The Common Good

A Republican, a Democrat, and a Buddhist Walk into a Room …

An historic event took place recently in the seaside town of Belfast, Maine. Ten people of vastly different political persuasions — Libertarians, Tea Party Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives — sat in a circle, had a civil dialogue about their hopes and fears for America, and discovered their common ground. Their experience is a model of the local dialogues we so desperately need to build bridges across the political divide.

Dialogue illustration, Kubko / Shutterstock.com
Dialogue illustration, Kubko / Shutterstock.com

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And yes, one of the 10 is a Buddhist. Judith Simpson, a practicing Buddhist, facilitated the conversation. Judith is an organizational development consultant who has worked with the likes of Eastman Kodak and Corning. She facilitates using a group process called Dialogue. Judith now plies her skills in restorative justice. Dorothy Odell organized the event. She has worked in education as a teacher and as a member of the Belfast School Board. Both reside in Belfast.

“I’ve gotten upset with the media fanning the flames of the story that we’re a polarized nation,” said Dorothy. Judith agreed. Together, they decided to do something about it.

Using her local network, Dorothy invited a politically diverse group to her home for Saturday supper and conversation. The purpose was simple: to come together and have a dialogue. The group ranged in age from 30s to 70s. It was balanced between men and women. Most didn’t know one another before the event, but they knew Judith would facilitate.

They began with a simple meal of soup and bread baked in the wood-fired oven by Dorothy’s husband, Scott. The group ate at a long table in the kitchen, illuminated only by a fire and candles. After dinner, they adjourned to the living room where they sat in chairs arranged in a circle. “It is critical to have a circular space,” says Judith.

Judith began by talking about labels. “Labels are not useful for dialogue,” she told the group. The goal is to listen to one another, not to “win” a discussion. At the heart of dialogue is the core value of respect for others. Respect for others — people of different faiths, races, political affiliations, whatever — is one of the 10 core American values I documented in four national surveys and write about in United America. The Belfast Dialogue shows how this core value can be put into practice.

Judith facilitated the event with four principles of Dialogue. These were developed by the late quantum physicist David Bohm and later written about by MIT management professor Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

1. All participants must “suspend” their assumptions, literally to hold them “as if suspended on a clothesline.”

2. All participants must regard one another as colleagues.

3. There is always a “facilitator” who “holds the space and context” of dialogue.

4. There is no need to agree or disagree with another’s spoken word. It is useful to have a short moment of silence after a participant speaks, giving time for reflection before another speaks.

Both Judith and Dorothy participated in the conversation, but Judith “held the space and context” — reminding people of the process, keeping the dialogue moving, and asking the key questions.

“What is your greatest fear for our country?” was the first question. It invited people to open up. “People spoke sincerely, from the heart, carefully and thoughtfully,” Dorothy said. Only one person began with scripted remarks. With Judith’s guidance, this person soon stopped doing it and spoke from the heart.

Participants discovered that they had similar fears. Our dysfunctional government topped the list. The floundering educational system was another worry. Continuous war and war-like approaches to foreign policy also weighed on people’s minds.

After 40 minutes, Judith called intermission. Cookies, soft drinks, and wine were brought into the living room. When they reconvened in the circle, Judith asked the second question: “What is your greatest hope for our country?”

Participants found common ground here, too. Respect for young Americans — their sensitivity, knowledge, intelligence, and concerns for justice — was a recurring theme.

After 40 minutes, Judith brought the event to a close. She invited final remarks from each person and then the dialogue was over. “Instead of debating or discussion,” said Judith, “this group had spoken, listened, and thought together.”

“People left the evening changed,” said Dorothy. “They were affected positively by the experience.” Participants expressed their desire to meet again and continue their dialogue.

“My personal hope is that this kind of thing would spread like a virus,” Dorothy said. If you want to create civil dialogue in your local community, Dorothy and Judith have some advice for you: “Don’t wait for your leaders.”

Wayne Baker is Chair of the Management & Organizations area at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Robert P. Thome Professor of Business Administration, and Professor of Management & Organizations. He is also Professor of Sociology at Michigan, and Faculty Associate at the Institute for Social Research. Dr. Baker has published over sixty academic articles and five books, including America’s Crisis of Values: Reality and Perception (Princeton University Press). He blogs five days a week at www.OurValues.org, an online experiment in civil dialog. Dr. Baker resides in Ann Arbor with his wife Cheryl and their son.

Image: Dialogue illustration, Kubko / Shutterstock.com

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