The Art of Disagreeing Well: Embracing the Messiness Through Intergroup Dialogue

The Art of Disagreeing Well: Embracing the Messiness Through Intergroup Dialogue

Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University

Controversy with Civility Series

Part 1: Embracing the Messiness

In this series, we are exploring the art of disagreeing well with one another. In part one, I have been sharing tools and practices that help us embrace the messiness and create space for the hard and challenging conversations. In my last post, I shared about public deliberation as a tool for deliberative dialogue on public issues, helping us sort through different policy perspectives to identify shared values and common ground forward together.

However, there are some conflicts that run deeper than policy issues or voting preferences. There are some conflicts that are rooted in who we are and how we fit into the world around us, that reflect our yearnings for justice and fairness and freedom and worth. When we feel part of our identity is devalued or ignored or trampled on by others with more power or by institutional systems established with biases or discriminatory intent, we often feel powerless to engage, to share our experience, and to affect change. How do we create a safe space for these kinds of conversations, to bring people to the table with vastly different experiences and perceptions, vastly different levels of power and influence, vastly different needs and agendas?

These kinds of conversations are inherently messy and often separate us from one another instead of unite us. They often come laden with power dynamics and privilege, and the realization that we can never truly walk in someone else’s shoes (nor would we necessarily want to). How do we talk about our shared experience with those who have never shared it? How do we address issues and concerns in contexts that are often immersed with power and privilege, with ignorance or insensitivity? How do we dare to embrace that kind of messiness?

This week, I want to share another favorite tool of mine, a relatively new one to me, intergroup dialogue. Intergroup dialogue offers hope for these kinds of conversations. It equalizes the power dynamics and creates space for groups to have sustained dialogue together over time. Since I am new to this process, I asked one of my colleagues, Jasmine Wilson, to sit down with me and share the potential and the power of intergroup dialogue, as a tool for this kind of messy, important work.

The power of intergroup dialogue comes, as Jasmine explains, from the ability to equalize the power dynamic by creating a space for group members that have had power to hear the story and the experience of the other. It requires confidentiality and vulnerability, with consistent mindfulness to the power dynamic present. The goal is to provide voice to the counter-narrative and to give EVERY participant the opportunity to feel heard. This is not a short-term fix that provides easy answers to complex struggles. This process requires a sustained commitment over time, over a semester-long course or a yearlong program, to enter into community with the other – to listen and to share, and to seek to understand. It is a process that comes with rich potential for personal growth by participants, both in reflecting & articulating their own struggles and in valuing and understanding the struggles of others.

Typically, students are selected for this process, as it requires a desire and a commitment to engage in the messy conversations. Selection often varies based on identity groups to ensure a balance of power & perspective. It can be an add-on to a restorative justice model, or used for follow-up after a crisis incident.

Quality and trained facilitation is essential. Shared knowledge and research from multiple perspectives form a common starting point. But then, the hard work is up to individual members, to share, to listen, to engage. The conversations can get messy, but the payoff can be rich in terms of building new community, forming relationships across difference, and learning to truly value the other.
In the recent high profile police incidents involving African American males, there has been a heightened awareness of the disconnect and disparity of African American experience with police as compared with the white experience. This context is a ripe opportunity for intergroup dialogue, to provide the opportunity for white participants to listen and to value the experience of their African American peers, to understand in new ways the counter-narrative of discrimination and violence within the criminal justice system and to enter into sustained dialogue and discussion over time.

The Oriented to Love dialogue series offered by Evangelicals for Social Action is another example of intergroup dialogue at work. It brings together gay, straight, transgender individuals from diverse theological backgrounds, not to reach consensus on policy issues but rather to share their stories, to come to a deeper understanding of each other’s experience and struggles. It creates space for the other to become a person, and to create new opportunities for mutual understanding and respect.

Intergroup Dialogue Snapshot

Useful for: Dialogue for identity-based groups (race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc)

Audience: Selected participants committed to extensive program, balanced representation from groups

Goals/ student learning outcomes: (Carcasson, 2010)

  • Ability to reflect & articulate own experience
  • Improved listening skills
  • Improved communication skills
  • Improved conflict resolution skills
  • Increased respect across difference

To get started: Check out Intergroup Dialogue Institute at University of Michigan.

I would be interested in hearing your experience with intergroup dialogue. Feel free to share your stories or ideas about using it to embrace the messy conversations on your campus.

Next time, we’ll shift from a group perspective to an individual perspective. How do we embrace the messy conversations with individuals in our lives – our bosses, our coworkers, our students? How do we disagree well with others and talk through the tough conversations? We’ll explore a tool that can guide us through those messy conversations.

Thank you to Jasmine Wilson, Assistant Director for Resident Learning at Baylor University, for her help and expertise for this article. Jasmine currently serves on the cultural competence work team in facilitating intergroup dialogue initiatives on campus and has completed training with the National Intergroup Dialogue Institute at the University of Michigan.

Additional Resources:

About the Author: Erin Payseur is the Associate Director of Community-Based Learning at Baylor University. She has ten years of experience in civic engagement and higher education. As part of the Office of Community Engagement & Service, she develops sustainable frameworks for co-curricular service & social justice initiatives to guide students in considering their roles as leaders and citizens. She currently serves as the institutional contact for the NASPA Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Lead Initiative. She has authored several articles and presented nationally on civic engagement, service, and leadership. In addition to her civic engagement work, she also serves as adjunct faculty for the leadership minor. She has a B.A. degree in Religion/ Philosophy from Presbyterian College and a M.Ed. in Higher Education & Student Affairs from the University of South Carolina.

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Erin Payseur

Associate Director, Civic Learning Initiatives, Office of Community Engagement & Service, Baylor University