How to have Courteous Conversations about Polarizing Issues

Video trailer for Courteous Conversations

At the beginning of the summer, David and I set out to find a way to help people who disagree over polarizing issues—even passionately, and often angrily—talk productively together. Fed up with the antagonistic political discourse so prevalent (and aggravated by the current presidential campaign), we wanted to create a situation where people would actually listen to the other side. (For a glimpse into why this kind of conversation is so important, check out this YouTube about political discrimination.) To do this, we had to remove incentives to argue, create a situation where participants felt safe, and take away platforms for rebuttal.

Here’s what we did: First we found people who disagreed over polarizing issues. We then selected one of them to interview the other. The interviewers were given a chance at the very beginning to briefly share their beliefs, but the rest of the time was dedicated to interviewing the other person and understanding his or her opinion. Once the interview began, the interviewers were never allowed to express their own opinions again. This encouraged them to actively listen and engage in understanding rather than formulating counterarguments or questioning the validity of a point. Simply put, the goal was to understand a perspective deeply—not to debate ideas, score points, or (in)validate opinions.

The interviewers were allowed to ask hard questions, but they were also charged with the task of finding something they respected in the opposing platform—even while disagreeing. We called it “unconverted admiration.” Inspired by Krister Stendahl‘s concept of “holy envy,” the goal we gave the interviewers was to find something they envied in the platform of their interlocutor. “Envy” is a particularly important term here: To envy another perspective is to appreciate it even while not being able to claim it in our own platform. You cannot envy something you already have (or have in common). To envy is to want and remain wanting. This is a crucial step in talking about polarizing issues. We must be willing to “try on” opposing paradigms—not simply to agree to disagree or to emphasize common ground, but to seek out the good and admirable in the other perspective, as it is understood from that perspective.

The results were phenomenal. As someone who simply listened in to these Courteous Conversations, I witnessed the kind of productive conversations I have only dreamed about in public political discourse.  Interviewees were able to express their perspective openly and admit their limited understandings, reservations, and weaknesses. Because the interviewer was unable to express counterarguments, the interviewees often qualified their own assertions, frequently providing room for contrary opinions and even granting them validity. It turns out they were much more able to allow for counterarguments when it was not really an argument. Because they were not bolstering or defending their perspective, they were free to admit weaknesses; because nobody was scoring points, they could let down their guard and talk openly. Ironically perhaps, when it was not a debate, there was more productive dialogue. Just listening to the conversations helped to open my mind and broaden my perspectives.

We want to share some of that with you. Over the next few months, we will be releasing one Courteous Conversation a week as a podcast on this blog. Please follow along and respectfully engage in the conversations. Our first five conversations are about gay marriage, religion, abortion, charter schools, and minimum wage.  

But you can do more than listen to our podcast. If you find yourself polarized over an issue, please ask someone from across the aisle to hold a Courteous Conversation with you—you will know if you are polarized if you feel angry at people who disagree with you. If they agree to be interviewed, use the rules we have created and make sure they understand the rules so you both know what to expect:

  1. Ask if you can interview them about their opinion.
  2. Begin by expressing your perspective and then just be curious about theirs (don’t make any more arguments).
  3. Ask any questions that will help you better understand them (but do not ask any questions that are meant to discredit, confuse, or debilitate).
  4. Seek for unconverted admiration.

Feel free to record your own conversation and send them our way. We would love to publish them. Please share this with friends, and follow along as we seek to lift political discourse from the slums of polarization.



6 thoughts on “How to have Courteous Conversations about Polarizing Issues

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s