Across the Chasm

Dialogue helps find common ground in polarized debates

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Most everyone knows the frustration of discussing an issue they feel passionately about -- be it welfare reform or whether Walmart should be banished from the face of the earth -- only to have someone with an equally impassioned counterargument shoot their ideas down. Now, a loose coalition of movements aimed at getting people of opposing viewpoints to find common ground through conversation is making inroads into conflicts that were once seen as intractable.

Take the abortion debate. In the current climate, its almost impossible for anyone on either side to admit that they see any shades of gray, since doing so would be taken as a point in favor of the other side. But, as an article in In Context (No. 40) points out, 'though there are certain benefits to being aligned on one side -- such as clarity about where you stand, social validation, and the support of like-minded people,' there are also costs, namely the silencing and marginalization of the large number of people whose complex views don't fit into either slot.

Honoring these gray areas is where an organization called the Public Conversations Project comes in. Using what they call 'dialogue sessions' as forums for people from both sides of the abortion rights issue, the facilitators structure the sessions for maximum effect: chairs are arranged in a way so that participants are seated within touching distance of somebody who thinks differently than they do; participants' responses are timed so that no single person can hog the stage; questions cover both political beliefs and personal experiences with the issue. What the organizers found was that most people were less dogmatic about their beliefs than they were usually willing to admit, and that the experience of seeing their 'opponents' having similar doubts help break down stereotypes.

Beyond abortion, dialogue sessions have also been used to facilitate conversations between descendants of slaves and descendants of slave owners, gay rights activists and their opponents, and environmentalists and developers. An entire issue of Northern Lights (Spring 1995) is devoted to 'The Art of Listening,' with a series of articles that look at both the pros and cons of face-to face mediation as an answer to the land-sue issues brought on by the booming development of the West. New Age Journal (Jan./Feb. 1995) also reports that dinner discussions have been helpful in mending fences between liberals and conservative Christians in Colorado Springs.

Original to Utne Reader Online