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How to talk guns: First, get to know each other

A public dialogue on gun control, begun at a 2013 Monitor forum, continues in Montana.

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    For Robert Stains, a senior vice president and trainer at The Public Conversations Project, gaining understanding, not agreement, is the goal.
    Courtesy of The Public Conversations Project
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Would holding a discussion about gun control be productive even if the participants never change their minds or come to an agreement?

It might, if they come away having “walked a mile in the shoes” of those who disagree with them.

That was the idea behind an April 2013 gathering sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor and two nonprofit groups, The Mantle Project and The Public Conversations Project, that brought together people with very different ideas on the issue of gun control. (You can read about that event at http://bit.ly/MonitorGun and read about the founder of The Mantle Project, Nabil Laoudji, at http://bit.ly/MantleProject.)

It was a night of people candidly telling personal stories, giving the “why” behind their feelings about guns. “It just might set the stage for something more,” summed up the Monitor’s Cricket Fuller, who participated in the event.

But that meeting was in Massachusetts, a politically “blue” state. What would happen if the discussion were set in a deep red state, say, Montana?

That’s what Robert Stains, a senior vice president and trainer at The Public Conversations Project, wanted to find out. Together with the Montana Mediation Association he held a similar meeting on gun control earlier this month in Butte, Mont. The mediation group expects to follow up with at least two more such events in other Montana cities.

Success won’t be judged on whether the participants come to an agreement. Rather they are being asked questions such as, do you feel more empathy with those on the other side of the question? And do you see this issue in more complex ways?

“Our experience is that people virtually never change their minds,” says Mr. Stains, who maintains a private practice as a family counselor.

But getting people to be willing to work together productively, despite holding different views, can be a great step forward.

“You treat each other differently once you know the other person’s story,” Stains says. A person who holds a different view becomes more human.

He says that after quietly listening, participants say things like “Your perspective didn’t make sense to me before, but now I understand.” 

If the right atmosphere can be achieved, he says, "It always surprises me in these situations how willing people are to listen to each other and to speak from their hearts."

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