Civil Dialogue: ‘A Republican, a Democrat and a Buddhist walk into a room …’

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Civil Dialogue
United America and Sojourners

Click on this image to visit the Sojourners site and read my entire story about the Belfast Dialogue.

Is civil dialogue across the political divide possible?

It may seem impossible in today’s uncivil political environment—but I know it is possible. Why? Because it actually did happen. I call it the Belfast Dialogue, named in honor of the Maine town where it took place.

Could you use it as a model for civil dialogue in your community?

Today, I’ll give you a quick summary of what took place in Belfast. For a more detailed account, see my article in Sojourners. All week, we’ll talk about the real possibilities of changing the national narrative from divide to dialogue.

Judith Simpson, a practicing Buddhist, and Dorothy Odell came up with the idea of doing something about the political divide rather than just complaining about it. Both are residents of the seaside town of Belfast, Maine. Belfast is on Penobscot Bay, about halfway up the Maine coast.

Dorothy used her local network to recruit a diverse group of people, ranging from libertarians and Tea Party Republicans to liberal Democrats and Progressives. They met for an evening at Dorothy’s home. Judith, an expert in the practice of Dialogue, facilitated the conversation. Dialogue with a capital “D” is a group process governed by several principles. One is that everyone must put their assumptions on hold. Another is that the process must be facilitated by someone with training in Dialogue.

And it actually worked. After a simple meal, the participants sat in a circle, spoke, and listened to one another. They spoke about their greatest fears for the country, and discovered a lot of common ground. They spoke about their greatest hopes for the country, and here, too, discovered that they have a lot in common. The event lasted about 3 hours or so.

The group didn’t debate, said Judith. Rather, “the group had spoken, listened, and thought together.”

Dorothy said, “People left the evening changed. They were affected positively by the experience.”

As I travel the country, talking about my latest book, United America, I tell everyone that we are united by 10 core values, but we often fall short of living these values. The Belfast Dialogue is an example of how to live the core value of respect for others—people of different faiths, races, and political affiliations. It is a model of how to put this core value into practice.

What do you think of the Belfast Dialogue?

Are you surprised to learn that real dialogue across the political divide is possible?

How could you adapt the model for use in your community?

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