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Mike Wasserman of the Constructive Dialogue Institute [Podcast] - BCB #19
Can we teach people to have better conflict?
The inaugural episode of the Better Conflict Bulletin podcast, The Transformers, is a fascinating conversation with Mike Wasserman of the Constructive Dialogue Institute. Mike is the VP of Growth and Development and explains how CDI trains people to have better conversation across political boundaries, as well as within organizations and in participants’ personal lives.
Find all episodes online here. Here are some highlights from our conversation, lightly edited:
BCB: What does your organization do and why? What's your mission?
Mike Wasserman: We really honed in on the fact that there's a robust body of research in the behavioral sciences that tells us how people connect across differences. There's really a lot that we know about ways people can engage, and yet we didn't feel like enough was being done to take that body of research and translate it into practical and scalable tools that could be brought to existing communities.
BCB: You're focusing a lot on mindset work and skill set work.
Mike Wasserman: We call it an explorer mindset. There are skills around emotion regulation so that when I'm in a tense conversation, and I feel myself going into defensive mode, or when I'm ready to attack or try to “win the conversation,” I can redirect, calm myself down, and say “Okay, let me ask a question here and shift towards understanding.”
The reason we also include mindset is because if you're not ready for that conversation… you’re not going to do it, and it’s to get people to understand the cognitive biases.
BCB: How many people do you think would need to go through this kind of program to see a real change?
Mike Wasserman: I will say that we really focus on scalability, because we think that we need to be reaching millions and millions of people to have that kind of an impact.
So far, in our first five years, we've reached 55,000 learners. That’s not changing the landscape of America or other countries across the globe. … Our vision is to reach at least a million learners a year by 2025, but I think really to impact the country as a whole, we need to be doing this on an even larger scale.
Our focus is on what we call next-generation learners, 16 to 24-year-olds– that group of people who are entering the most diverse communities that they've ever been a part of when they go off to college or start in the workforce for the first time. [They’re] developing a moral and political identity as distinct from maybe what they've had growing up.
It's a moment in people's lives when they're really forming the way that they view politics in the world, and so we think if we can reach that generation and provide them with opportunities to really strengthen the muscles to engage across differences, that can be a way to impact the country without having to reach all 331,000,000 people.
BCB: How do you plan to expand?
Mike Wasserman: [We are] investing in this next generation of learners and leaders, and we're trying to do that through making free resources available to educators. … We're really trying to lower any barrier to implementation.
Second, we're working at an institutional level, partnering with entire schools, districts, or entire campuses on ways to embed online learning tools, training, and instructional strategies across an entire campus. We're working with colleges and envisioning doing this more often.
We are planning to conduct a national survey on the state of polarization in K-12 classrooms, and looking at some of the ways that the divisions in our dialogue across the country are showing up in classrooms … and the way they're impacting students and teachers.
BCB: Can this program have an impact on political violence?
Mike Wasserman: Absolutely. And that’s really at the heart of what we are trying to do, because when we talk about depolarization, we're talking about getting rid of that affective polarization.
There's affective polarization and idea polarization. Idea polarization is the concept that people have different views across a spectrum, and that's not something we're trying to change. We're not saying everyone needs to have the same worldview.
But what we are saying is that even when we disagree, can we have this understanding that for those who are in the other group, we can still recognize their humanity. We see that there is a way that they can be moral beings if they disagree with us and by having that kind of shared commitment to humanity, you would see less violence.
A lot of the most troubling signs in this country, and in other countries right now, are things like 80% of people who identify with one political party saying that everyone in the other political party presents a clear and present danger. We've seen that significant numbers of Americans who affiliate with one political party say that the other that the country would be better off if a large number of those on the other side of the political spectrum died.
Those kinds of dialogue dehumanizes and lowers the worth of life, especially as it relates to politics. That's directly what leads to political violence, and so to counteract that dehumanization is the focus of this kind of work.
BCB: Where can someone who’s interested in your work find more information?
Mike Wasserman: We are looking to build a big tent here, so we'd be excited for anyone that's listening to this to come and explore ways that we could support their communities.
ConstructiveDialogue.org is our website, and if you go there, you can find more information about Perspectives, which is our online learning program., You can also find more information about the research that we've done on our online learning program, and some of the research that we're doing with collaborators to inform the field more broadly.
CDI’s online learning program “that explores the inner workings of the mind and the psychological roots of our ideological differences.”
A study CDI conducted with college students that demonstrates that constructive dialogue programs can reduce polarization, decrease attacking behaviors, and lessen negative evasion behaviors.
A CDI study with adult learners suggests that moral reframing, separating goals from strategies, and integrative thinking can help to collaborate across divides.
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