The Power of Face-to-Face Groups in a Polarized Digital World

After fatal shootings at two women’s health clinics in Brookline, MA, in 1994, Governor William Weld and the Archdiocese of Boston called for joint talks among leaders of the pro-life and pro-choice movement to stop the violence. For six years, three leaders of Massachusetts pro-life and pro-choice groups held meetings facilitated by Public Conversations Project in Boston. Their secret talks stretched out over 150 hours. During that time, leaders remained firmly committed to their views on abortion. But the two groups grew profoundly respectful of each other, and both sides took important steps to reduce recurring future violence.

We live in a nation that is dangerously polarized on many crucial issues, like global climate change, gun legislation, immigration policies, and women’s reproductive rights. Research demonstrates that creating trusting relationships based on respect for personal differences is the single most powerful antidote to deeply divisive polarization among groups.

Communication that involves face-to-face interaction and happens over time with people outside our immediate social circle is really hard to come by in today’s distracted digital world. Yet it’s been proven time and again that trust in relationships is most easily created in groups that meet face-to-face over time. Most people in this forum get past their initial fear of differences by becoming personally familiar with each other through ongoing listening and interaction with one another.

If you have an important personal or professional conversation involving any ambiguity, nuance, or emotionality, you’re better off picking up the phone or talking in person than shooting off an email or a text. That is because 80% of human communication occurs through body language, facial expression, and tone of voice. Therefore, the fewer the digital intermediaries to muffle these nonverbal cues the better.

Many types of organizations – from government agencies to corporations – agree that diverse thinking is the key to healthy organizations that consistently generate fresh ideas and promote sound decision-making. But diverse thinking does not necessarily come from diverse demographics. Diverse thinking comes from trusting and collaborative relationships among people with profound differences, who feel empowered to bring new ideas, to make mistakes, and to disagree.

I have been meeting monthly for the last 18 months with a small group of women writers, who are alumnae of The Op-Ed Project, whose mission is to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas in the world. While our group is open to all alumnae in the New York area, we tend to have a core group of us who usually shows up for meetings. We are a diverse group of white, black, and brown women. Issues related to race and demographics come up in our writing and in our conversations.

However, the most surprising difference that came up recently had to do with Sarah Palin. It turned out that one woman in our group likes her politics and her speeches. It suddenly hit me that we had profound political differences among us and we had been paving the way to talk about those differences all along. Now at the next meeting she attends, I will inquire more about her view of Sarah Palin and her politics, even though I’m on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

We need to create more group forums for face-to-face conversations outside of our immediate social groups over time about the polarizing issues that threaten our planet and our safety. For in-person group forums to be effective, we need to practice the communication skills to build trust and respectfully disagree. Face-to-face groups are a powerful way to be more courageous with our conversations and relationships across the aisle.

After all, what topic is more polarizing than abortion? If the joint talks among leaders of the pro-life and pro-choice movement can bring about more trust and respect between people who usually don’t see eye-to-eye, then the rest of us can step outside of our comfort zones on topics like Sarah Palin. If they can do it, we can do it too.

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