to encompass on another as people, citizens, and, eventually, friends. Along the way, they stopped using demonizing language in the public square and worked together to prevent further assaults on Boston-area citizens. As they wrote in the Boston Globe in 2001, they glimpsed "a way in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society."

These leaders "got" the difference between the content - the what - of their passionate views, and the process - the how - of the way those views are expressed. When we are unthreatened and motivated, most of us are capable of making this distinction.

However, when we are blinded by the smoke of polarization, we may view an invitation to engage in dialogue as some kind of stealth strategy intended to seduce us into a "compromise." This suspicion is understandable as long as we see the world in terms of black and white. Then, the only verbs are "agree" and "disagree" and the only imaginable option other than black and white (all wrong and all right) is an unacceptable shade of gray.

Participating in a dialogue is one way to get some color back into our views. Dialogue increases mutual understanding, builds respectful relationships, and stimulates fresh ideas about complex issues. In other words, dialogue is a vital threshold through which the Unthinkable crosses over to the Possible, generating hope for those involved. Crossing this threshold generates hope in those who make the journey.

Hope is a precious commodity in uncertain, anxiety-provoking times. These days, my greatest hope stems from the wealth of knowledge now available about how to foster resilient, respectful, authentic relationships - even in the heart of intractable and polarizing conflict. We already have the tools to inspire powerful, positive shifts in even chronic, polarized conflicts. We can transform "us" and "them" into an effective, multiminded, working "we."

Fostering this transformation is the best way I know to have a positive impact on public matters close to my heart and central to my understanding of our collective welfare. But this "climate change" will happen only if a critical mass of citizens make it their business to learn what resources are available and develop the will to use them.

No matter who wins on Nov. 2, on Nov. 3 it is essential that each of us reach out to people who voted for the "other" presidential candidate. We need to clear the air and join forces in grappling constructively with the serious dilemmas confronting our neighborhoods, nation, and world.

Each of us has a catalytic role to play in transforming the largely embattled frontier along which our demographic and ideological differences meet. The new hospitable outposts we build on the boundary "between" will hatch the dialogues and innovative ideas that will make it possible for our sprawling democracy to survive.

Laura Chasin is founder and executive director of the Public Conversations Project, a multiservice nonprofit organization that promotes constructive alternative approaches to divisive public issues.

Do your part to bridge the gap

Join the effort to stop polarization

• Develop the courage and savvy to overcome the seductions of polarizing language. Ask anyone who uses sweeping generalizations to cite some specifics they're referring to.

• Refuse to ask or answer rhetorical questions.

• Be as dedicated a citizen as you are a consumer: Spend as much time shopping for candidates - and exploring issues - as you do exploring the mall.

Fight for Technicolor

• Don't reduce everyone and everything to black and white. Stand up for the multicolored reality of yourself and others.

• Listen to your internal dialogue. In thinking about people who disagree with you, have you developed mental habits that narrow the spectrum you see?

Build bridges

• Have a conversation with someone who thinks differently from you. Seek only to understand and to be understood rather than persuade.

• Don't assume - ask!

• Express your views so they become sources of contact and learning, rather than antagonism. Avoid words likely to raise your listener's defenses.

Spread the word

• Bring people together who think differently about an important issue. Support others' efforts to resist polarization and identify shared concerns and goals.

Resources

• For those looking to find or start a dialogue group in their area, the following groups offer ways to get involved in local and national issues:

The Public Conversations Project

(www.publicconversations.org)

The National Coalition for Dialogue and

Deliberation (www.thataway.org)

Let's Talk America (www.letstalkamerica.org)

By the People (www.pbs.org/newshour/btp)

The World Café (www.theworldcafe.com)

- The Public Conversations Project

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