People care. People care about themselves. People care about others. People care about ideas and people care about politics. People care about their community, their country, and the world. Because we care, sometimes we work together to tackle challenges. And because we care, sometimes our differences of opinion sow division and animosity.
This past spring, the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program ran a series of facilitated dialogues called Let’s Disagree. These dialogues were designed to explore deep differences of opinion and experience through facilitated conversations about polarizing topics. The goal was to provide a forum through which community members could disagree passionately about matters of vital civic importance, yet seek to understand, rather than to persuade, others in the group.
I was involved in planning Let’s Disagree and served as one of five facilitators in the program. I believe that by seeking to understand the ideas, values, and experiences of someone that holds a different opinion than myself, I can help combat the trend towards division. Seeking understanding will facilitate the inclusion of more voices and lead to creative solutions to address issues in personal, professional, communal, and political contexts.
Just think for a moment about the Thanksgiving table, and you know that seeking understanding is a difficult task. More than ever, it seems as though differences of opinion are dividing, not uniting, us; the average Republican and Democrat have few or no friends in the other party. People are increasingly able, indeed encouraged, to interact with viewpoints that reinforce their own opinions, to the exclusion of different perspectives. Social media usage reinforces this trend. And not only do Republicans and Democrats have increasingly negative opinions about the other party generally speaking, but most Republicans and Democrats have negative opinions of members of the opposing party.
Consequently, political polarization is on the rise. People seem to be losing the ability, and desire, to listen to others with different views without feeling anger and hostility. One Let’s Disagree participant explained that when she heard an opposing view, her heart began to race and she no longer cared to listen. She did not want to hear the rationale behind the opposing view; she wanted to argue against it. The feeling of wanting to argue and advocate is familiar to many people. It certainly is familiar to me. So how do we resist the urge to abandon listening? How, in the face of triggering viewpoints, do we continue to engage thoughtfully?
On a personal level, my experiences in the Negotiation Workshop, the Harvard Mediation Program, and The Lawyer as Facilitator course, have trained me to seek understanding, resist my impulse to be overly judgmental, and to hold in abeyance my fight or flight reaction when I feel triggered. I have learned to engage in active listening, probe for interests, walk down the Ladder of Inference, remain agnostic about intent, and recognize and label my emotions. As those who know me well would tell you, using these skills effectively remains a work in progress.
At HNMCP we are learning more about, and developing strategies for, having effective dialogue about polarizing topics. Let’s Disagree is one example of this effort. We hope to utilize our learning to develop communities in which differences of opinion and experience no longer sow division and animosity, but enable us to effectively tackle our most pressing challenges.
Looking back at almost three years at Harvard Law School, I am extremely grateful to have learned from and worked with the kind, compassionate, thoughtful, sharp, and enormously fun students, staff, and faculty that make up HNMCP. It has been such a privilege to be a part of this inspiring community.
 See Pew Research Center, The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider 66 (2017)
 See id.