Across The Chasm

Bridging the gap in polarizing situations

One of the articles in Creating A Future We Can Live With (IC#40)
Originally published in Spring 1995 on page 33
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

In polarized situations, such as the one we’re experiencing around the abortion debate, people are induced to line up on one side or the other. There are certain benefits to being aligned on one side – such as clarity about where you stand, social validation, and the support of like-minded people.

However, there are also costs. For individuals the costs have to do with the suppression of heartfelt uncertainties, and the ambiguous residue of their personal experience. People may fear being seen as "soft" or disqualified if they don’t take a strong position, and some may feel isolated. For the society as a whole, the cost of polarization is the silencing and marginalization of the majority of people – people whose complex views and values do not fit precisely at either pole.

The Public Conversations project was born of a desire to see if the approaches and skills of family therapists might be useful in fostering new conversations on polarized issues. Over an 18-month period, we convened 18 dialogue sessions with people who described themselves as pro-choice or pro-life. With our participants as co-researchers, we developed a model for convening and facilitating dialogue on divisive issues – a model that has since been adapted for dialogue on other issues, such as gay rights and environmental conflicts.

Creating a Safe Context

We began by contacting potential participants by phone. Those who agreed to participate received a written invitation that was very carefully drafted. Participants were invited as individuals, not as representatives of groups. They were specifically invited to bring the part of themselves that is able to listen thoughtfully and respectfully to others, and not the part that is prone to persuade, defend, or attack.

Why did people agree to participate? Many of them said they wanted to be seen and known by the other side for the thoughtful and caring person they are, not as a monster that is anti-woman or anti-fetus.

When participants arrived, we offered them an informal dinner during which they were invited to introduce themselves to each other in ways that did not reveal their stance on the abortion issue. Participants often report to us later that their inability to guess in advance which participants were "friends" and which were "foes" began the de-stereotyping process.

The next step is to review the agreements about confidentiality and about using "respectful language" that had been explained in the phone call and written invitation. Participants agree not to interrupt one another. They agree to allow each other to "pass" if they are asked to do or say anything that they don’t feel ready to do or say. We also ask people not to speak about "them" or "us," but only to speak from an "I" position.

Entering into a New Conversation

One of the ways we set the stage for a new kind of conversation is through the seating arrangement. Participants are seated within touching distance of somebody who thinks differently than they think. A benefit to this arrangement is that a variety of responses from different perspectives is voiced right from the beginning as we move around the semi-circle.

We start by saying, "We are going to ask a question and we’d like you, Jane, to begin the go-round of responses. Each of you will have two minutes to answer this question." With this introduction, people know exactly when they will get their turn and just how long it will be. They know they are not going to be interrupted and that they are going to be listened to.

After we state the question, we ask participants to take a minute to think about what they want to say before any one starts speaking. That way, people don’t have to be preparing their remarks while another person is speaking and they are more likely to hear what people ahead of them have said. Also, they have paused to think about what they want to say from inside themselves, and their answer is less likely to be reactive to what the person before them has said, at least in the initial go-rounds.

The first question we ask participants is about their own life experience in relation to the abortion issue. The answers to this question tend to be either something about it being "in the air" in their family as they grew up, or a recounting of an intense personal experience – a turning point, either for themselves or someone close to them.

The second question elicits their beliefs and perspectives about the issues related to abortion. Specifically, we ask, "What is at the heart of the matter for you?" We have struggled over whether or not to keep this question, because it often invites politicized statements. But we have found that if participants don’t feel heard at all about their political beliefs, they find it difficult to speak about the conflicts they may experience between their predominant view and other values they may hold.

Here are examples of some responses to the question about "the heart of the matter":

[Editor’s note: Real names have not been used. "PL" and "PC" indicate that the speaker has self-identified as pro-life or pro-choice, respectively.]

Lorna (PL): It would frighten me to think that my life and the importance of my life is contingent upon the fact that someone wants me. I am special in myself, and it doesn’t matter whether someone wants me or not. My life certainly shouldn’t depend on it at any stage.

Elaine (PC): The first thing I think about is my survival, because the only way that my kids are going to survive is that I survive. Being a woman out there by myself – a woman of color – it’s very frightening. So any little choice taken away from me is frightening.

The third question asks people to share whatever dilemmas, struggles, and conflicts they have within their prevailing view. Unlike the first two questions, this one can be answered in any order. Here are some of the responses:

Lorna (PL): I think of the children that suffer and think to myself, would it be better if they had been aborted? But then I think, they have life. But it’s really hard to watch children in pain and sometimes it’s hard to be pro-life.

Elaine (PC): When is a child really a child? Because, if I were more than three months pregnant, I, being pro-choice, don’t know whether I’d have an abortion.

George (PL): Where the uncertainty comes in for me is when, say, a 13-year old girl has just been raped by her uncle, and it’s basically going to destroy her life. I can’t just sit there and say, on my high moral horse, "It’s the ultimate universal wrong to kill an unborn child," because I know that there are other bad things in the world and you’ve got to balance them.

Ann (PC): I don’t think God takes it lightly that we make a decision to end a life. I would like us not to make abortion something that we can do without having to think about it.

A pro-life woman indicated that she was ambivalent about disallowing abortion in a society that did not have adequate supports for women facing unplanned pregnancy. A pro-choice woman said that, when she thinks about the damage done to children by drugs and alcohol before they are born she feels compassion for the fetus, and under those conditions, she begins to think that the fetus may have rights.

Cross Currents

After the highly structured opening of the session, participants now are allowed to ask each other questions and then respond as they like. Here are two examples:

Jessica (PL): I would like to ask of people on the pro-choice side: Do you grapple with the complex repercussions that an abortion has on a woman?

Freda (PC): Can you (a pro-life man) think of any advantages to having abortion be legal?

We proceed at a very slow pace and set a tone that creates an almost sacred space for this conversation. The pace alone makes this conversation feel different, almost like a ritual. The tone tends to be heartfelt, curious, respectful, and thoughtful. This tone lends support for curiosity, complexity, and above all, the sharing of uncertainties as well as certainties.

About 20 minutes before the session is to end, we ask participants to reflect on the dialogue process. A number of people talk about their curiosity, their feelings of open-heartedness, and their willingness to show parts of themselves that they may ordinarily have less access to.

Jessica (PL): I feel as though I gave of myself in a way by coming here and allowing my own position to drop and then really caring for where other people are, really trying to put myself in other people’s shoes.

Todd (PL): I do think that taking the superheat out at least allows you to hear the other point of view better. This was an opportunity to be a little bit more of who you are and a little less guarded.

Kathy (PC): I feel very angry for the people who seem to control things out there that don’t give us the room to really know one another and to work together.

Alice (PC): This is, in my mind, how human community is formed and deepens. We do not change the world by staying on two sides of the fence and yelling at each other.

Glenda (PC): None of us knows the truth, but together we can come closer to the truth. We can continue to struggle, even though we may never have it right.

Some people ask how a meeting so heavily structured can allow genuine interchange. Our answer is this: a structure that blocks the usual ritualized exchange, and predictable claims and counter-claims, forces the flow of conversation into fresh channels. In an atmosphere of respectful curiosity, participants are liberated to enter into genuine relationship with people who previously were experienced as stereotypes of projections rather than individual human beings.

In our culture of negative political discourse, it is vital that citizens with differing views find ways to encounter each other with care and respect. We hope that our work on dialogue offers ideas and tools to achieve this goal.

The authors have worked as a team on the Public Conversations Project since 1989. All are faculty at the Family Institute of Cambridge, 51 Kondazian Street, Watertown, MA 02172. Written materials are available upon request. tel. 617/491-1585; fax 617/868-5982; e-mail: CHASIN@AOL.COM.

Debate vs. Dialogue


 Polarized Debate



minimal and largely irrelevant

 Pre-meeting communications

 tend to be leaders


anyone, not necessarily outspoken leaders
attacks and interruptions
are expected and permitted; threatening atmosphere prevails


clear ground rules enhance safety and promote respectful exchange
to constituents and an undecided middle, as representatives of a group


to each other, as individuals from their own experience
unswerving commitment
to a point of view 


uncertainties as well as
deeply held beliefs
in order to refute
the other side 


to gain insight into beliefs
and concerns of others
are often rhetorical
challenges or disguised


are asked from a position
of curiosity 
requires simple impassioned statements 


requires exploration
of complexities
defines the problem and constrains the options for resolution

The dominant
public discourse

is questioned. New options that meet funamental needs are explored


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