Conversation Starter: Dialogue Across Political Differences

Posted by on November 03, 2015 at 7:04 PM

Phil Neisser teaches political theory at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he also serves as the Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences. Jacob Hess is an educator and nonprofit leader passionate about mental health awareness and mindfulness. Apart, impressive. Together, unstoppable. Phil, a staunch atheist and leftist, and Jacob Hess, a Christian conservative, started a conversation about the effects of ugly partisanship destroying any prospect for civil conversations about the issues that mattered. That conversation launched a genuine, respectful, and sustained dialogue about their respective values, beliefs, and concerns for the future, covering tough topics including same-sex marriage, power, government, media, religion, morality, race, and more.

Their ongoing dialogue became You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You're Still Wrong), a "thoughtful and entertaining conversation between two researchers from opposing ends of the American political spectrum. They argue, listen, and learn. They discover common ground. Yet they resolutely disagree about most of the core issues. And by doing all of that at the same time they suggest that normal citizens can – dialogue by dialogue – build a nation of strong communities, reasoned discourse, mutual understanding, and improved public policy." Jacob and Phil were the inaugural recipients of Public Conversations Founders Award, presented to leaders in dialogue across difference at the annual benefit dinner, Nourish, and were interviewed by On Point's Tom Ashbrook.

Check out photos of their interview from the event, and learn more about their work on their website.

1. What issues are you discussing together presently?

Jacob and Phil: A few weeks ago the two of us met in Salt Lake City where we joined four friends: a gender-fluid ersatz monk, an evangelical Christian, a Unitarian Universalist marriage equality activist, and a gay Marxist Christian. We were there to co-present at the World Parliament of Religions conference, our topic being how to talk across strong differences when some or all of the people involved consider God to have already had the final word on the issues involved. Rather than only present on that subject, we ended up having several of those difficult conversations ourselves. To wit: we went after each other in friendly but intense disagreement. In the process we did a lot to further our mutual understanding and deepen our appreciation of each other, despite our continuing differences.   

The specific issues we wrestled were on the subject of marriage and sexual attraction - and different ways that people in the religious conservative and gay communities work with same sex attraction. Jacob is starting a blog this week called to share some insights from his narrative research in this area.

Another hot issue among us was whether conservatives have really “lost” anything as a result of the national legalization of marriage for same-sex couples. For a while there was some sort of gap present; some of us felt misunderstood and others couldn’t understand why. Then we figured out that some of us were thinking of “loss” and “gain” in terms of what individual choices people have or lose. And from that point of view one might think that conservatives haven’t really lost anything.

After all, in the new U.S. marriage world conservatives can still choose to enter into heterosexual monogamous marriages in accordance with the views of their respective faith communities. Others, however, felt that something essential in our world has nonetheless been lost, that being the presence of a community-wide (not merely individual), shared idea and practice and marriage, in keeping with God’s creation and benevolent vision. Once we figured out that we – on one side the liberals and on the other the conservatives – were thinking in these different ways, we came to understand and appreciate more (even though we disagreed as much as ever).

2. What could debates learn from dialogue? What kind of agreements do you wish we had in place to encourage more civil discourse?

Jacob and Phil: Political debates are now all about trying to win, when they could be more about developing mutual understanding and/or together trying to figure out the truth. Look at presidential debates: the candidates are not allowed to ask each other questions; they’re positioned all in a row, which encourages them to take turns trying to score “points” with their respective target audiences; the moderators are not supposed to invent questions on the fly in an effort to move the candidates towards mutual understanding, and are instead supposed to give each candidate an equal chance to triumph.

It would help if we could agree that each human being – even those who’s every action and belief we consider to be wrong – still has something of value to offer, something to teach others. And it would help if we understood that the big problems in the world are caused more by mistaken beliefs and worldviews (not to mention dysfunctional systems) than they are by lack of values or pure immorality. In other words, we’re all just human beings; our political opposites are not demons.

3. You both have experience in working with young people. How is the next generation uniquely poised and uniquely challenged to take on the mantle of dialogue in today’s political climate?

Phil: One thing that gives me hope is that most of my students are not very judgmental and instead are rather humble about what they believe. On the other hand I get scared by the degree to which many of them treat truth as just a matter of opinion. Dialogue is about refraining from judging the other person as a person, of taking them at their word and giving their intentions the benefit of the doubt, but it’s also about together searching for the truth because it’s a given that truth exists, that some beliefs are more defensible than others. Yes, we need to search for truth with humility (we need to realize that humans aren’t in a position to find the final truth once and for all, with no remaining doubts), but we still need to search for it. And many young people take the easy way out by declaring themselves relativist.

Jacob: As a mindfulness teacher, I would also point out that maybe one concern that liberal and conservative communities might both have is the decreasing attention span coinciding with the "digital colonization" of our lives.  Among other things, to sit in a dialogue and seek understanding in an uncomfortable divide...takes attention!  That seems to be in increasingly short-supply in both young and old; indeed, from a mindfulness perspective, all Americans have some form of attention deficit!  Just as we need to preserve and protect natural environmental areas, then, we need to work to defend our natural capacity to pay attention - especially if we hope to grow in our capacity to dialogue as a country.  

4. In addition to voting for candidates who are willing to work across the aisle, what can the everyday person do to combat ugly partisanship?

Phil: Above all we each need to find people who have different points of view than we do, or who live in different sorts of places than we do, and reach out to them in communication. That does not mean compromise! It does not mean giving up even one inch of your principle. If we each do that, the politicians will be pressured to (and it will become safer for them to) follow in our footsteps.

Jacob: I agree!  Don't wait for Congress to lead the way.  Starting in your own neighborhood, with your own friends - reach out to 'those people' not with talking points, but with curiosity.  You'll be surprised at the powerful learning ahead of you.    

5. What brings you hope? Where and how are you seeing bridges being built?

Phil: Some communities have created dialogue meetings that include police officers and members of the community who have experienced the police as less than protective of them and their children (for example some of the work done by Everyday Democracy). And some ranchers and hunters and other users of land have sat down in dialogue with environmental activists to try to together work out land use plans. Also some attorneys are now practicing a dialogic version of conflict resolution, meaning that they bring their respective clients together and try dialogue (as opposed to negotiation) in an effort to resolve their differences.

Jacob: What brings me the most hope is simply having one thoughtful, open-hearted exchange. That one moment of authentic conversation is for me just like 10 minutes of meditation; I get fired up by all the possibilities that arise!  By contrast, if I spend too much time looking around me, I get discouraged like anyone else.  

Questions for Every Conversation Starter

1. What is your favorite tip/tool for promoting more open, constructive conversations?

Phil: One thing that can work well is start by talking about how you might best talk together, as in: “what do you need from me to make our conversations work better?” That approach might be especially appropriate with a family member with whom unproductive sparks often fly.

Here’s another approach that can be effective: Start with story-telling (as in “Tell me a story about how you came to believe what you believe). Move next to an exchange about values (as in “What would you say are your basic values?”). And only after that ask each person to explain something about how they understand the world (as in “Could you say something about what you believe is true, or how society got to be where it is now, or where you think our society is headed and why? What worries you about the future and why?”).

I like this approach because my observation is that storytelling tends to humanize us to each other, and most people the world over agree about many basic values. Thus beginning a conversation on that level can make it easier to then talk about the difficult stuff.

Jacob: As someone who works with the Village Square (, I like the way they remind people that diverse people working things out is a fundamental part of America - and one thing that has made our country strong.  Rather than a liberal or conservative thing, we can all claim a legacy in this kind of vociferous, but respectful disagreement among a diverse, self-governing people. 

Another thing they do effectively, is they make sure to have fun in these conversations.  If this work feels like eating broccoli, no one is going to want to do it!  Phil and I always have fun when we do this reason I love seeing him.

2. What in particular do you wish our society could have more constructive conversations about?

Phil: You name it: wage-levels, why some people can’t make ends meet, what kind of family raises kids the best, the respective situations of the police and the people they police and/or protect, what is at the heart of marriage, why we need or don’t need government regulation; the list goes on!

Jacob: I've focused most of my time in the past on socio-political 'culture war' stuff - like gay marriage.  But increasingly, I'm realizing that health disagreements are even harder to have.  You think gay marriage is tough?  Try vaccination.  Or different perspectives on cancer treatment (and yes, legitimate differences are out there on both).  Or various responses to suicide or the depression epidemic. 

In all cases, I believe the presence of a vast industry backdrop makes these conversations much, much harder than they have to be.  It's in the interest of the industry to send a consensus message - and portray critics or questions as reflecting sheer quackery.  As Phil has eloquently pointed out back in his first book, once we label a particular view "extremist," we more or less are silencing them from the conversation.  

3. What would you be most likely to be overheard in conversation about?

Phil: Probably the weather, which where I live means the fact that winter is moving in. Also too often I end up in conversations where we each complain about how much we have to do. I’m trying to complain less.

Jacob: My dissertation was on Prozac narratives - and I haven't been able to stop talking about that since!  The topic chases me like my own shadow... 

4. What’s the best conversation you’ve had this year?

Phil: Probably when having dinner in Utah with that team of six I mentioned. We dug deeply into the question of how a society is changed if marriage is legally defined so as to let all couples participate. In a way it was a conversation about love itself – about what it is and what it means. For sure it was a conversation about what’s at the heart of “marriage.” Are love and commitment the things that define marriage, or does one have to include “one man and one woman” as a defining element? The great thing about the conversation is that no one pulled any punches but everyone looked out for each other, each of us doing our best to listen well and be gentle. I found the discussion exhausting (for a while I even forgot to eat my food) but I also found it exhilarating.

Jacob: I agree!  That dialogue group has been a highlight for me - second, perhaps, only to my long-standing exploration with Phil himself.  In both cases, our conversations reached the 'magic moment' of being able to challenge and press each other - with all the trust in the world at each others' intentions.  It was powerful and profound in the insights that emerged.  You can see a picture of our group at  

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