Lately I’ve been writing and speaking a lot about depolarizing dialogues. Around the world we have never needed them more. Here in the US, political division has reached epic heights of tension which is showing up everywhere from family dynamics to the workplace.
Organizations like mine, like Braver Angels and The Reunited States are doing their best to get people from opposite sides to talk, to moderate their rhetoric while still speaking freely.
I never feel more passionate than when I’m doing this kind of work, as if I was born to do it. But conflict work also keeps me up at night because it is fraught with contradictions, difficulties, and complexities.
I want to share four of these complexities with you. The next time you have a difficult dialogue or a conversation designed to bridge differences, I invite you to raise your awareness and consider the following:
- Building a bridge doesn’t necessarily mean meeting in the middle: Dialogue is important because building social trust paves the way for structural changes. But when two sides are trying to reconcile, sometimes one side has to make a longer journey on the bridge than the other. When it comes to systemic racism, for example, author Nathan Bomey says white people need to “take action by constructing the bridges that they have so long neglected to build.” Depolarization does not always have to be balanced. At times we need to listen more than we speak.
- Power matters: If you are trying to resolve a conflict or have dialogue across polarized views, consider the power dynamics between the two parties. Imagine a conflict between a boss and an employee. For that dialogue to be effective, the boss would need to be intentional about creating an environment where the employee could share their concerns. Also, if you are a part of the dominant culture at work, consider how that power dynamic might affect conflict with people from non-dominant cultures. How might you make more room for marginalized voices to be heard?
- Culture affects conflict: While in one culture conflict might typically be resolved through open and direct communication, in another culture it might be resolved through a third party. Consider taking the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory https://icsinventory.com/ to learn more about different types of conflict. Manage your expectations about what you feel is “right” when it comes to honesty or directness; these facets of communication are culturally influenced, not standard.
- Depolarizing dialogues across political views or core values are vital to reducing division. But not everyone pays the same cost for participating in these dialogues. For example, a debate recently arose in Texas about whether to offer differing views in classrooms on subjects like the Holocaust. As a Jewish person, participating in that debate would have come at a high personal cost. For me there is no debate about the Holocaust and the idea of trying to defend that view caused me great pain. The same is true for many others in specific instances where they feel exhausted or harmed. Let me be clear: I am not saying we should not have these conversations. Quite the opposite. But I am saying that for some, including ourselves, the cost of building that particular bridge might be too high. In that case we have many choices: Ask others to take up that dialogue, take a strong stand through writing, breathe and let it go, or choose another forum for bridging divides. We do not have to build every bridge ourselves.
Conflict and depolarization work come with a fair amount of discomfort, but that is an integral part of the process. While the work may be imperfect, I choose to go forward in hopes that we find a way to speak freely without fear and without dehumanizing those on the “other side.”