Difficult Conversations:
The art and science of thinking together

A guide for facilitators

Why Dialogue?

Many people feel we’re a divided nation. We don’t share the same values, the same goals, or even, most perilously, the same understanding of what’s true, or real.

That could make the prospect of a constructive national dialogue seem unlikely. However, there’s one critical area where many of us do come together: it’s in the growing conviction that our political, social and economic institutions are failing us.

For some, that failure is most acutely felt in the loss of livable-wage jobs, even as the cost of living—from food to shelter to healthcare to education—continuously rises. For others it’s a corrupt and polarized political system, where responses to urgent national and global crises are stymied by the myopic, moneyed interests of the very few. And for still others, it’s the unraveling of our social fabric, caused by threatening ideologies and/or long-standing prejudices.

Whatever the specific concerns or issues, it’s clear that to address any of them we as a nation need to come together to find common ground. The alternative is an ever-deepening divide, an ever-spreading political paralysis, and an ever-greater inability to respond to a world many feel is on the edge of economic, political and environmental chaos.

The role of dialogue

If we agree it’s in our collective interest to find common ground, the question then is “how?” The assumption of this guide is that it begins with dialogue.

Dialogue, to be clear, is not debate. Nor is it a forum to argue or persuade. Simply put, the goal of dialogue is to “build relationships across differences.” Rather than listening with the intent to react and construct arguments, we listen with the intent to understand and build bridges.

At best, true dialogue allows us to find common ground and develop new, win-win solutions. At worst, we depart with our differences unresolved, but tempered by greater understanding, a spirit of goodwill, and an open attitude toward renewed dialogue in the future.

We’re made for dialogue  

Despite its noble goals and promising outcomes, coming together in dialogue at a time of great divisiveness may seem like a bad idea—a recipe for conflicts and ruined relationships. And chances are you’ve had experiences that justify the belief that “we’re not good at that kind of conversation.”

But let’s put that conclusion aside for just a moment, and give us a little credit. After all, we like talking to each other. We like meeting up with friends, colleagues and family members to share stories, tell jokes, seek advice, offer comfort, and just generally get caught up on life.

Even when we pass strangers on the street we’re often compelled to say something.  “Hi, how are you?” is a greeting born not of insincerity but of a natural impulse to connect.

If we’re good at talking, if we so badly want to connect, then why do certain conversations—for example on politics or religion—so easily become arguments?

No doubt many dynamics are at work. But here’s one explanation I’ve found true for myself: We so badly want to be in relationship, to connect, that anything that creates disagreement, that makes us feel disconnected, makes us agitated, upset, even angry. Our unregulated impulse then is to stamp out whatever seems to be the source of our disconnect, which at first glance appears to be the wrong-headedness of the person we’re talking to. If we can just convince them they’re wrong, our connection will be reestablished and harmony restored.

Needless to say, that strategy rarely works.

But what if disagreeing did NOT result in disconnection? Or if it did, what if we had the tools to heal the divide, and in the process make the relationship even stronger than before? Then we could have those more difficult conversations. We could address those deep issues so critical to our common wellbeing. Having moved past the conflict, past the feelings of disconnection, we’d be able to walk together on common ground and address our challenges. (Not to mention be rewarded with deeper and richer relationships!)

Now it so happens we have these tools. In just that for most of us, they’re a bit undeveloped. This guide is part of the answer to help change that.