Building Bridges in Divided Times

Do you know someone with radically different opinions from your own who you find it difficult to engage even in the simplest of conversations?

Rest assured that you are not alone in feeling this friend-enemy, or “frenemy” connection with your fellow man.

Various data suggests that society is trending towards polarization on many fronts – we increasingly find ourselves living and working with others more like us in opinion, and looking to media that affirms rather than challenges our beliefs. This has led to a greater inability to relate to others with differing opinions and worldviews. The situation is further complicated with the advent of modern technology which has made it easier for us to disconnect from tangible interpersonal relationships and the art of conversation in favor of one-sided social media communication that often sounds in an echo chamber of our like-minded communities.

“In my work, I’m seeing that people are increasingly having difficult times even having a conversation with each other,” related Todd Schenk, an assistant professor in SPIA’s Urban Affairs and Planning program whose research focuses on how policymakers and other stakeholders tackle problems through collaborative planning and decision-making. “They just automatically have such animosity towards the other side,” he said.

This emerging reality spurred Schenk to create The Frenemies Project in order to research best practices for facilitating healthy conversations between people with disparate views, increase empathy and foster mutual understanding.

“The Frenemies Project from a practical perspective, is about creating those opportunities and from a research perspective is about figuring out what are the effective techniques for doing that,” Schenk said.

The Art of Conversation

So before you begin unfriending people on social media and/or avoiding social situations with people you disagree with, try sitting down for an honest conversation to see where you might find common ground or empathy for others’ viewpoints. If you need some help in approaching what can be a tense, emotionally-charged situation, Schenk offers these tips for healthy dialogue.

  • Start with an attitude of respect. Accept that your counterparts are complex individuals and not uni-dimensional to the issues that you are talking about. It’s important to acknowledge that they have a variety of different lived experiences and perspectives that constitute who they are in the same way that you are a complex individual.
  • Practice active listening. Have an attitude of active inquiry and genuine inquisitiveness. Give your counterparts your full attention when they are speaking. Rather than entering conversations by pointing out why their opinions are wrong, engage your counterparts with a set of questions that are genuinely aimed at trying to understand where they are coming from.
  • Step back and engage in perspective-taking. Informed through active listening, try to genuinely put yourself in your counterparts’ shoes. Try to appreciate, or at least understand, why the world looks the way it does from their perspective
  • Engage in ‘joint fact-finding’. Especially in matters of science, try to understand their sources and discuss the discrepancies in the information you are each drawing from, and why they might persist. Seek out information that is widely viewed to be ‘salient, credible and legitimate’..

In addition to these simple skills to help improve your conversations, Schenk suggests it can be helpful to set ground rules prior your conversation (see figure 1). “Often it is helpful to agree up-front on what are some general rules you’re going to follow,” Schenk said, “they can certainly go a long way in helping people have a better, healthier conversation.”

Frenemies Graphic

Beyond Improving Interpersonal Relationships

The goal of The Frenemies project is to facilitate safe spaces and atmospheres for constructive conversation that can not only increase empathy and understanding, but also foster creative outcomes with mutual gains through collaboration.

For Schenk, The Frenemies Project goes beyond promoting and improving dialogue to benefit interpersonal relationships. It has further-reaching repercussions for decision-making especially in the realm of public policy.

“Part of decision making is through deliberation and engaging with each other to come up with wise outcomes that have broad support as opposed to just everything being about somebody wins, somebody loses,” Schenk said. Unfortunately, the trend toward increasing polarization is leading people away from open dialogue and toward increased opposition across differences. That is having broader consequences when it comes to collective decision-making.

“You have to be able to engage in healthy dialogue before you can possibly deliberate—you have to be able to have a conversation before you can actually get into the meat of solving a challenge collectively,” Schenk said.

In an effort to understand these dynamics further, Schenk organized the first pilot research project through The Frenemies Project. This first research endeavor focused on the issue of immigration and how to bring people together on opposite sides of the issue for fruitful conversations.

“We paired participants that had very different opinions on the issue of immigration up, but had them take on each other’s role and get into the shoes of the other side as the first step of the workshop,” Schenk said.

Schenk said this role-playing format helps to de-fang participants to some degree because they have to sit down face-to-face with someone they disagree while taking on the role, or even persona, of their counterpart and try to understand where their arguments are coming from. Another goal of these role-playing exercises is to help build a rapport between the participants so that when they return to their own roles and have a subsequent conversation, it will be less charged and they can approach it from a place of greater understanding for the opposing person’s viewpoint.

“Certainly we saw that bear out in the pilot and had some really neat conversations among people who really fundamentally disagreed with one another, but managed to have healthy conversations none the less,” Schenk said.

Next Steps

Schenk plans to do another Frenemies Project workshop this (spring) semester. While still in the planning phase, he is leaning towards a conversation around the topic of transgender bathroom use, specifically on the Virginia Tech campus.

Schenk chose the topic because of it’s relevance as well as it being a topic where the outcomes of the project could potentially influence the decision-making at Virginia Tech.

“One thing we learned from the pilot was that, while participants are passionate about it, at the end of the day there is relatively little they can directly do to shift immigration policy. Whereas the transgender bathroom use issue is one that most likely will be locally resolved or at least in part locally resolved,” Schenk said. “It seems like a question where the outcomes of this workshop could actually have some currency in the decision making process here at VT.”

Schenk’s long-term goal for The Frenemies Project is to do more research and build a larger body of evidence around what the best practices are for facilitating healthy discourse, and why those things are so effective.

“There’s a lot of folk wisdom out there and there’s a small amount of research , but I’m excited that there’s a great opportunity for us to learn more about what works and make a good case for why these things work,” Schenk said.