Finding Reason in Difficult Conversations

Thanksgiving, an opportunity to express our gratitude over a meal, can also be a time for us to find common ground with those with different perspectives.

Photo illustration using images from “Guns: an American Conversation,” “Making Strangers Less Strange,” and Gather’s Facilitated Dialogue case studies.
Silence the extremes on both sides that are drowning out a reasonable conversation. Listen to the middle.

That was the sentiment from Eric Truax, one of the 5,000 strangers who participated in a nationwide conversation about guns in a private Facebook group facilitated by Spaceship Media.

Founded by journalists Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay, Spaceship Media is on the cutting edge of putting into practice the evolving idea that journalists as facilitators of conversations with community members it serves. Bringing the public together in conversation across difference is what Pearlman and Hay call “dialogue journalism.”

Spaceship Media isn’t alone in this emerging role for journalism. A report released last week from the Center for Media Engagement, “Making Strangers Less Strange,” demonstrates how several other news organizations and academic institutions are developing initiatives to intentionally bring people from different ideological backgrounds to reduce or, perhaps, even eliminate the “othering” we do with groups outside of our own. The report highlights 25 such bridge-building projects several of which are case studies on Gather: an Engaged Journalism Collaborative under “Facilitated Dialogue.” (Gather is a collaborative project led by the UO-SOJC’s Agora Journalism Center of which I associate direct. We’re also excited to soon share some of our findings from our own Finding Common Ground initiative we organized this year.)

The Spaceship Media project, “Guns: an American Conversation,” was a collaboration between Advance Local, TIME, the Newseum, Essential Partners and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. This Tiny Spark episode, “Hey America, Let’s Talk About What Divides Us,” in which host Amy Costello interviews Truax and fellow participate Asheenia Johnson gives me up hope that our divided country isn’t as far apart from each other and finding common ground is indeed possible.

As we start to think about our time together this holiday week to share our gratitude with loved ones and, perhaps, even planning how we might avoid uncomfortable conversations, I’d hope we’d reflect on what Traux and Johnson learned from their experience: to make room for reasonable discussion and listen to learn and understand.

As you brave the wilderness with a “strong back and soft front”, a few more resources come to mind. After the 2016 elections, the NYTimes’ Michael Barbarao published “How Could You? 19 Questions to Ask Loved Ones Who Voted the Other Way” on The Run-Up podcast which could be a helpful guide to frame these kinds of personal, difficult, and (if I may add) critical conversations. The list of questions is still relevant when thinking about how one voted, or not voted, in the midterm elections. I invite you to also listen to a few episodes from our relatively-new Listeners Podcast series that explores the craft and power of listening. “DJ & Warren Waldow — Political Listening” and “Celeste Headlee — Listening to Become More Human” are particularly relevant to this post’s topic on conversation. (We also have an interview with jesikah maria ross on “Problem Solving Through Storytelling.” Her project is also listed among the CME report.)

The background to this post comes at on the heels of the People-Powered Publishing Conference in Chicago where journalists, educators, community organizers, and funders came together to re-imagine journalism where we put communities at the center of our work. Expect a more extensive post on that soon. In the meantime, I remain inspired to amplify the work of many others who are authentically including the public to participate in the process of journalism.

So, we’d love to hear about additional journalism projects that share the goal of bringing people with different perspectives together to find common ground. And regardless of industry, we’d like to hear more about your approach to listening and facilitating conversations to bridge divides. You can share your thoughts by writing a response below or emailing me.


Andrew DeVigal is an endowed chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communicationas well as the associate director of the school’s Agora Journalism Center, the gathering place for innovation in communication and civic engagement. DeVigal is also the executive director of Gather and can be reached at andrew.devigal@gmail.com.