A better way to talk about our differences

Amanda Ripley
Amanda Ripley

You know well that awkward moment. You are chatting with someone you thought you knew when, suddenly, you pick up a cue. The two of you disagree about something divisive.

It might be the mention of a politician. Or an issue. Or even a frown at what you just said. Now what do you do?

You could plunge right in, convinced you are right. Surely this person will see that! But deep inside, you know this almost never happens. Odds are, both of you will walk away frustrated, wounded and maybe even angry.

More likely, you will change the subject. Or find someplace else you need to be. But that sends a signal, too. Now, both of you have reason to be wary.

Either outcome is bad for you, and still worse for our country. How will we function as a democracy if our citizens can’t even exchange views?

We won’t. And that’s why Amanda Ripley, a noted journalist and author, set out to understand what it will take to revive that honest give-and-take that once helped us sort out our differences.

Ripley spent months talking to experts whose job it is to get people talking again: psychologists, diplomats, marriage counselors, lawyers and members of the clergy. All work in a realm known as conflict mediation.

And, she says she has good news. Some of what’s working for them can also work for you. Yes, our divisions run deep. But there are ways to make that conflict useful, rather than toxic.

“There is a real divide and it is quite concerning,” Ripley says. “But the way we talk about it, the way we cover it as journalists, the way we deal with it in our own lives . . . we are not actually getting to the most interesting, useful information. There is a different way to do this.”

Ripley brings that message to Queens University of Charlotte on Thursday at 7 p.m. as the keynote speaker at a forum titled “Can We Talk?”

On Friday, workshops featuring trained facilitators will teach participants techniques that they can use right away, she says. “I’ve gone through similar training and walked away with something I can use, literally, that day.”

The emphasis is on a level of listening that most people never reach in day-to-day conversations. Participants will also learn about questions that reveal more, among them: “What is oversimplified about this issue? What’s the question nobody is asking?”

Ripley has authored two best-selling books and cover stories for Time and The Atlantic. Yet she says the techniques were a revelation for her, and would be for most journalists.

“I think I’ve grown more as a journalist from this project than from almost any other,” she says.

Events are free, but seating is limited and advance registration is required ( They are a program of the North Carolina Humanities Council. Major sponsors are the Mellon Foundation, Queens and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Organizers stress that people will not be asked to change their opinions. Nor will this be a place to debate. The point will simply be to help all sides better understand opposite views.

That would be a significant step forward, Ripley says.

“We literally are not speaking the same language anymore. We need to get a little bit inside each other’s heads, even if that’s not a place we want to stay. We will never ever make progress if we can’t, on some level, understand the language the other side speaks.”

Thames, former executive editor of the Charlotte Observer, teaches journalism at Queens and is on the humanities council’s board. He helped plan this Queens event.