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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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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.

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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.