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.

Courtesy of The Public Conversations Project
For Robert Stains, a senior vice president and trainer at The Public Conversations Project, gaining understanding, not agreement, is the goal.

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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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.