Growing up, I spent Sundays with my eyes closed and arms raised in heartfelt praise and worship. My mom’s parents were missionaries, and my dad is a pastor. As a conservative family, the Christian call to be “in but not of” the world around us was epitomized by Hollywood, just 10 minutes away. All of my closest relatives and friends shared my faith.
Going to liberal-leaning universities in California, France, and New York pressure-tested everything I believed. The exposure to very different worldviews led me to question my own certainty and reexamine my beliefs from new angles. My politics shifted left over time, and I am no longer a practicing Christian. Though my family relationships remain strong, our ideological splits now sometimes cause tensions.
The culture clash I experienced in college has intensified across the United States. Even before the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, experts were warning about increasing political violence. With my social and professional circles spanning the polarized, rarely overlapping spheres driving our fierce national debates, I have a unique view of what’s dividing us. It’s not just diverging views — though those are real and deep — but also how people talk about, but too rarely with, those on the other side. At a time when the rift among Americans can feel as if we live in different countries, we should draw lessons from international dialogues to start building bridges at home.
Pursuing a career in a foreign affairs field, I’ve been struck by parallels in the dynamics between countries and the one I’ve wrestled with in my personal life. Negative stereotypes, opposing narratives, and perceived grievances on both sides have often led to heightened tensions between nations, with the effects rippling through their societies. Sound familiar?
I encounter the full spectrum of hostile views that many Americans hold about each other. That all conservative Christians are stupid, irredeemably intolerant, a hindrance to social progress. How liberals will destroy America and quash religious freedom.
I encounter the full spectrum of hostile views that many Americans hold about each other. That all conservative Christians are stupid, irredeemably intolerant, a hindrance to social progress. How liberals will destroy America and quash religious freedom. A tone that turns disagreement into disdain emerges most strongly when people speak only to those they assume are like-minded. Until recently, I mostly shied away from facing these remarks head on. What could possibly break through this mistrust?
This same challenge is at the core of nongovernmental exchanges to help countries manage their differences when mistrust runs deep. When experts from adversarial nations engage in dialogue, the goal is to not have one side “win.” Rather, facilitators encourage them to better understand each other’s perspective, seek common interests, and build the personal relationships — despite ongoing disagreements — that make co-existence, and sometimes cooperation, possible.
It sounds wonderful, but it’s hard to do in practice because we’re not naturally open-minded. Instead, our brains are full of cognitive biases, leading us to categorize people into oversimplified boxes and favor information confirming our beliefs. That’s why expert dialogues also include multiple social activities. In one program I attended with Americans, Europeans, and Russians, an hour learning to punt a boat down the English River Cherwell together forged stronger bonds among us than 10 hours of lectures ever could, adding humanizing dimensions to our experience together.
There are, of course, differences between international relations and those among fellow citizens. In a democracy, we continually redefine our shared society’s values through our votes and actions. Our disagreements have more immediate, and sometimes damaging, impacts on each other’s lives. Yet that only makes dialogue more important to minimize the frictions of co-existence and seize opportunities as we debate and determine our collective future.
Importantly, engaging in dialogue doesn’t mean condoning all actions at home or abroad. We should neither give a free pass to foreign regimes nor minimize the serious harm marginalized communities have experienced from systems built to advantage white Christians. We should always fight for what is right and speak hard truths. But building a society that both respects difference and is just for all is a long-term endeavor that requires engaging as many people as possible. To do so, we should apply three lessons from international expert dialogues to the strangers in our own land.
First, avoid making sweeping conclusions about any group of “others.” Christians may be known for evoking fire and brimstone, but no one has a monopoly on being judgmental. Until we take people out of our mental boxes to grapple with the intricacies of what they think and why, we cannot meaningfully communicate. As someone whose beliefs have profoundly changed, I am more prepared to approach others with nuance and empathy.
Second, talk to people with different views and listen actively — look for common ground rather than simply trying to win an argument. While disagreements will remain, there may be values — for example, loving your neighbor, treating others as you want to be treated, caring for the poor and needy — that both sides share, creating space to work together. Personal stories break through preconceptions and fears, and policy debates will become less existential if we stop seeing each other as archnemeses.
Third, remember that persuasion, though always difficult, is almost impossible without relationships built on trust and respect. I can share my views on a policy or what I’ve learned about white supremacy with my family without it being dismissed as a personal attack. Persuasion is never guaranteed, but when we assume an insurmountable gulf between us and those who see the world differently, we abandon potential allies and avenues for progress.
The need for dialogue among Americans is reaching a critical point. Domestic peace cannot be taken for granted any more than our democratic norms and institutions. Strengthening the latter will depend on our ability to preserve the former — not only by avoiding violence, but by building a positive peace in which citizens have healthy relationships with each other across society. Other crucial problems will have to be addressed, but we won’t get far without these principles of dialogue. So let us ask the hard questions and fight the good fight, but let us also make sure we’re talking — together.
Noelle Pourrat is a Program Analyst in the International Peace and Security Program at Carnegie Corporation of New York.