This week’s episode seeks to answer one simple, but very important, question: Why is it so hard for people to talk to each other? There are a lot of easy answers we can point to, like social media and political polarization, but there’s another explanation that goes a bit deeper.
Laurie Mulvey, executive director of World in Conversation, is the perfect person to help us explore this question. World in Conversation has facilitated more than 10,000 dialogues over the past 15 years. They bring people from all walks of life together to have dialogues about important issues from climate change to race relations. In the process, they break down the misconceptions and preconceived notions that often get in the way of one person understanding — and relating to— someone else.
Of course, most dialogues do not happen in a controlled environment with a facilitator in the room. Laurie shares some advice for how to handle your next family dinner or other situation where things might get a little heated. She also shares how the World in Conversation is preparing the next generation of democratic citizens to overcome the partisan divides that bog down political discourse.
As we say in the episode, Laurie raises the optimism quotient of this podcast quite a bit.
[6:06] Why is it so difficult for people to engage in dialogue today?
Laurie: What I think happens is that we end up needing facilitators. Just like in sports we need referees. Here they would be dialogue referees.
[6:55] What are the elements of a good dialogue?
Laurie: Candidness and disagreement with respect is important. Having mutual respect is especially important. When we don’t talk with an understanding of each other’s positions they aren’t as productive and they don’t show us as much.
[14:00] What impact do you think social media has had on our ability and willingness to engage in dialogue?
Laurie: Personally, I don’t notice much of a difference. We actually have a lot of conversations. However, they’re either with like minded people or they are a “hit and run” type conversation with people who don’t think like us. The only change that social media has brought is that we’re doing this with people from our living rooms.
[15:40] We have seen our culture become more polarized politically. Have you seen this reflected in the conversations you lead?
Laurie: We try to find polarizing topics and get different sides represented in our conversations. Therefore, I’m not sure if we see an increase in the extent of the polarization. Actually, we try to get people in our conversations to say the things that are controversial. At this point, the polarization becomes apparent. However, I don’t think this is real. I dont’ think most people live in this polarity that we like to talk about.
[17:40] How can we take the work you’ve done working with conversations and apply it in the real world such as at dinner table talks?
Laurie: It is important to be in the mindset for listening. The mindset you need to be in is ‘tell me something I dont’ already know’. However, I strongly believe that even in these settings we need a facilitator to help navigate the conversation.
[19:24] What skills does someone need to be a good facilitator?
Laurie: Fundamentally, you have to be able to talk all sides. You have to find what is true in all sides of a conversation. As long as you can do that, you can sort of fumble through everything else.
[20:22] Is there a certain point in a conversation where you would advise people to end a conversation?
Laurie: I think we all know intuitively that there is a time to end a heated conversation.
[21:30] Given all of the conversations you’ve been a part of, are there any memories that really stick out?
Laurie: There was one conversation between Israelites and Palestinians where one guest from Palestine said he couldn’t even go in the room. But by the end of his time working with me his greatest challenge was that he came to understand so much about the Israelis perspective that he wasn’t sure what it meant given his position as a Palestinian. I do the work because the people who have the hardest positions will get the most out of it.