Twelve Ground Rules for Dialogues on Difference

Diversity is a fact of life. All societies are internally diverse, but some types of diversity provoke social anxiety. We are very comfortable with diversity in sports, fashion, cuisine, in fact such diversity is encouraged. But diversity that calls into question our assumptions and most cherished ideas about meaning in the world trigger deep-seated anxieties about the order of the cosmos. Challenges to our preconceived ideas of how the world is organized risk what Peter Berger called the “terror of anomy” (The Sacred Canopy, 26); they risk undermining our trust in meaning and order in the universe. Challenges to normative views on religions, politics, race, and gender, for example, create powerful anxiety. Such fears divide us. Talking about these differences requires courage and overcoming these fears requires we talk to people who are different.

To develop an authentic sense of self in a context that is increasingly characterized by diversity and confusion, we need to think about what voices we hear (and don’t) and to which we should listen (or not). As a nation and as individuals we are in deep need of dialogue across the differences that divide us. Drawing upon David Tracy’s description of “conversation,” I offer suggestions for dialogues about and across the differences that divide us constructive.

Confronting the plurality of religions, David Tracy suggests a model of interpretation grounded in conversation. For Tracy, a conversation is:

a game with some hard rules: say only what you mean; say it as accurately as you can; listen to and respect what  the other says, however different or other; be willing to correct or defend your opinions if challenged by the conversation partner; be willing to argue if necessary, to confront if demanded, to endure necessary conflict, to change your mind if the evidence suggests it.

David Tracy, Plurality and Ambiguity, 19.

Jeffrey Carlson sees this approach as the only credible response to religious plurality (33), but in our current moment, this approach is particularly challenging. I suggest such conversations are the healthiest response to the tribalism that divides us, but for many reasons, I prefer the term “dialogue.”

From The Dialogue Institute

In the space that remains, I synthesize Tracy’s conception of conversation and my experience with dialogue to construct my own Dodecalogue of Dialogue on Difference (see Leonard Swidler’s “Dialogue Decalogue”). These are challenges we must meet to have healthy dialogue about and across differences. In addition to Swidler’s work, my thinking here has been influenced by two sources which I recommend: “Dialogue Facilitation Tips” based on the work of Robin Routenberg and Taryn Petryk at The Program on Intergroup Relations at The University of Michigan and the Sustained Dialogue process developed by the late Hal Saunders (see “About Us”).

Be authentic. An authentic person is true to themselves, not threatened by difference, and their inner self and their outer persona agree (See “The Five Qualities of an Authentic Person”). They are honest in presenting themselves and their actions correspond to their beliefs. Not being authentic means your dialogue partner sees only a cardboard cutout version of you.

Recognize complexity. Carlson tells us that each of us are “always/already complex and diverse” the product of a “selective reconstruction” of the many influences in our lives (31–34). In her book, A Monopoly on Salvation: A Feminist Approach to Religious Pluralism, Jeannine Fletcher reminds us we are all hybrids of many different identities, and in none do we 100% identify with others (90). One or more of our identities are more (or less) relevant in each context, but we are never just one thing. I am not only my gender. She is not only her immigration status. He is not only his race. They are not only their religion.

Look for the humanity of “the other.” Look beyond the differences to see a shared humanity. Extend to them the space to be authentic. Recognize the possibility that fear, pain, and anxiety might be motivating them (and you) and actively seek to feel empathy for them as a human being.

Respect the person and reserve judgement on ideas/beliefs. People deserve respect. Ideas/beliefs deserve critical inquiry. Give each what they deserve. Recognize that ideas/beliefs are a part of our personhood—they are not entirely separable—but no single idea disqualifies a person from their humanity. Ideas can be right or wrong; people cannot.

Prepare for tolerable discomfort. Discomfort means you may not like what you hear. Tolerable means you set your own limits. Learning and development are discomforting. If you are comfortable, you are not learning. If you are beyond your tolerances, you are not learning. Have courage and stick with it while you can; walk away when you have to.

For more on the idea of “tolerable discomfort,” see “Decolonizing Religious Diversity: A Mind-Set for Constructive Interfaith Engagement and ‘Willingness to Embrace Tolerable Discomfort’” by Simran Kaur-Colbert.

Do not start with difference. Find something you share, then move to talk about something you do not.

Listen. Listen to what they say. Do not simply wait for your turn to talk. Listen. Listen to understand their view. If you do not understand, ask questions. 

Look for assumptions. The heart of critical thinking and critical conversation is recognizing assumptions. Look to identify your own assumptions and those of your conversation partner. 

Correct. If your conversation partner says something wrong, say so. Do not let stereotypes, myths, misunderstandings, confusion, or lies stand. Dialogue rests on authenticity; that requires knowledge and truth. Be willing to let them do the same for you.

Accept you may not agree. Agreement is not necessary for empathy, respect, cooperation, or democratic pluralism. The goal is not to persuade, convert, or assimilate; it is to understand and find a mutual way forward.

Reflect and be open to change. Critically reflect on everything you hear. Self-reflection makes you more authentic. Critical reflection on everyone’s ideas helps you discern ideas worth holding and identify those to be discarded. Change can be scary, especially when it comes to our most deeply held ideas/beliefs, but change is inevitable (as Buddhism teaches us). To pretend otherwise is foolish.

Take a break and repeat. No one can sustain this level of empathic and critical engagement continually. Rest, recharge, reflect, and repeat.

We cannot always agree on all the “rules,” but there must be some level of mutuality. Do not engage people who do not abide by the most fundamental rules. 

The long-held belief that diversity is erosive of trust and anathema to unity among members of a society rests on the myth that societies are monolithic. All societies are diverse, but we have not yet addressed the anxiety associated with the most significant types of diversity. 

If we are to understand ourselves, if we are to develop some authentic sense of self in these chaotic times, we cannot afford to ignore those that are different. We cannot afford to isolate ourselves. If we want to truly know ourselves and if we want to create a society that allows us, and others, to be authentically who we are, we must overcome our fear of difference and talk to people with whom we differ. 


Matthew Sayers is Professor of Religion teaching in the Social Justice and Civic Engagement Program at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Feeding the Dead: Ancestor Worship in Ancient India (Oxford, 2013). Matt’s essay, “The Story of Me: A Myth-understanding of Vocation” appeared in Hearing Vocation Differently: Meaning, Purpose, and Identity in the Multi-Faith Academy, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford, 2019).

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