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How dialogue can knit societies back together

As US society is experiencing a historic level of political divide — with Americans increasingly holding hardened, negative views of people on the other side of the political spectrum — there are growing efforts to encourage dialogue. 
There are many definitions of the type of dialogue that is intended to build bridges between people with different views, religions or backgrounds, but I like this one from Clark University in Massachusetts: “Dialogue is a focused and intentional conversation, a space of civility and equality in which those who differ may listen and speak together.”
Organized efforts at dialogue are not new. In the US and around the world, people have for many years used dialogue in state-to-state diplomacy as well as to build common ground between different groups within or between societies. Examples include various forms of interfaith dialogue and programs designed to encourage dialogue between peoples in conflict, such as between Palestinians and Israelis. 
In the increasingly divided US today, some people are trying to apply the lessons from previous dialogues to lessen the antagonism between people with different political views. Many of these initiatives are local, often led by religious leaders in churches, mosques, synagogues and universities. Some of the religious leaders involved note that their theological traditions include examples of dialogue, such as Christian theologians Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas.
Some of the efforts at dialogue are only possible thanks to modern communications technology, such as social media groups and podcast communities. One example is Pantsuit Politics, a podcast created by Sarah Stewart Holland, “from the left” side of the US political spectrum, and Beth Silvers, “from the right” side of the spectrum. I asked them why they started the podcast two years ago, in which they engage in and model dialogue, and Silvers said: “We started the podcast out of a sense of frustration with the way [that Americans are] talking to each other” and wanted to try a more constructive option.
In a highly divided country, people on both sides of the main political divide between Republicans and Democrats often ask why they should bother engaging in dialogue with each other. In the past, Republicans and Democrats disagreed but often still had respect for each other and some shared views. Today, many Americans increasingly feel a lack of respect for the other side, often seeing them as irredeemable. This is a major obstacle to dialogue.
So why bother? Why should anyone expend energy engaging in dialogue? Dialogue is hard. People’s political or religious views often become closely entwined with their fundamental values and identities, and conversing with those who seriously disagree with you can be painful. Often, if someone strongly disagrees with us, we feel attacked personally.

Talking to those we disagree with is difficult, but we can learn more about our own values by discussing them with people who do not share them.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Those who promote dialogue say that, despite these difficulties, societies increasingly have no choice but to engage in dialogue. Former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store said recently on the TED Radio Hour: “I believe that dialogue is the alternative to make diverse societies, as we live in today, work.” Americans have to live with each other, as do so many other different types of people around the world, so trying to better understand each other is essential to finding ways to live together peacefully. When I asked Stewart Holland why Americans need more dialogue, she replied: “Is anybody happy with where we are?” Americans can opt out of dialogue, she said, but that means accepting today’s deep divisions.
One essential benefit of dialogue is that it helps to humanize the other side; it is difficult to dismiss those we disagree with as disgusting, immoral or subhuman when we know them and talk with them. Dialogue can help to avoid violence and build social cohesiveness. 
Dialogue also has benefits for the participating individuals. We often learn more about ourselves, our values and our faith by talking with those who are different. When we have to explain our views to other people, we must go through a mental process of clarifying those views to ourselves. As former UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said on the TED Radio Hour: “It’s the people not like us who make us grow.” 
Those experienced in dialogue have advice for how to engage with others. Focused and respectful listening is an essential foundation. Belief in the value of the process rather than a determination to convince others that you are right also is important. Stewart Holland said “putting your relationship before the policy” is useful. Silvers advised that being aware of the ways in which your identity is wrapped up with your views is key, so that you can discuss an issue “without feeling like your entire ego lives or dies based on the outcome of the conversation.” Curiosity about other people and practicing dialogue are useful, too. It is also important to be aware of power dynamics in dialogue, as real or perceived differences in power between groups add another layer of complexity for those facilitating discussions.
There appears to be growing interest in the US in dialogue, but so far these efforts remain mostly dispersed and small. The forces of division are much stronger. As Silvers said, until “more traditional [media and other] outlets start amplifying dialogue … it’s a real uphill climb.” 
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Twitter: @KBAresearch