"Showing Up" for Conversations that Feel Scary

by: Keith Kozloff

Peace-building at any level requires that the parties in conflict "show up" voluntarily for conversations that aren't easy. Not surprisingly, getting people to do this at all is challenging. I backed into a peace-builder role while serving in the federal government under both Republican and Democratic administrations. In my last position, I was responsible for addressing conflicts between a) private sector projects in developing countries (financed by the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation or OPIC) and b) communities located near these projects who felt adversely impacted by them. Getting the parties in conflict to the table proved to be a significant threshold challenge. Data from offices like mine show that when were successful in getting these parties together, they reach a mutually acceptable outcome in well over half of them.

Despite these challenges, I became convinced about the potential for non-adversarial approaches to resolving disputes. Since leaving government in late 2014, I've experimented with bringing people together in my own living room for discussions in which participants feel safe and respected --although getting people to show up is still challenging.

The first step is finding neighbors with a range of views as potential participants. Researchers have noted how American society tends to self-segregate itself politically. Nowhere is this more true than in my community of Takoma Park, Maryland, which is variously known as the "Peoples' Republic of Takoma Park", "Berkeley of the East", and "Takoma Park Nuclear Free Zone".

To overcome the dearth of neighbors identifying themselves as conservative, I began to reach out to local chapters of the Republican Party, the Tea Party, Libertarians, and other conservative groups. I also asked my state senator if he knew any Takoma Park Republicans. The sum total of these efforts yielded one participant.

And while conservative political groups are not enthusiastic about sending representatives, it's not as though my progressive friends are themselves all that interested in subjecting themselves to conversations with people with whom they disagree. Recognizing that I needed to cast a wider geographic and social net, I created a "Meetup" group called "Conversations to Bridge the Political Divide." I have now convened several groups based on the Living Room Conversations model - on climate change, money in politics, the relationship between education and economic opportunity, and the meaning of freedom in our society.

There are undoubtedly many reasons why people may be reluctant to participate, including competing social activities. Still, I believe that psychology and neuroscience can offer some insights. As an economist by training, I myself have had to overcome a tendency to approach interpersonal conflict from a zero sum perspective, that is, your gain must mean my loss. I am, however, blessed to be married to a practicing psychotherapist from whom I have learned (though don't always practice) that being righteous and winning the argument is less important than strengthening the long term relationship.

I have also learned that the part of our brains that perceive threats can be quieted down when we realize that we have really been heard. Opening myself to understand someone else's position at a deep level and acknowledging it does not mean that I capitulate to their point of view, nor that I obligate myself to fixing the problem as they see it.

What do these disparate professional and personal experiences have in common? Some people avoid conflict in general, but some may also shy away from interactions that compel them to change their beliefs about perceived adversaries. Suppose I have a preconception about the intelligence, good will or morality of people who are members of a group with whom I disagree. The prospect of meeting people from that group exposes me to cognitive dissonance, especially if the interaction results in a degree of mutual understanding and recognition of our common humanity. Better to avoid such interactions in the first place.

These fears were brought home to me recently when I participated in a Meetup of Democratic Socialists. Following the discussion, I approached the organizer and told him that I host a group called Conversations to Bridge the Political Divide. He said, "Yes I know. You are not as scary as thought you would be." Even after I explained that the purpose was to create a safe space for people across the political spectrum to discuss difficult topics (rather than to change minds), he remained highly suspicious of anyone who would even create such a space.

My struggle to attract people to these conversations is a microcosm of a broader challenge facing our society. Day to day opportunities to learn from those with whom we disagree are dwindling. Being an outlier within one's social group can stimulate feelings of social isolation that activate the pain center in the brain. Conversely, research shows that our views get more extreme by only engaging with own group.

Although there is no silver bullet to getting people to show up - whether for a conversation in your own home, a dispute between a company and a community, negotiating federal policy, or a spousal disagreement - there are some tools that help create trust that the engagement will be safe. One is to establish ground rules and ensure that the parties accept them prior to the discussion. Creating and maintaining a safe environment is critical. At my initial Meetup, one conservative participant mentioned that she felt safe because there was a photo of my spouse's sister in a military uniform prominently displayed on our mantle.

Other techniques can help people show up a second time. Repeated engagements over time can build trust as participants come to appreciate their common humanity and interests, despite their differing positions. Offering chocolate can help too!

It doesn't matter so much to our country whether or not people come to my group, but it does matter greatly that our political leaders are not showing up to negotiate in good faith, because they are increasingly tribalized and allow ideology to trump engagement. The fact that members of Congress run back to their districts every week means dwindling opportunities for social interaction across the aisle. And the prevalence of gerrymandering in Congressional districts means that our representatives are less likely to hear a diversity of views when they visit their constituents, which further reduces their incentives to compromise.

So maybe conversations happening in our own neighborhoods, communities and homes are important after all--not just for the local conversations that are initiated, but also because they can build a constituency to encourage our political leaders to "show up."

Dr. Keith Kozloff is a retired economist who served recently in the federal government. Most of his professional career focused on developing solutions to pressing environmental and energy challenges. In seeking solutions, he recognized the need to understand different perspectives and find ways to bring parties in conflict together for dialogue. Since retiring, he has continued to pursue peace-building activities within his community and around national policy issues.