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Political Reconciliation Made Possible via Choreographed Dialogue

I had come up with an idea: what if I get Jane to agree to have us try a process where we use facilitative mediation approaches and techniques to have a structured and very formal exchange of views.  Maybe then we could achieve some level of reconciliation, or détente. She agreed to try it.

We had to try something.  Debating the different positions in the country’s polarized domestic politics–Trump/Biden, elections and ballot integrity, immigrants on our southern border, Roe v. Wade and abortion bans, Blacks and law enforcement, big-city public schools and teachers’ unions, and more–led to tension and bitterness, over and over, and a fair amount of shouting, between me and her.  

We’ve done these half-hour sessions several times now, with good results: about three out of four times we ended up so relieved and relaxed. I took extensive notes after one session, and those are  what I’ll use to describe how this process works. 

It was the week when the Supreme Court had ruled that Roe v Wade was unconstitutional, and that states had a right to declare abortion illegal and people subject to prosecution and imprisonment.

The pundits on podcasts Jane listened to celebrated the decision or minimized its importance in limiting women’s reproductive freedom.  But I was angry and disgusted.

We have little framed portraits of the authors we’ve read together over the years, and one of them is Emma Goldman’s, the revolutionary anarchist who was active in the early XX Century. I provoked her by asking “say Jane, aren’t you bothered by the contradiction between you celebrating Emma Goldman–who went to jail for talking about contraception in her meetings–and this new ruling allowing states to criminalize abortion?”  She was sufficiently irked, and we  started the dialogue straight away.

We made ourselves comfortable on our facing sofas, so the conditions for peaceful dialogue in this particular living room were excellent that Saturday morning.

I reminded her of the rules: “you get five minutes to tell me why this issue–the overturning of Roe vs Wade by the Supreme Court–is important to you. I won’t utter a word until you’re done. I will keep quiet and listen attentively.  Maybe even better than attentively–empathetically. I will try to concentrate on what “lights you up” about this. Where you’re coming from. Why you care.

“So in this process we’re using again today, I will be silent and just listen, but not for the sake of catching your arguments’ weaknesses and contradictions. I won’t contradict you or object to anything you say, for those five minutes.”­­­­

“Then, Step 2, remember? When your five minutes are up, it’ll be my turn to talk. I’ll tell you back, to your satisfaction, what you have just said. Meaning, you have to confirm that that’s actually what you were saying.  And you can correct me about what you meant, so I get it right.

“I’ll be looking for why you care about what you’re defending. Why it matters to you.  In terms of your feelings and needs, what it is that these beliefs benefit you. 

“And remember, I’ll be able to do this because, while you’re explaining your views, I will be focusing on what it’s like to be in your shoes at that moment when you sit there across from me on the sofa.

“Then in Step 3 it will be my turn. Now I get to express how I feel about the Supreme Court decision we’re talking about; and you’ll be the one who’ll just listen respectfully, and not get pulled in to contradicting and contesting me.”

Jane and I both understood and accepted that as a matter of fact there would be no debate at this point or in the entire session.  There was going to be no listening to other person for the purpose of discovering their weak points or of reacting to the more outrageous parts of their discourse.   

And it was understood that then, in Step 4, Jane would give me her empathic feedback on why I hold positions I have just stated in Step 3.

Step 1

So, with an eye on her timer, Didi explained her stance on the Supreme Court’s Boggs decision. 

As I listened, I knew that, for those few minutes, I would have no need to “stand up for everything I believe in”.  In that very brief interval I would be free of any responsibility for defending my positions on this issue.  She would have five minutes to talk without interruption, and I wouldn’t need to contradict a thing she said, no matter how outrageous or uncomfortable it might normally be for me to hear such assertions.  I would be able to do this because I knew that my turn to express my views would come very soon–in the second half of the meeting.

After all, the whole session would be finished in twenty or thirty minutes.

Step 2

When she was finished, it was my job to reflect back what I heard her saying–in terms of what deeply-held values or principles that she wants to be guided by. 

I looked at my few notes and told her three or four reasons why she appeared to care about this issue, based on her words.  I searched in my mind for what Jane’s human needs would be, using concepts developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg, a former clinical psychologist who left the profession to found Nonviolent Communication. 

According to Nonviolent Communication, all humans have the same needs: food and shelter, safety, autonomy, respect, belonging to a community, and so on. We humans have feelings that are positive when we see our needs being met, or negative when we perceive our needs not being met.

Jane ratified my perceptions about her feelings and needs with relation to this burning topic–abortion rights, the role of the Supreme Court, states’ rights, and womens’ freedom. It turned out that she does value womens’ right to end unwanted pregnancies. What mattered to her were instutional issues: that the highest court in the land should not be able to dictate what women’s rights are; that limits on those rights should only be placed at the level of individual states.

Step 3

Now, in the second half of this process, it was my turn to express my views.  I explained to her what distressed me about the new ruling allowing abortion to be “banned” by new laws passed at state levels.  I explained my position with reference to my values.  I described my needs for equality between men and women, and for women to have the same economic and social freedom as men.  

Step 4

When it was her turn again, she summarized what she thought she heard me saying and what she could surmise about my motivation for holding these positions.


The conflict between us over the many well-known political issues presently dividing the country was not transformed, but the four dialogue structured dialogue sessions reduced the distrust and the unhappiness between us and allowed us to more easily stay together as a couple.

The knowledge that we can always set up a new dialogue session made it less scary to share view points on topics such U.S. immigration policies, the 2020 elections, police shootings in Black and Hispanic big-city neighborhoods, Trump and Biden, China, the war in Ukraine, and of course womens’ reproductive rights.

Can just anybody do this?

This process is for people who are close or even intimate friends, spouses, and family members who find themselves on opposing sides of the big liberal/conservative Republican/Democrat divide that gained such prominence in the U.S. in the second decade of this century. 

But people with strong beliefs about the big political issues may not see the sense of meeting with somebody else with whom they strongly disagree, even if that person is their father, or brother, or even their husband.  

As every mediator has seen in their personal lives, people try to just avoid any mention of political issues when they are in family gatherings. Or they just avoid the gatherings. They disappear from the family.  They divorce.  They cut people out of their lives. 

These formal, highly structured, perscriptive, and you might say choreographed dialogue sessions are sure to help individual husbands and wives, and sons and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, to keep their relationships from getting destroyed by polarization.

Anybody, including people with little formal education, can understand this guidance: “Just tell me why this issue that we are not agreeing on, that we always get angry about, is important to you. Why it matters to you.  Why you care about it.  I’ll give you five minutes to talk without interruption. I’ll give you feedback on what you’re saying, to your satisfaction that I got it right. Then we’ll switch places. You’ll carefully listen to me, for five minutes. You’ll then take five minutes to give me the same kind of feedback I gave you. We’ll meet privately, just the two of us, or with other family observing silently and respectfully. The meeting will be very formal, not informal. But we’ll be done in less than a half hour. Then we go back to our normal conversations as we return to each person’s daily activities.”

When was the last time somebody listened to you quietly and attentively for even thirty seconds without intervening to contradict or correct or amend what you were expressing?


John Cabral

John Cabral came to the mediation profession from urban planning and peace and justice activism. His training is from the Chicago Center for Conflict Resolution, with additional training received from Richard Blackburn, John Kinyon, and Gary J. Friedman. His favorite mediation authors are Kenneth Cloke, Bernard Mayer, William Ury, Gary… MORE >

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