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Public Conversation

by Anne Udall

July 6,2007

Why, in a world where we have access to more information, data, and opinions than ever before, is it so hard to talk with people who hold different opinions than ours? An explosion of information stimuli, and, we don’t talk with each other. An irony, is it not?

Since 2001, I have been the Executive Director of the Lee Institute here in Charlotte. Our focus at Lee is on building community to better serve the public good through collaborative efforts—whether through facilitating community coalitions, working on strategic planning in various areas, or supporting the growth of civic leaders through the Charlotte Region Chapter of the American Leadership Forum. In short, I have the privilege of being in many rooms where passionate people, committed to our community, come together to hold difficult conversations on a particular concern. It is not easy in those meetings for folks to talk to each other. People come with opinions set, judgments already made, frequently focused on ‘winning folks over.’ In community settings, the burden of responsibility for having tough conversations falls on the leaders, the facilitator, and the meeting participants. With good ground rules in place, solid information trusted by the group, and a strong leader, groups can reach consensus on tough questions. I have seen it happen over and over again.

Yet, what happens when we are with work colleagues or attending a social gathering and difficult topics come up, which inevitably they will? The war in Iraq? Race relations? Immigration? The transit tax repeal? CMS? Gay marriage? The list is endless. What do we do in those situations? Do we find ourselves avoiding the tough conversation, and only talking about it on the way home where it is safe, where we know our opinion will be validated? We share our opinion only when we don’t have to listen to one different from ours?

Al Gore recently said in his new book, “Assault on Reason”, that democracy is a conversation and that within a democracy, we have to be able to talk to each other beyond sound-bites and throwaway opinions. Gore implies through his observation that Americans who hold different views of the world must talk to each other. Only through conversations with people who hold different beliefs than we do, will we figure out what IS the common ground for our communities and country.

Good example for all of us these days. Mention George Bush in my office and one of two things happen: 1) a rant about the worse President in the United States and the irreparable damage he has done or 2) a somewhat embarrassed support for his efforts in a number of areas. The air weighs with defensiveness and protected territory. What doesn’t happen is a conversation. Other triggers abound in our homes and places of work. Try talking enthusiastically about a future Hillary presidency. The end result will be the same – a lot of emotion and very little genuine human connection between us.

And why does this bother me? Because we all lose. We cannot contribute to the public good and tackle complex issues if we don’t purposefully expose ourselves to different perspectives and meaningfully engage with folks who see the world differently than us. We cannot make this world a better place staying in our respective corners. Through discomfort comes change. Not so uncomfortable that we become defensive and protective, but uncomfortable enough to question our view of the world.

The natural tendency is to be around folks who think like us—it validates who we are. Be honest: do you really spend quality time with folks who vote differently than you? Who sit in a different income bracket? Who is of a different race or ethnicity?

I suggest to all of us that we all have a responsibility as a citizen to purposefully engage with people who disagree with our perspective of the world. A healthy democracy depends on it. Purposefully making a conscious choice on a regular basis to seek out someone you disagree with and talk with them, from a place of genuine openness. Listen as if you were wrong. Want some tips on how? Try Conversations can change the world – they might be the one thing that will.

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