Investing in Relationships to Repair our Democracy
This is a guest post by Jon Gruber of the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust.
For foundations and philanthropists committed to addressing the challenges facing our democracy, there is a long list of pressing priorities. From reforming campaigns and elections to strengthening Congress; from protecting the rule of law to combatting disinformation; from sparking local civic action to reasserting a shared national story — there is varied and vital work to be done. Yet amidst heightened polarization in a more diverse, disconnected, and fragmented society, repairing our democracy must also include a focus on how we see and relate to one another across our differences.
An age-old and urgent question — how can we nurture the positive side of human nature? — is at the crux of restoring the health of our democracy and rebuilding our collective faith in it. One organization that has tackled this question in concrete ways is Convergence Center for Policy Resolution.
Convergence convenes people who are divided on fraught, complex issues and creates a sustained process through which they get to know each other, build trust and goodwill, and identify shared principles that are often obscured by divergent policy positions, motivations, and incentives. This deliberate work of relationship building paves the way for a different kind of conversation about the issue; one anchored in a spirit of curiosity, openness to nuance, and a solutions orientation. This is not about avoiding conflict or reaching an abstract, watered-down consensus. Convergence facilitates candid, courageous conversations to help stakeholders work toward a shared agenda for action.
An age-old and urgent question — how can we nurture the positive side of human nature? — is at the crux of restoring the health of our democracy and rebuilding our collective faith in it.
Through projects that have addressed a range of national issues — criminal justice, economic mobility, healthcare, K-12 education, and long-term care financing, to name a few — Convergence has shown that progress is possible when we recognize that trusting relationships are the critical ingredient in collaborative problem solving. That sounds nice but naïve, you might say; but Convergence’s methodology is grounded in research and brings rigor to the art of relationship building. This approach is what led the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust (EFCT) to invest in Convergence.
The science behind the “secret sauce”
People familiar with Convergence often refer to the “secret sauce” of their process. Hearing project participants talk about the transformative nature of their experience does seem to suggest that a kind of alchemy happens. How else could dug-in foes become good-faith collaborators, let alone friends? And yet we know from a range of disciplines, cogently brought together by The Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity (PACH), that human beings are inherently relational and wired to connect. Watching a Convergence project unfold makes clear that the methodology marshals a set of research-backed practices that create the conditions for deep connection to emerge. A few examples of how Convergence does this:
- Draw out people’s personal stories — By inviting project stakeholders to talk openly about their personal experiences with the issue at hand, their individual humanity comes into view, and group identities and stereotypes recede to the background. Neuroscience has shown that when we are prompted to appreciate the unique individuality of someone whose identity we generally find threatening, the brain’s fear response is not triggered.
- Identify shared principles to rally around — By framing the issue at hand in a more expansive and unifying way and by inviting conversation about values, Convergence helps stakeholders who typically see each other “across the divide” excavate shared principles that lie beneath their disagreements. This alignment helps the group to develop a shared sense of purpose and to frame conversations around the goal of finding a way forward. Social psychology has shown that developing this kind of shared purpose and identity can help people develop a mutual sense of empathy and find common ground.
- Enable stakeholders to learn together — By exploring specific questions in a concrete and collaborative way, stakeholders cooperate in a context that encourages their participation and values them equally — conditions of “intergroup contact” that help reduce prejudice and increase trust. Doing things together in an upfront learning phase also builds stakeholders’ comfort and willingness to collaborate in other ways once they have created a shared agenda for action.
You will not hear Convergence use terms like amygdala activity and superordinate identity when describing their approach — probably for the best — but the methodology reflects key insights from the science of relationship building across divides. The Greater Good Science Center’s Bridging Differences initiative is a great outlet for learning more about this research and how a variety of on-the-ground efforts are activating it.
Human connection in a context where it’s badly needed
As our work at EFCT evolves, we are exploring how we might combat the forces of disconnection and division by helping to elevate and activate human connection. We see this not as a lofty idea, but rather as the key to embracing and bridging our differences to work together toward the common good and, in turn, to build a more cohesive and pluralistic America. This vision is relevant in every realm, from the intimate to the societal, from resolving interpersonal conflicts to addressing big public problems. We believe it is especially urgent and actionable in certain contexts, including democratic life.
The trends of tribalism, hyper-partisanship, distrust, and incivility have stifled our natural capacity for empathy, mutuality, vulnerability, and cooperation. This crisis of connection and its harmful effects are evident on Capitol Hill and cable news, in statehouses and community forums, on social media and around kitchen tables. Part of the story is a decades-long increase in affective polarization — i.e., animus, not just disagreement, across our partisan divides — and a recent study suggests that this is morphing into outright hostility and dehumanization.
In addition to posing a threat to social cohesion, this reality keeps us at an impasse on intractable issues and, in turn, fosters a belief that dysfunction is democracy’s default setting. It is crucial to create vivid counter-examples that show what is possible when we value and invest in authentic connection that flows from a belief in our shared dignity and humanity. Convergence projects do just that. Through sustained relationship building, adversarial and wary stakeholders work through their differences, get to breakthrough insights, and translate shared recommendations into impact that spans policy influence, new business practices, and even movement building.
How might we lift up human connection?
EFCT is proud of our partnership with Convergence and other organizations doing the crucial work of helping us navigate our deepest differences at a precarious moment for our country. As we continue to explore ways to foreground human connection in strengthening our democracy and repairing our social fabric, we welcome your ideas and invite you to join us as fellow travelers on a journey of shared learning.
Jon Gruber leads a portfolio at the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, whose grantee partners include Convergence, Greater Good Science Center, PACH, and other leading national organizations. Prior to joining EFCT, Jon worked as a management consultant, a program director at a nonprofit, and a teacher. Jon is on the Board of PACE and chairs the Strategic Planning Committee.