A guide to tough conversations
Techniques to transcend political polarization
By Elizabeth Garlow and Abby Skeans
Whether your typical gatherings with friends and family avoid or embrace political talk, many Americans do seem to agree on something these days: that our politics and sense of who we are as a country seem divided.
One year ago, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, we began our journey to bridge that divide. Having both worked in Washington and having experienced first-hand the damage of the political divide during the last presidential elections, we wanted to model a new kind of collaboration. We also wanted to give hope to the next generation of public servants that, while no silver-bullet solutions exist, there is a way to avoid feeling stuck, discouraged and helpless in the face of the polarization we experience in our country today.
Our contribution? A special leadership initiative called NextGen Citizenship, created to help future public servants practice civil discourse through listening, describing and “translating” their political and moral convictions for differing audiences.
“As a political science major, I’ve often felt discouraged from entering public service given the amount of gridlock in American government,” a college senior shared with classmates last fall at Princeton University, where the program was launched. “Now I have hope and skills to work with others to create meaningful solutions in the policy world.”
We, too, are students of politics and have worked in government and civil society at the local and national levels. One year ago, Elizabeth finished her service in the recent administration’s White House, while Abby was engaged in the “Future of the Right” in the post-election context, serving clients who wanted to understand what “Republican” and “conservative” might mean today.
What could we offer these students as a healing balm to the divisions we encountered? Techniques to move beyond polarization and gridlock. Though working on “opposite” ends of the political spectrum in Washington, we believed our very own discourse and collaboration could be a fruitful exercise that might yield some insights.
We both agreed that while new technologies have helped with global information sharing and local activism, there is a need for better, well-formed public engagement and leadership in our regional, state and national institutions. Though undeniably flawed, these institutions serve important historical functions and facilitate needed collaboration.
Today, however, an alarming 83 percent of Millennials report that they do not trust our government institutions.
What could we do to help address this mistrust and cultivate engagement?
We started small, with 11 students. We called our curriculum “NextGen Citizenship” because we envision a next generation of leaders who can engage in discourse in a pluralistic context, without losing one’s own principles and values but still allowing them to evolve.
Our program was designed to equip students to be cultural and political mediators by understanding how to articulate the values and principles underlying different political convictions, rather than the ideological underpinnings that often pit one group or party against the other.
The first step involved having students work together to explore and define principles that characterize conservative, liberal, independent and other existing political convictions. Then they reflected on their own guiding principles.
“Before this program, I found it hard to articulate my own political convictions,” said one student. “I mostly subscribed to a set of ideals and did not challenge or question them. I found that before engaging constructively with others you must first evaluate your own beliefs and morals.”
Following this self-reflection, students were guided through a process to change their approach to conversations with one another. Rather than trying to figure out who was “right” or “wrong,” we encouraged students to speak honestly about their values, principles and concerns, seeing how tension can be healthy and productive.
For one, this exercise provided “a renewed passion for communicating to others the importance of disagreement [and] the need for core principles.”
As time passed, it became clear that this program was as much experiential as it was academic. It became about being in real relationship with one’s political opposites, especially when they had a chance to travel together to Washington, where they met with policymakers, social entrepreneurs, thought leaders and philanthropists. Together, they brought their ideas about partisanship and polarization much further upstream than Facebook debates or media commentary ever could.
With this expanded perspective, the students started to understand how ideas, principles, nuanced language, and one’s place in the political and civic ecosystem does matter in terms of who is benefitting and how information and resources are flowing.
The experience of our students has us pondering how our own lives can be a laboratory for building relationships with our so-called “political opposites.” What if, as in the NextGen Citizenship program, the primary goal of our conversations is not to find commonality on charged issues, but to better know and understand the values and concerns of the people with whom we might disagree?
Drawing on our own studies and experience with this pilot program, we’ve put together five steps to help guide you through such conversations.
1. Connect. Start with getting to know someone on a human level ... take a walk, share a meal, talk about the weather, your families, your favorite season. If you can, have each person spend a few minutes talking about the people and experiences that have helped shape what they believe today.
2. Speak with vulnerability. Once you’ve made a connection and found some familiarity with one another, you can take on a challenging topic. Have each person describe their views on the topic, using principles (values each person holds as true) to describe why they believe what they do. As you share your views, be vulnerable enough to share what motivates you to hold those principles as true. Is it love or fear, empathy or anger?
3. Listen generously. Take a moment to check your readiness to listen to the other person generously. This means doing so with full attention, curiosity, a willingness to be both surprised and confused at the same time. Pay attention to the emotions that surface in you while the other is speaking. Ask yourself how they might be clouding your attention or sparking judgment.
4. Ask thoughtful questions. Good questions are powerful. Journalist Krista Tippet points out in her 2016 book Becoming Wise that journalists — and our society at large — have a “love affair with the ‘tough’ question, often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight.” She points out that strong questions are those that are honest and elicit eloquence. Try to ask questions that help you understand the values and concerns of the person with whom you’re dialoguing.
5. Let go of “win-lose” thinking. Try to hold space for ambiguity (not everything has a solution), and release any pressure you might be putting on a conversation to end up in agreement about what is right and wrong. Simply practice listening and speaking together honestly about your views and the principles underlying them.
It’s time to ask what we can do to evaluate our own political beliefs and their motivating principles, and have healthy discussions with others who commit to doing the same. Doing so can generate a new sense of hope.
As a student in the NextGen Citizenship program described: “I am hopeful that our generation can address the political polarization that we see in Washington! I think we need leaders who are not afraid of compromise and seeking truth despite party affiliation.”
We can all take part in this challenge, and our democracy will be better for it.
Elizabeth Garlow is an investment officer with Lumina Impact Ventures.
Abby Skeans, Esq. is a fellow with The American Project at Pepperdine School
of Public Policy and CEO at Glossator Advising.
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