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‘3 Practices’ Sheds Light on How to Discuss Topics that Divide

March 7, 2019

Having a conversation about a divisive topic is hard – emotions run high and people dig in and shut down.

On March 19 and 20, UC Merced will host a series of workshops designed to expose campus and community members to a structured and thoughtful way of talking about differences of opinion.

Facilitators Jim Henderson and Jim Hancock will lead “3 Practices for Crossing the Difference Divide,” which consists of three workshops held over two days. Participants can register to attend one, two or all workshops. The event is open to all students, faculty and staff members, and the public. All attendees must register to attend. Space is limited.

Each workshop will address one topic people have strong opinions about. The first, “Are We on the Brink of Disaster or Halfway Across the Bridge to a Better America?” is from 4 to 6 p.m. March 19 in Room 140 of Classroom and Office Building 2.

On March 20, the second and third workshops will take place in the California Room. “Build the Wall or Open the Borders: Will E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) Form Our Future as Much as It’s Shaped Our Past?” is from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and “Judge Kavanaugh vs. Dr. Ford, Who Did You Believe?” from 1 to 2:30 p.m.

The 3 Practices Group has conducted more than 40 events across the country in the past two years. The facilitators intentionally select provocative, hot-button issues, but it’s not about the content, said Associate Chancellor Luanna Putney.

“The goal of 3 Practices is to listen with an intent to learn about somebody’s viewpoint that might be completely opposite of your own and not be focused on changing the other’s mind,” Putney said. “We want people to think about how the 3 Practices approach might be used or adapted at UC Merced to create opportunities for all voices to be heard, not just the majority thinkers.”

The method demonstrates that those who can successfully engage in dialogue with someone holding opposing views follow these tenets:

  • I’ll be unusually interested in others.
  • I’ll stay in the room with difference.
  • I’ll stop comparing my best with your worst.

The method was born from The No Joke Project, a feature-length documentary; the book “No Joke: A Rabbi, an Imam and a Preacher Do the Unthinkable and Become Friends for Life,” co-written by Henderson and Cara Highsmith, and a series of live shows about the friendship between three Peoria, Ill., clergymen. The trio deliberately forged a relationship to cultivate understanding and tolerance despite their philosophical differences.

The point of the project was to show that those with religious differences are anchored deeply in their beliefs and their history, and they’re not going to change their mind. Three Practices came out of those individuals trying to understand one another and then sharing that insight with their respective congregations and modeling how well the behavior could work.

“Typically, when we’re faced with difficult conversations that we feel passionately about, the last thing we think about are rules of engagement,” Putney said. “We usually let our emotions take over. Often, that means talking over people, thinking about what you’re going to say next and not listening to the other person.”

“The goal of 3 Practices is to listen with an intent to learn about somebody’s viewpoint that might be completely opposite of your own and not be focused on changing the other’s mind.”

Luanna Putney
Associate Chancellor

During the workshops, the facilitators will explain the process and then demonstrate how to follow the ground rules for engagement. Each workshop will have a discussion circle with eight volunteer participants.

How the discussion circle will work:

  • Individuals with differing opinions sit in circle in front of the room.
  • Members of the circle are invited (but not required) to share their opinion about the topic. The circle group may be provided more context with a framing question by the facilitator(s) to get things going.
  • Once a circle member decides to share, they have two minutes to give their opinion about the topic without interruption. Other circle members cannot show external displays of judgement (such as eye rolling or making faces) while the person is talking.
  • When the person finishes speaking, circle members get 20 seconds to come up with a clarifying question. The speaker gets one minute to respond to each clarifying question.
  • The process repeats for each circle member who wants to share an opinion on the topic if time permits.

Audience members will engage with the circle by providing encouragement (claps, but not disruption) when circle members ask good clarifying questions.

“Our intent,” said Putney, “is to expose folks to this approach and then solicit interest on how we might be able to use this methodology or something similar to foster honest and respectful dialogue around polarizing issues.”

Register to attend 3 Practices on the Office of Campus Climate website.