The Dialogue Project draws a map back to civility

Americans’ ability to discuss difficult issues is deteriorating, according to research conducted as part of the initiative.

Business leaders are setting an example for holding civil discussions as part of The Dialogue Project.
Business leaders are setting an example for holding civil discussions as part of The Dialogue Project.

NEW YORK: Angrier. More polarized by the day. And bruised by the pandemic, racial conflict and an anxiety-inducing presidential election. 

These are a few of the descriptions of America from The Dialogue Project, launched by industry veteran Bob Feldman last fall to research and help to fix the lack of discourse in the country. 

Integral to the initiative is an online survey conducted by Morning Consult in early July of 1,000 adults per country in the U.S., U.K., India, Brazil and Germany. It found that while having respectful conversations with those of differing opinions is a significant problem around the world, the issue is especially acute in the U.S. (57%), Brazil (64%) and India (49%). More than eight in 10 (82%) U.S. respondents said people need to be more respectful when talking to those who have opposing views, but only half said they would spend more time doing so.

The survey also found that many more women than men (63% to 51%) in the U.S. see the inability to engage in respectful dialogue as a serious problem. Meanwhile, rural U.S. residents (72%) said they are more comfortable talking with other people who have different perspectives than urbanites (58%) and suburbanites (61%).

“The research shows we can't even talk about these things,” said Feldman, vice chair of global consulting firm ICF Next. “That’s a big problem. In some respects at the heart of the issue is a communications challenge.”

The lack of discourse and increasing polarization from the past year have only gotten worse, according to the survey. The institutions people usually look to for compromise and moderation no longer meet those purposes, and there is an expressed need and opportunity for businesses to do more, explained Feldman.

The results anchor the premise of the Dialogue Project: to give businesses examples for how to solve related issues.

“The whole point of this program is to educate and inspire business leaders to do more in helping to solve this problem of polarization and to improve civil discourse,” said Feldman. “There is universal agreement that it is a big problem and the question is: what can be done about it?”

In response to the survey results, the Dialogue Project included two dozen programs offered by businesses, nonprofits and universities, often in collaboration to give people the skills and forum to have difficult but civil conversations to manage disagreement and achieve consensus and progress. 

For example, the Better Arguments Project is a national civic initiative launched by the Aspen Institute in conjunction with Allstate and Facing History and Ourselves, a global education program. Participants gather in cities to hear speakers on a controversial topic and then move into smaller groups. Before starting the conversation, they pledge to respect five core principles of productive discussion: take winning off the table; be present and listen to learn; connect and respect; be honest and welcome honesty from others; and make space for new ideas and room to transform.

Meanwhile, at General Mills, the Courageous Conversations series has demonstrated that people are willing to talk about tough topics if they feel heard and respected. During a Courageous Conversation event, General Mills employees gather to listen to a speaker and then break into tables of 10. Each table is assigned an employee-facilitator who is trained to keep the discussion both respectful and on-point.

The report also features original articles from 20 prominent leaders of businesses, universities and other organizations with insights on issues ranging from civility as a competitive advantage to ways to bridge the digital divide. Participants include Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, General Motors CEO Mary Barra, and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon.

“The workplace is one of the few places where people congregate with people from different backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity and geography,” said Feldman. “That is an opportunity and responsibility for business to help be part of the solution here.”

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