Contradictory Thoughts About Dialogue

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Newsletter 134 -- July 13, 2023



From Beyond Intractability's Co-Directors

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess


Shamil Idriss and Rachel Kleinfeld on Dialogue

Following on from our discussion in Newsletter 130, we want to revisit one more thing Shamil Idriss and Rachel Kleinfeld said in their Chronicle of Philanthropy article on the debate for and against philanthropic pluralism. There they wrote:

We honor bridge builders for not viewing differences as existential fights between good and evil. And yet we are most supportive of those who use dialogue to turn adversaries into allies in the fight against political and social problems. Indeed, years of research and practice show that even when dialogue improves understanding or reduces stereotypes, it won’t result in actual change if those improved relationships aren’t paired with collaborative action. Dialogue for the sake of dialogue gets us nowhere.

We also have been concerned about the the widespread tendency to overstate potential of dialogue-based processes, but for different reasons. The problem we have with dialogues is that they are very difficult to "scale up."  When successful, dialogues change the attitudes of the people who actually participate. Unfortunately, this is typically twenty or fewer people per dialogue, often ten or fewer. As I tell my students, "the numbers simply don't add up!" Consider: the population of the United States is 330+ million.  How many dialogues would one need to do to involve even 1/1000 of the population?  Let's assume 15 people participate in each dialogue.  That means it would take 20 million dialogues to involve everyone, or 200,000 dialogues to involve 1/1000 of the population.  There are a lot of organizations doing dialogues, but that is simply not going to happen!  And even if it did, what good does it do to expose 1/1000th of the population to a dialogue experience? Not much, unfortunately.  

When those people leave the dialogue, and "go home" to their friends, co-workers, and community members who still hold highly adversarial views of "the other," it is very hard to maintain, let alone act on, those transformed attitudes  So there is a tendency to fall back into old behavior patterns, if not old thought patterns as well. It is even harder to change friends', co-workers, or neighbors' attitudes and behaviors, if they didn't participate in the dialogue experience first hand. So, for that reason, we tend to agree with the statement that "dialogue for the sake of dialogue gets us nowhere."  

But Then Again...

We recently received an email from our colleague Kristin Hansen about the recently released documentary The Abortion Talks. This is a 90-minute documentary about secret dialogues that were held for six years in Boston, Massachusetts from 1995-2000 involving three pro-life leaders and three pro-choice leaders, who came together under the auspices of what was then called "The Public Conversations Project" (PCP)1

We had the privilege of knowing Laura Chasin, one of the founders of PCP and a co-facilitator of those talks, and were extremely impressed with the thought and care that went into those dialogues, and indeed, all of the other dialogues Laura and her colleagues ran at PCP.  When we've said before that "dialogue for the sake of dialogue gets us nowhere," we might better have said, "unless it is done very carefully and well, with an eye to scale up in the design."

As Laura explained to us when we got to know her (around 2003), PCP never used the term "common ground," because use of that term would scare potential participants away. Most participants weren't remotely interested in finding common ground with people whom they considered to be enemies when the dialogues started. But that didn't mean that they didn't find common ground as the dialogues proceeded. And even when common ground wasn't found, and even when collaborative actions weren't planned, sometimes the dialogue could have significantly broader impact than changing the attitudes of the participants themselves.  The dialogue featured in The Abortion Talks documentary was one such case.  

As Laura explained to us long ago, and is also explained in the documentary, all six of these leaders were shocked, saddened, and concerned when an activist walked into two abortion clinics in Boston, Massachusetts in December, 1994 and killed two clinic workers and wounded several more. The Governor of Massachusetts and the local Catholic Cardinal called for abortion leaders on both sides of the divide to "come together to see if they could find a way to lower the level of tension" in Boston. 

As it happened, PCP had been holding abortion dialogues before then, but not with high-level people, and not of this scope.  But, as Laura explained when we talked to her in 2003, they just started going around and talking to people, asking "do you think there is an opportunity for some kind of common ground talks at this point?"  (They hadn't yet decided to avoid the term 'common ground.') "What do you think the goals of such talks should be in order to be useful?" "What criteria be used in inviting people to participate?"2 They talked to at least twenty people before they came up with answers to those questions that they thought were sufficient to move forward. 

Quoting Laura from her 2003 interview with BI's Julian Portilla,

We learned that talks would be useful; but they would be more like a dialogue [than a mediation]. We learned that the goals would be what I think of as dialogic goals: 1) developing relationships based on mutual respect and understanding, relationships that can contain differences about values and policies; 2) clarifying differences; identifying shared concerns; and exchanging matters of information on issues of mutual concern.  3) Also, relationships that would create direct channels with leaders on the other side, rather than through the media. 

That was big. And that was the one extra from the usual. The first two were sort of [traditional] dialogue goals, but then I think the direct channels was an additional [and unique] goal.

The fourth one was to de-escalate the polarization around the issue of abortion in Massachusetts at that time. To change the climate surrounding the issue and to explore joint projects and that sort of thing--which didn't happen.

They also told us what the ground rules should be, who should be invited and that they should have some kind of credibility on the issue and commitment to learning about perspectives on the other side, and freedom to speak as an individual. Everyone came as individuals.3

When Julian asked Laura whether PCP suggested that people come as individuals, rather than leaders of their respective organizations, Laura said, no, "they taught us [that]." 

These were the things that they recommended. Later on, when we went back to some of the people we talked to and invited them to participate, these became the terms under which they would be willing to participate. They would participate if these were the goals and if everyone else invited to participate met these criteria.

 And [their invitees insisted] these had to be the ground rules, and these had to be the agreements about confidentiality and taping and all that, and then it would be all written up and everyone would sign it [BEFORE anyone would participate, BEFORE the dialogue started].  It was that big of a deal.

When you think about a generation of conditioning and polarization, and some of these were really leaders of advocacy groups [it's no wonder it was hard.]  

We did not plan on having six women. We planned on having eight people instead of six. One of the folks fell through and it would have probably taken another month to build up adequate bridges to the next in line. "Everybody said, if you do something, it must happen before the first anniversary". "There's a window of opportunity here." So we decided to go,  it was a judgment call, with who we had.4

Laura explained that they initially contracted for four meetings.

[We only asked for] four meetings. That was the most we could eek out of the situation. 

We hoped that we designed them so they would get a taste of what was possible and decide to continue. They then contracted for another four and then I think one more round of four. [After that] they did not meet as intensively as they did in the beginning.  There were two or three years where they just met quarterly, just to maintain the relationships. They didn't quite know where to go, but they didn't want to let go of it. Then when partial birth abortion became hot, they wanted to meet around that. 5

So they ended up meeting, not just for four sessions, but for six years. An article they wrote together at the end of their meetings described the beginning from the participants' point of view: 

[The shooter's] 20-minute rampage shocked the nation. Prochoice advocates were grief-stricken, angry, and terrified. Prolife proponents were appalled as well as concerned that their cause would be connected with this horrifying act. Governor William F. Weld and Cardinal Bernard Law, among others, called for talks between prochoice and prolife leaders.

We are six leaders, three prochoice and three prolife, who answered this call. ...

Our talks would not aim for common ground or compromise. Instead, the goals of our conversations would be to communicate openly with our opponents, away from the polarizing spotlight of media coverage; to build relationships of mutual respect and understanding; to help deescalate the rhetoric of the abortion controversy; and, of course, to reduce the risk of future shootings.6

Both the article, and the documentary, which Essential Partners (the new name for PCP)  bills as "A Documentary for a Post-Roe America," explains how grueling the talks were.  Participants couldn't agree on what to call each other (one of the six women never accepted the term "pro-life," as she felt that she, too, was "pro-life," although she was also "pro-choice." ) They disagreed for a long time about what to call the entity that grew in a woman's uterus, finally reluctantly agreeing to "human fetus," a term they could all live with, but no one liked. Despite their struggles, though, they began to respect and even like each other. In their words,

While we struggled over profound issues, we also kept track of personal events in one another's lives, celebrating good times and sharing sorrows. As our mutual understanding increased, our respect and affection for one another grew.7

After their first meetings, they decided to continue to meet through the first anniversary of the shootings, as all participants expected that more trouble could occur then. Instead, however, 

On the evening of Dec. 30, 1995, about 700 people gathered at Temple Ohabei Shalom in Brookline to honor the memory of Lowney and Nichols. All our prochoice participants attended the service. Fowler and Gamble [two of the pro-choice dialogue participants] officiated. In the solemn crowd were Podziba, one of our facilitators, and two of our prolife members, Hogan and Thorp, accompanied by David Thorp, her husband.

'Seeing the other members of the group walk in was one of the most meaningful moments of the service for me,'' Fowler recalls.

In her remarks, Gamble expressed gratitude ''for the prayers of those who agree with us and the prayers of those who disagree.'

Fowler, in her sermon, reminded us of the ''God who calls out to all who love peace.'' She drew from the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, saying ''and new things have sprung forth in the year since Lee Ann's and Shannon's deaths. Much has been transformed, and much will be.'

Indeed, to those of us involved in the confidential dialogues, much had been transformed. By the time of this sad anniversary, each one of us had come to think differently about those ''on the other side.'8

Although they didn't publicly admit they were meeting together for another five years, all of the dialogue participants did speak on the record after the first anniversary of the slayings, saying that the rhetoric had calmed down. Asked by a Boston Globe reporter  "Has the past year [since the shootings] brought the lowering of voices?" Gamble, Hogan, and Tharp were all quoted:

"There are numbers of people on both sides of this question who have tried to be thoughtful about the rhetoric they use.'' Gamble added that she was hearing fewer uses of such labels as ''baby-killer, murderer, Nazi.'

In the same article, Hogan is quoted as saying she uses ''prochoice because that is what they want to be called. I have a basic respect for the person, even though I don't agree with or respect the position.''

Thorp, too, was quoted. ''This call for a lowering of voices sent a signal that we really needed to listen to each other with care and respect. I'm more mindful now than I've ever been of speaking in love, speaking in peace, and speaking in respect to anyone, no matter how wide the differences are.'

In a National Public Radio interview about the anniversary, Hogan explained that while she believed that abortion is killing, she did not call it murder. Hogan also said, ''Toning down the rhetoric is critical. It's not just better manners, but it turns out it's also better politics. ... We reach people we may never otherwise have reached with the message.10

Eventually, the dialogue participants decided that they did want to share their experiences publicly, but they didn't know how to do that.  As Laura explained to Julian,

they didn't trust any reporter because of the bias problem with the media [note, this was 2003!] , and they didn't have the energy to write a book. So they decided to write an article. [After struggling over the article for six months,] , they approached the [Boston] Globe first and they said "We want you to publish this the way it is written because it took six months of haggling over every word. We want you to publish it the way it is, will you do it?" And the Globe, to their enormous credit, said that they would, even though the language violated their style sheet of how you refer to pro-choice and pro-life people. The Globe did reserve the right to pick the title, and the group insisted that was fine as long as they didn't use the word "common ground", because no matter what you say, people hear it as a compromise. It's not a good word anymore. And basically they were prepared to walk, if the Globe didn't agree. It was a deal breaker, so the Globe agreed, they gave them a three full page spread. 11

Once the article was published, in January of 2001, the response was overwhelming.  The women were asked to appear on television shows, they were on radio, they were profiled in many other articles. The impact of their efforts grew enormously and people far beyond Boston began to realize that it was not only possible, but also likely beneficial, to start "treating the enemy" with respect. As Laura observed,

Because they choose to write about it, that story has gone everywhere. We've been interviewed on Australian radio. There have been two textbooks written. They've gotten letters from all over the world. And every year it's still going, every year around January around the time of the Roe v. Wade anniversary, this year particularly around the 30th.12

So clearly, this dialogue did have a significant impact on the people of Boston, and quite possibly much wider than that. 

So What Does This Mean for Democracy?

That doesn't mean that further steps aren't necessary to strengthen democracy.  They certainly are.  PCP's goals here were not to strengthen democracy, or even to change it in any way.  Their goals were to bring down the heat, at least in the Boston area, around one particular issue and to begin to build positive relationships between people on opposite sides of this divide.  But their success in doing that has lessons for future dialogue designers and facilitators who hope to bring people together across political divides of various sorts to strengthen democracy. 

It is worth noting that the PCP process was unique in a number of ways.

  • First of all, the PCP process focused on opinion leaders — people with a deep understanding of the issue being discussed, as well as the potential to change the way in which the larger activist community (at least on their side) actually looked at the conflict.
  • The process was carefully and collaboratively designed--the participants were deeply involved in developing the goals, the process design, and the ground-rule design, and were bound to it because it was theirs—they created it. 
  • The process had substantial funding and highly trained facilitation. (Although we might note that the facilitation got lighter and lighter over time. Laura reports, for example, that in the forth meeting, "I had some brilliant idea about what they could do. One of them turned to me and said, 'You know, we get it. We get it who they are. Would you just get out of the way and let us talk to each other?'" When Julian Portilla observed that that sounded like "invisible facilitation," Laura responded "That's our goal. TMy goal as a facilitator is to become invisible."
  • Fourth, the process did not ask participants to commit, in advance, to anything other than good-faith involvement in a short-term process. The decision to continue, or not, and to go public, or not, and when, was made by the participants themselves, not the facilitators.  

Taken more broadly, The Abortion Dialogues story offers one example of how a well-designed dialogue can be used to show the larger society a more constructive and mutually beneficial way of working through our many differences. There are many ways in which a PCP-type process might help local communities better work through difficult issues, and there are doubtless many variations on this process, which, in particularly circumstances, could be even more effective. Getting the participants to guide the goals, design, and ground rules for the process seems particularly useful.

So, going back to Shamil and Rachel's article, if one is thinking about the goal of strengthening democracy in particular, then we would agree that dialogue, justice advocacy, and collaborative action are all helpful, even more so if they are used together.  But it is important, we think, that the dialogue is designed from the beginning to scale up.  Ideally, it might lead to collaboration and joint projects also, but it can be powerful, even if it stops short of that.  


1 The Public Conversations Project is now called Essential PartnersThe Abortion Talks documentary is not, unfortunately, streaming at this time.  It is being shown (and sometimes streamed) by organizations which agree to host a screening.  Information about how to do that can be obtained from Essential Partners. If you do get an opportunity to see the documentary, we do highly recommend it, and we hope it will be placed for free viewing on YouTube or Vimeo sometime soon.

2-5  "Laura Chasin" Interviewed by Julian Portilla. for Beyond Intractability in 2003.

6-8 Talking with the Enemy. By Anne Fowler, Nicki Nichols Gamble, Frances X. Hogan, Melissa Kogut, Madeline McCommish, Barbara Thorp. Originally published in The Boston Globe, Sunday, 28 January 2001, Focus section. Republished on

"Laura Chasin" Interviewed by Julian Portilla. for Beyond Intractability in 2003.

10Talking with the Enemy. By Anne Fowler, Nicki Nichols Gamble, Frances X. Hogan, Melissa Kogut, Madeline McCommish, Barbara Thorp. Originally published in The Boston Globe, Sunday, 28 January 2001, Focus section. Republished on

11-12 Laura Chasin" Interviewed by Julian Portilla. for Beyond Intractability in 2003.

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