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‘Can We Talk?’ How to Have Civil Conversations Again

Focusing on our many shared goals and values, these Americans are working to encourage productive political discourse

By Marie Sherlock

"A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Abraham Lincoln famously declared this principle (of biblical origin) in 1858. The nation was being torn apart by the issue of enslaving people — a dispute that would eventually result in four years of bloody civil war that would claim the lives of an estimated 620,000 soldiers.

An American Flag flying on a street in a small town. Next Avenue, political divisions, talking politics
Hundreds of organizations are working to get Americans to press the pause button on hostilities and start talking — civilly and respectfully — again.  |  Credit: Getty

We are, once again, "a house divided." A 2023 Pew Research Center poll found that, when scholars asked Americans to describe politics in a single word, an overwhelming, bipartisan majority (79%) expressed a negative sentiment with "divisive" the most frequently used word.

And it's not just politics that we're disgusted with. It's become decidedly more personal: A hearty majority of us attribute negative traits to people on the other side. In a 2022 Pew study, 72% of Republicans surveyed said they believed that Democrats are more immoral than other Americans; 63% of Democrats felt the same way about Republicans.

Our deep polarization is "harming friendships, family relationships and community cohesion," says Joan Blades, co-founder of Living Room Conversations (LRC), a nonprofit working to help reverse this trend.

Literally hundreds of organizations like LRC are working to get Americans to press the pause button on hostilities and start talking — civilly and respectfully — again.

How Did We Get Here?

While there has always been partisan bickering in the U.S., it has escalated dramatically over the past half-century.

Social scientists say that a confluence of factors in the 1960s and '70s — the civil rights and women's movements, Vietnam, Watergate and more — jumpstarted a process of political division in America. With the rise of 24-hour cable news in the 1980s and '90s, the "echo chamber" was born. By the time social media became widespread — with algorithms that promote the most rancorous opinions — Americans had collectively gone to their political corners.

"The idea is that it's hard to hate someone up close, once you've heard their story and understand where they're coming from."

Despite these trends, studies show that Americans have more in common than they realize. Both Democrats and Republicans say the number one thing that "gives them meaning in life" is family and friends. A 2023 study found about 90% of both Democrats and Republicans embrace similar values — among them compassion, respect, personal accountability and fairness.

There is even consensus on many important policy issues. Solid majorities of Americans — of every political stripe — support raising taxes on the wealthy and curbing the influence of money in politics. One nonprofit organization (Voice of the People) has identified more than 200 policy initiatives supported by majorities of voters from both parties, from raising the minimum wage to supporting net neutrality.

Here's the rub: The study that found 90% of both parties overwhelmingly hold the same values? It also found that only about a third of each group believed members of the opposing party actually cherished those same principles.

This "perceived polarization" — beliefs versus reality — is the true bugaboo. And it's risen substantially in recent decades.

Bottom Line: We Don't Like One Another

Deeply held perceptions of polarization — combined with efforts by political campaigns and media outlets to ramp up the animosity — result in what the experts call "affective polarization" — the tendency for members of one party to hold negative personal views of those on the other side.

Pew Research Center has conducted research on this issue over the past eight years, asking respondents to give their impressions of the personal traits of people belonging to the opposing party. The number of negative characteristics attributed to rival party members has surged since 2016. A growing number of Americans view those with differing political views as dishonest, immoral and close-minded — even lazy.

The upshot, as one study put it: "Ordinary Americans increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party."

Enter the Bridge-Building Movement

But there is hope: A growing constellation of organizations is working to undo the damage caused by polarization. "The movement has been around in some form for decades, but it's really taken off in the last 10 years as polarization has gotten worse," says Chris Norris, chief strategy officer at StoryCorps, a nonprofit enterprise that records, preserves and shares Americans' stories.

In 2017, the #ListenFirst Coalition was formed with a common goal of "bringing Americans together across differences to listen, understand each other and discover common interests." More than 500 nonprofit groups have joined the effort, conducting research, providing training and bringing communities — even legislatures — together to build bridges.

"The political climate has actually boosted the movement by showing how important it is to have dialogue and understanding to heal these divisions."

Many of these groups offer dialogue programs utilizing a "contact theory" approach — the idea that when individuals and groups interact with "outgroup" members they develop more positive perceptions of them. Here's a look at a few:

Living Room Conversations are just what they sound like: Conversations conducted in living rooms — and coffee shops, libraries or online — among people with differing political ideologies. LRC offers more than 160 free conversation guides on myriad topics — from climate change to religious freedom — from which LRC hosts can choose.

The gatherings follow a structured format that enhances respectful conversation. Participants first agree to pivotal "conversation agreements," or ground rules, including truly listening without judgment, being respectful and considerate, and looking for common ground. They answer a few icebreaker questions, talk about their own experiences with the topic and, finally, reflect back on the conversation.

Blades estimates that over 100,000 people participated in some kind of Living Room Conversation last year.

Unify America takes a different approach. Its Unify Challenge offers guided conversations about political topics between two politically diverse strangers.

One Small Step (OSS), an initiative of StoryCorps, brings strangers with different political views together for a nonpolitical conversation. OSS conversations can be moderated by a trained guide or self-facilitated, with participants utilizing a toolkit to lead them through their conversations.


The efforts can involve individuals or groups. In each case, the goal is to reduce polarization and "rehumanize" those on the other side — to get to know each other as human beings. "The idea is that it's hard to hate someone up close, once you've heard their story and understand where they're coming from," says Norris.

Familiarity Breeds Respect

Do these efforts work? In a word, yes. Research across the board concludes that these contact theory approaches are effective.

Unify America research asserts that 79% of the people who participated in its programs say they're "more confident in their ability to have respectful conversations with people whose views are different."

Norris says that OSS conversations "can significantly reduce polarization between participants from opposing political parties, sometimes even reversing two decades of increasing polarization."

But the research isn't completely kumbaya. Norris cautions that gains in depolarization can gradually wane. "For bridge-building projects to succeed, they need to carefully choose conversation topics, keep people engaged over time and maybe even integrate into ongoing community relations and educational efforts to have a lasting impact," he says.

The Big Picture

Will these bridge-building efforts succeed in mending Americans' political — and personal — estrangement?

Blades, who has been involved with the movement for two decades, believes that depolarizing and having authentic collaboration is the only hope. "It is hard to imagine how we move forward in a sustainable way without some healing," she explains.

Morgan Lasher, chief community officer with Unify America, agrees, noting that after "just one short conversation with someone who's different, we see 'hope for the future of democracy' significantly increase and sustain over time."

There could even be a silver lining to the current schism. "In a way," says Norris, "the political climate has actually boosted the movement by showing how important it is to have dialogue and understanding to heal these divisions." Lasher adds that Americans can "use our differences, not as weapons, but as superpowers to solve complex problems."

We may find that we have much more in common than we thought possible.

Who knows? We may even discover that we like one another.

Marie Sherlock
Marie Sherlock practiced law for a decade before turning to writing and editing in her 30s — and never looked back. She's worked as the editor of several publications and is the author of a parenting book (Living Simply with Children; Three Rivers Press). She spends her empty-nest days writing about travel trends and destinations, simplicity, spirituality and social justice issues. Read More
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