Dialogue Tips

After my first year with Reach Out Wisconsin I sat down to reflect on what I had learned about political dialogue. I was not by any means a dialogue expert and I still had a great deal to learn. But I created this list of tips, hoping to reinforce these practices in my own life and to provide insight for others.

1. Listen with an open mind.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that “In true dialogue, both sides are willing to change.” True dialogue involves learning and striving to understand each other. In order to engage in true dialogue, I must be open to the possibility that I am wrong, that the other person has information I don’t have. I must also be open to conflicting truths–we may have fundamental value differences that are both right. I can’t control whether you, too, are open-minded, but it’s possible that over time my own openness will be contagious.

2. Try to learn rather than convert.

When I’m talking with someone who disagrees with me, it’s instinctive to try to “win” the conversation. Words spill out without warning; I turn rapidly from a guru into a politico. But when I feel my face flushing and my blood rising, I repeat this mantra to myself: Let it go. My goal is to learn, not to convert. If my aim were debate, I might use my entire arsenal to subdue the opposition. But when my goal is civil dialogue, then I try to remember that my purpose is simply to understand…no matter what the other’s goal may be.

3. Meet face to face.

Nothing beats face-to-face conversation, preferably over a meal. The ritual of eating together is calming: it gives you something to do other than just stare and talk to each other. It breaks up conversation that might otherwise escalate, as the server interrupts you to take orders or refill drinks. It gives you something light to talk about in between the political discussion. Sitting around the table with others, it’s a hundred times harder to say the uncivil things you might say online.

4. To change someone’s mind, you must first build their trust.

“I’m not interested in understanding the other side. They don’t listen to facts, they brainwash themselves, and they’re only interested in their own stupid ideas. We need to defeat them, not understand them.” I have heard this comment from both citizens and political leaders. It’s always disheartening, and it’s just plain wrong. At best, if I “defeat” the other side I’ll still be haunted by them at the next election cycle. At worst, I’ll be so ignorant of their reasoning and values that I will lose my battles. Persuasion and compromise are the best and often the only way for Americans to arrive at lasting solutions to our problems. And in my experience, it’s very hard to persuade someone of something unless they trust me.

In the spring of 2011, Ron and I had an excellent conversation with our conservative friend Scott about the environment. Like many conservatives, Scott tends to be wary of too much regulation. Ron and I, both stream ecologists, were appalled at Governor Walker’s proposal to weaken Wisconsin’s new phosphorus rule, which had taken years to create and would protect streams and lakes from one of the worst pollutants in the region. Did Walker supporters really not care about water quality? But rather than accusing Scott of anything, we began by asking questions.

We found out that he did value the environment; the difference was that he preferred regulation at a local level, believing that local governments are more connected to communities’ needs than are state or federal government. Deep into the conversation, we explained the need for state and federal regulation in keeping water clean, because water moves between localities. To us, the point was obvious…but this was our area of expertise. Scott, like most people, seemed simply not to have considered the mobile nature of water. “I guess,” he mused, “water does cross boundaries, so in that way, there might be a place for the state government to step in. Or when you’re talking about the Great Lakes, maybe even the federal government.” It was trust that led us toward that common ground. In our dinners with Scott and Carol, we had established an atmosphere of listening. Entering this conversation with open minds, ourselves, helped Scott to have an open mind too.

I’m not suggesting that I should build trust with the sole goal of persuading others of my views. The hidden goal of persuasion could lead to impatience. But if I focus on trust-building and understanding, common ground and persuasion is sometimes a natural byproduct of dialogue. If I really want to change someone’s mind, therefore, I should work instead on building trust.

5. Forgive ignorance.

One thing I’ve gained from Reach Out Wisconsin is the opportunity to speak with Tea Partiers. Prior to Reach Out, my view of the Tea Party was extremely negative: Tea Partiers on the news were always shouting at rallies and town hall meetings, and they seemed to stand for everything extreme in the Republican Party. So I was confused when after one of our forums I met Todd, a Tea Partier who was both pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. I discovered that the Tea Party has no religious agenda at all; its main agenda is fiscal. I was amazed at my own ignorance.

We soon held a forum on the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. It drew a crowd of 70 people, many of whom said that they learned new things about the two groups. At the end of the forum Ron and I lingered with Todd, who is a tall, likable man with a contagious smile. He spoke of the perception that Tea Partiers are racists, one of the most offensive stereotypes to him. He said, “When I hear someone say that Tea Partiers are racist, I just walk away. That person is obviously not interested in dialogue.” As he spoke I realized that he was describing people I knew–that in fact I, myself, had believed this not long ago. And if people like me believed that Tea Partiers were racist, then Todd was making a mistake by refusing to speak with them. Because I was actually very interested in dialogue.

I tried to convey this to Todd. “Don’t write a person off so quickly. Unfortunately, that’s a belief held by many intelligent people, and it comes mostly from lack of exposure to Tea Partiers.” Through exposure, I and others can learn the truth–it just requires patience on the part of people like Todd.

Just because someone is ignorant doesn’t mean that she is intentionally ignorant. It often just means lack of exposure. It’s up to us to expose each other to, well, each other. Politely. Ignorance is such a bad word–as the bumper sticker laments, “Think education is expensive? TRY IGNORANCE.” But when the other person says something that makes steam come out of your ears, like “Tea Partiers are racist” or “Global warming still hasn’t been proven” or “The deficit is your party’s fault,” bite your tongue. This an opportunity. It is possible that the other person has her facts wrong, and you have the chance to set her straight. She might just listen, if you forgive her her ignorance.

6. Remember there are noble and ignoble people on each side.

The truth is that there are unsavory people on all sides of the political spectrum, from corrupt corporate pawns to corrupt union pawns to adulterers and sexual harrasers. During the Budget Repair Bill protests in Madison, much ado was made by Republicans of death threats against Republican senators, but the reality was that both sides had received death threats.

We must try not to let messengers get in the way of messages. If someone from another “tribe” behaves badly, I try to remind myself that my own people have, at times, let me down. Casting aside the glee I feel when the other side messes up, I can better focus on what really matters: the issues.

7. Say “you’re right” as often as possible.

In his classic self-help book Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy, Dr. David Burns has a chapter called “Verbal Judo: Learn to Talk Back When You’re Under the Fire of Criticism.” One of his key techniques for “disarming the critic” is agreement:

If someone is shooting at you, you have three choices: You can stand and shoot back–this usually leads to warfare and mutual destruction; you can run away or try to dodge the bullet–this often results in humiliation and a loss of self-esteem; or you can stay put and skillfully disarm your opponent. …When you take the wind out of the other person’s sails, you end up the winner, and your opponent more often than not will also feel like a winner. How is this accomplished? It’s simple: Whether your critic is right or wrong, initially find some way to agree with him or her. …[Y]ou can agree in principle with the criticism, or you can find some grain of truth in the statement and agree with that.

To this he adds two rules: 1) avoid sarcasm or defensiveness; 2) always speak the truth. He gives some entertaining examples of how this can work. “YOU: Dr. Burns, you’re a s**t. DAVID: I feel that way at times. I often goof up at things.”

When I’m talking to people on “the other side,” I try to take Dr. Burns’ advice to heart. I agree with them frequently, interjecting “That’s a good point,” or “You’re right!” or starting sentences with, “Like you were saying…” These small gestures put people at ease. And I’m not being insincere–I often do agree with them on at least some things. I think the key is expressing this agreement, out loud and generously. This may take some practice. If you’re shy or reserved, perhaps start small: decide, on your own, that in your next political conversation you will find at least one thing to agree on and you will say so out loud. If you can cultivate it, the habit makes a world of difference.

8. Imagine a trusted friend on the other side.

I’m sometimes surprised to I encounter a “liberal” friend who disagrees with me on an issue. Take gun control–I was surprised when a Madison friend said, “I don’t own a gun yet, but I want to. I want to be able to protect myself in my home, and I also don’t trust the government to protect me.” He was someone I highly respected, whose opinion I trusted, but he was advocating against gun control. It gave me pause–I had heard similar views from conservatives, but I had to admit that my mind had not been so open to the views because of who was expressing them.

Speaking with my friend, I was reminded that politics aren’t as black-and-white as they seem and we all cross over on some issues. When talking with conservatives, I strive to remember that many things they say might be said by my own liberal friends in a different context. This thought helps me open my mind.

9. Consider each idea, regardless of whose it is.

Far too often, we dismiss an idea simply because of who holds it: “I know he’s an idiot, so if it’s his idea it must be bad!” If we constantly divide the world into two opposing groups–Republican and Democrat, Us and Them–and we refuse all ideas proposed by anyone from the opposition, then we’re doomed to stalemate. We need to blur those boundaries, and that means considering each others’ ideas.

Think how many times you’ve been wrong about something. When you were wrong about that one thing, were you also wrong about everything else you believed? The truth is that everyone has a good idea sometimes. “I don’t like the idea because I don’t trust its proponents” is just not good enough.

10. Stick to the topic at hand.

Political discussions can be wild, traveling in one direction then veering off at the drop of a hat…or a catchphrase. You’re talking about unions, then someone says, “Well, corporations are like unions–they’re both large hierarchies and they can both be corrupt. But at least unions don’t get citizenship the way corporations do.” Suddenly you’re off on an exploration of corporate personhood, but then someone else says, “Corporations shouldn’t get citizenship, because that gives their CEOs dual citizenship…and I don’t know about you, but I think it’s hard enough for immigrants to become citizens already!” And now you’re off in another direction.

Some people shift focus more than others, and some are more comfortable with such free-flowing shifts. But I find that too many tangents prevent clarity; I prefer sticking to one topic and exploring it in depth. It’s much less dizzying, and I think it’s more likely that we’ll learn from each other.

11. Tell personal stories.

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer writes, “The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.” Personal stories are an integral part of dialogue, and have been key to building trust among Ron, Carol, Scott and I in our small dialogue group. When we meet monthly and talk politics, we start each dinner with an informal catching-up session. This tends to happen naturally. Sharing tidbits about our jobs and our homes, we’ve developed a foundation of group trust that helps our political discussions. We are real, regular people to each other rather than just sets of political opinions. By now I’ve come to love Carol and Scott and really cherish their friendship.

At our first few Reach Out Wisconsin forums, we encouraged people to share their stories with each other during the informal meet-and-mingle portion of the evening. By the fourth forum, I told the crowd of 70 attendees that they were each to find a partner they didn’t know and give each other five minutes to tell personal stories: “Who you are; what you do; how you think your views formed.” The storytelling is a hit, a tension-diffuser, and a way to connect at a deeper level with people on “the other side.”

Stories can be more powerful than abstract opinions. And while none of us are complete experts on any subject, all of us are experts on our own experience. As much as possible, tell your story.

12. Honor the spirit of the comment.

Our second Reach Out Wisconsin forum was on abortion, and through a fluke I ended up being one of the speakers at the forum. During the Q & A, a man who I knew was Republican raised his hand. “You know what I don’t understand? We spend all this money sending ships into space to explore other planets, and when we find signs of life it’s the top headline in the news. When are we going to start treating the unborn the same way? When is it going to be treated as a big deal when there is life right on this planet, in the womb?”

The comment inspired murmurs and smattered applause from pro-lifers in the crowd. Another man raised his hand to respond. “But it bothers me to hear people talk about life beginning in the womb. I’m a scientist, and life doesn’t begin in the womb. Sperm and eggs are already alive before they join, so technically life already existed before conception. This conversation is more about philosophy than about science. I don’t like it when people misuse scientific language to try and back up their philosophy.”

More hands were raised and a discussion ensued about whether life begins in the womb. But as I witnessed this from the front of the room, I felt the crowd was overlooking the point of the original comment. I spoke up. “I think, though, that the spirit of what you were saying,” I said to the Republican man, “is that when we discover life on another planet, it’s treated as a miracle. And you’re wondering when we’re going to treat life in the womb as a miracle.”

He sat back and smiled, nodding. “Yes. Well said.”

Sometimes, the spirit of a statement gets lost if you look only at semantics and facts. Facts are important, but wrong facts don’t always mean wrong spirit. In dialogue, where the purpose is learning and understanding, it helps to try and honor the spirit of what the other person is saying–even if it hasn’t been said perfectly.