Political tensions are sky-high in the United States. Is it possible for people on both ends of a highly polarized political spectrum to give up their differences and find a way to understand each other? MPR News host Kerri Miller spoke with family social science professor Bill Doherty about his experiments in fostering dialogue with members of opposing political tribes.
Here are 10 takeaways from Doherty on how to get past the political cliches and have a meaningful conversation with someone who disagrees with you:
1. Figure out if dialogue is possible: "You have to decide if this is somebody you actually want to be in a dialogue with ... is this somebody you think has any interest at all in your perspective? If they don't, then don't put yourself out there."
2. The value of sitting down with someone, looking them in the eye and being truly interested in learning about them can go a long way. "When we just look at the op-ed pages or watch TV or whatever, we form stereotypes ... and these dialogues are a de-stereotyping exercise. These are actual people with complex views on things."
3. Introduce vulnerability to the conversation. Talk about what you dislike about your own position, and ask what the other person dislikes about their own position: "One of the questions we ask people is, 'What are your reservations or concerns about your own side?'"
"When people show that they're not just fanatics for their own side, that they see some downsides, that helps a lot."
4. Introduce even your passionate beliefs with a story. "When you've lost your job to a company that goes overseas and you feel like somebody is there trying to help you — that's personal then ... it's easier to understand."
5. For a brief dialogue, there isn't enough time to see if everyone in the discussion can agree on credible sources and facts. "People listen and then we pose questions to each side. The questions — like, 'What did you learn about the other side?' — don't lend themselves to inflammatory comments. People bring their best selves. But occasionally if somebody does diverge from what we're doing and make kind of a big, bold statement, then I stop them ... I would say, 'That's not what we're doing at the moment.'
"If people aren't able to connect their argument to the higher goal of listening and learning, then you just note they feel strongly about something, and you move on. ... The key is, in these dialogues, that we don't let people just riff on something."
6. How do you diffuse a big, personally insulting, inflammatory statement made toward you in a political conversation? "If you think it's possible you could have a connection, and you're actually in a conversation, then you could say, 'Whoa. Could we tone it down and keep talking without my responding to that?'"
7. Figure out what your assumptions are about the other side. Where are you setting up mutually exclusive dualities? Try moving beyond those stereotypes. "Listen first and see if you understand what the other person thinks. If you can paraphrase back what somebody is saying to you...and get that right, then a lot of times people will then be open to your perspective...if we feel heard, we soften toward somebody."
8. Try to move beyond tribes: "There are some issues like climate change which have become tribalized in this country. And once they become tribalized, they're very difficult to deal with because they're about identity: 'My side. My people.'"
9. It's best to start these conversations one-on-one. Avoid big groups — maybe start with your family. "Extended families are the main sources of political diversity in our country ... we don't choose them."
10. How do you create an atmosphere where you can really dialogue on political issues? "Bring together people from a community and then — in a structured way where nobody gets a chance to tear into anybody — listen carefully, express your views in a constructive way.
"Ask people, 'What are your goals? What do you want to come to understand better or differently about the other side? We have to write down their goals. And then we have them write down questions that they want to ask of the other. And then at the end we have people write down what they learned about people who differ from them ... it brings out the better angels of our nature when we're there to listen and understand."
11. Remember we all live together: "Our big concern is what's happened and what has been happening to the social fabric. Can we come together on anything? Can we be respectful? Can we be civil? There are friendships breaking up. There are marriages breaking up over this. So what are the skills and the attitudes we need to be able to be together as citizens across our differences?"
For more information on Doherty's "Better Angels" project, visit to its website. For those who are interested in sponsoring a dialogue, email Doherty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Use the audio player above to hear the full segment.