Tell It Like It Is

How to have an honest discussion when you don?t agree

| March / April 2003

I am in the car with my 8-year-old, listening for the 10th straight time to his newly favorite Beatles song, ?We Can Work It Out.? He looks over at me and asks: ?When there are two sides going to war, do the people from one side get to talk to the people of the other side?? At just that moment, the Beatles sing, ?Life is very short, and there?s no time / For fussing and fighting, my friend.?

As usual, the profoundest questions are many times the simplest. But simple doesn?t mean easy. For instance, ?Can we talk?? Opening up an organization or community or any other group of people so that everyone can talk freely, especially when differences of opinion exist, often seems nearly impossible. Where do you begin? Based on my experience working with community groups, activist organizations, businesses, and schools as a community organizer and organizational adviser, I?ve gathered a few ideas on how to get a conversation rolling?which can work even when tension is in the air, or sides have already been taken.


Any and all gatherings are a chance for people to connect. Serve refreshments, make it a potluck, leave plenty of time for informal conversation. The most important outcome often will be something that?s not even on the agenda.

Get Personal

In trying to engage with people?especially when they don?t seem to share your beliefs?start by asking about their lives, where they?re from and how they got to where they are now. Tell your own story in response. You may have more in common than you expected.