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A forum teaches us how to disagree once again. Gracefully.

In a political climate so polarized that members of the same family no longer speak with each other, an upcoming Charlotte program is designed to get people talking once again, respectfully.

Amanda Ripley, a best-selling author and journalist and senior fellow of the Emerson Collective, presents a lecture, “Can We Talk?,” at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 14, in Belk Chapel at Queens University of Charlotte. Negotiation experts and trained facilitators will lead panel discussions and workshops between noon and 4:30 p.m. on the next day, Friday, March 15, at Queens University and at Myers Park Baptist Church.

The forum and workshops are non-partisan, free and open to concerned citizens, community and business leaders, journalists, and all members of the public. Attendance is possible for both or either days, and registration is required to manage space limitations. The program is presented by the North Carolina Humanities Council and Queens University, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

“We cannot ever change each others’ minds on even little things if we don’t understand what’s driving our behavior,” Ripley said recently in an interview with Rick Thames, visiting professor of journalism in the Queens James L. Knight School of Communication, and former executive editor of The Charlotte Observer. Thames is coordinating the forum.

“Right now the thing that’s most eerie and disconcerting to me about the national discourse is that we literally are not speaking the same language anymore,” Ripley said. “We cannot understand each other’s reactions to what we’re seeing in the same event. We need to be able to get a little bit inside each other’s heads, even if that’s not a place we want to stay, even if we don’t agree with what’s inside that person’s head. You will never make progress if you can’t on some level understand the language the other side speaks.”

Much of Ripley’s recent work focuses on understanding how conflict can be useful rather than toxic. Participants in the March 14-15 program will learn how principles of conflict mediation can help them talk about politics and other polarizing topics in ways that create understanding and build curiosity. Ripley uses lessons from psychologists and conflict experts to explain how people can ask better questions and have more useful conversations.

“I thought I understood conflict,” Ripley told Thames. “I’ve covered terrorism and disasters and abortion and guns and all kinds of controversial issues, and I was wrong. I was just wrong, and it was very humbling. I’ve grown more as a journalist from this project than almost any other, because I spent all this time with people who do conflict differently than journalists, who understand conflict in a different way than most of us. People like conflict mediators, diplomats, ministers, rabbis, psychologists, lawyers. It turns out there’s a whole much more interesting set of motivations underneath the usual talking points.”

Ripley has written that journalists need to “complicate the narrative,” because complexity generates a more accurate story and evokes curiosity in news. She writes that every journalist, like a psychologist is trained to identify conflict out of the people they are interviewing, because they’re trained that good stories require conflict.

In an article for Medium, Ripley wrote about a 2017 segment of “60 Minutes,” where Oprah Winfrey led a conversation in which the goal was to get Americans of opposing views to talk with each other.

“For three hours, nine cameras captured the group’s conversation about Twitter, President Trump, health care and the prospect of a new civil war. The crew even built a special table, just for the occasion. The edited 16-minute segment would represent the first of a series of planned 60 Minutes shows focused on a divided America,” she wrote.

However, Ripley described the episode as “strangely dull and superficial.” Ripley pointed out that by asking simple yes or no questions, Winfrey’s approach oversimplified the discussion and prevented exploration of the divide. She wrote that the solution is to not eliminate the conflict completely but to “amplify contradictions, widen the lens, ask questions about people’s motivations, listen more and better, expose people to the counter tribe, and counter confirmation bias.”

Ripley also has written that there is a “magic ratio” for the perfect complex conversation. A person needs to have “three moments of positive feeling for every one moment of negativity. … Goodwill is a gateway drug for listening.” To truly understand someone, Ripley has written, people must be willing to double-check. She describes it as “looping for understanding,” a technique developed by conflict mediator Gary Friedman. She has been humbled by how well she thought she knew someone, while missing a really important clue.

“I tried looping my 11-year-old son when he complained about having to go to bed,” she wrote.  “’You’re really frustrated that you can’t stay up later,’ I told him. He went to bed.”

Photo above: A Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, online video discussion between Ripley and Thames. The full, 14-minute conversation is also available on YouTube.

Panelists, Friday, March 15
Parisa Parsa, executive director, Essential Partners, a Boston-based non-profit helping groups improve communication across differences.
Touissaint Romain, Charlotte attorney and civil rights activist who served as mediator between demonstrators and police during the city’s 2016 protests.
Parker Cains, Dell Technologies executive and Republican Party candidate in the 2017 at-large race for Charlotte City Council.
Julie Eiselt, Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem, a Democrat and top vote-getter in the 2017 at-large race for Charlotte City Council.

Facilitator Trainer for Workshops, Friday, March 15
Catherine Conner, family law attorney and officer for the Center for Understanding in Conflict

Facilitators for Workshops, Friday, March 15
Dr. Margaret Commins, associate professor of political science, Queens
Dr. Dawn Chanland, associate professor, Queens McColl School of Business
Darryl White, assistant dean for diversity, inclusion and community, Queens
Dr. Aaron Houck, associate professor of political science, Queens
Joey Haynes, campus chaplain, Queens
Kayla George, director of residence life, Queens
Dr. Kim Weller, associate professor, Queens Knight School of Communication
Jon Sims, director of post-traditional undergraduate admissions, Queens
Dr. Alexa Royden, associate professor of political science, Queens
Samantha McCann, vice president, Solutions Journalism Network
David Bornstein, chief executive officer, Solutions Journalism Network