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In Polarizing Times, the ‘Fine Art’ of Tough Conversations

How to find common ground? From political dialogues to family dinners, Aftab Erfan holds the key. A Tyee Q&A.

Christopher Cheung 15 Sep 2023The Tyee

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter @bychrischeung.

Is our society becoming more polarized?

It sure feels that way, with hard divisions of opinion on everything in recent years from masks and vaccines, gender inclusivity, decolonization efforts, drug policy, police budgets and resource extraction, all the way down to bike lanes and street parking.

“I think we are in a very polarized time,” says Aftab Erfan, the new executive director of Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

“I think COVID has made it worse. Because we were so separated physically, we’ve lost a bit of skill in being in good conversation together. And of course, we have so many contentious things as a society that we need to talk about.”

Erfan is no stranger to contention.

In 2017, she stepped into the role of director of dialogue and conflict engagement at the University of British Columbia, working with faculty and students alike. In 2020, she became the first chief equity officer at the City of Vancouver. She also holds a PhD in community and regional planning and taught in the field at UBC for about a decade.

The Centre for Dialogue, which Erfan joined last month, convenes public dialogues at the request of governments, leads public programming projects for SFU and offers a signature course called the Semester in Dialogue with intensive study on a single topic, such as the future of housing or health care.

“It’s not an easy time to come back into the field, but it’s an interesting time,” says Erfan.

She compares debates to a ping-pong match.

“It’s very fast. It goes back and forth, and it escalates as it does.”

How to slow down exchanges between parties to find some common ground?

As students head back to school, governing bodies resume their meetings, and family dinners for Thanksgiving and the Mid-Autumn Festival loom in the near future, Erfan offers some tips on effective dialogue.

Here is our wide-ranging Q&A with her on tough conversations inside big institutions, why in-person or Zoom are better than social media and whether it’s a bad idea to start an argument with your stubborn uncle.

What’s it like coming into a place called the Centre for Dialogue after so much pandemic dialogue over Slack and Zoom?

This moment is exciting because there’s this appreciation for what it means to gather again, now that we more or less can with some caution. I do think Zoom calls and that kind of thing will still continue. You can still create pretty good dialogic spaces as long as people are not anonymous.

What role do you see the Centre for Dialogue playing in the region and beyond?

To both convene around the contentious things and some of the things that are not yet contentious, but could become daily disagreements. We can get ahead of some of those, have conversations and possibly prevent further polarization if we can work through the things we are struggling with societally.

Moving into the role, what I’m thinking about are the basic skills for being in dialogue. Not that we can reduce the polarization by removing contentious issues: they’re here to stay. But if people have a little bit more ability to listen, frame their opinions and their facts — those kinds of micro-skills are very helpful.

What are the pitfalls of social media as a space for dialogue?

A little bit of controversy goes a long way. On social media, it’s a way to get likes and followers and attention, sometimes at the expense of nuance. A lot of simple and strong statements are being made. But what are we missing in this picture?

“Online disinhibition” means that we don’t have the social pressures and protocols that work when we are in person together. They disappear. So we’ve become, in some ways, more direct, more bold, but also more careless and less nuanced in how we discuss things. If we’re going to work through some of the big questions that are before us, recognizing the humanity of people and being relational is really important.

(The caveat to that is I’m an older millennial and there are probably corners of social media that I don’t understand at all!)

You’ve worked as UBC’s director of dialogue and conflict engagement and I can’t help but zero in on the “conflict” part of your title. What’s it like wading into conflicts at a large post-secondary institution?

I actually got to choose my title at UBC. I felt dialogue and conflict engagement really go hand in hand. I don’t think that in this day and age you can expect to have dialogue without having capacity for conflict management because it’s going to come into the mix. I did do a lot of work with members of faculty, who have all kinds of conflict with each other, intellectual and personal. There were also interesting opportunities to work with students.

During my PhD, I was digging into some of the tools for conflict engagement and there’s a body of work called deep democracy. It was developed in post-apartheid South Africa. The core concept of it is that when there’s a difference of opinion, it’s better to create conditions to go towards it, rather than try to step away from it. Conflict actually grows if we step away from it and pretend it’s not there.

Can you share some examples of conflicts you waded into?

One that stands out in my mind was with a Muslim students’ club. They were noticing some gender dynamics with women feeling excluded and how much space men were taking. So we convened a dialogue about gender in the Muslim community.

Everyone stood in the room and somebody would speak their opinion. If people agreed, they went towards them. If they disagreed, they went somewhere else in the room. The nice thing about this methodology is that often something would be said, and you would move towards it, but then something completely different would be said, and you would also agree with that.

[For example], thinking women should just be brave, take up more space and that it’s on them to step up. And then another part that thinks, no, that’s not for women to do. Men should be creating more space for that to happen. Both of which are true and correct to some degree. It’s a way of bringing in our internal multiplicity: conflicts that emerge in groups are even within ourselves. If we can own some of that, it actually reduces the level of conflict.

Another was maybe one of the most contentious dialogue spaces that I held. We had some student equity champions and we also had a group of free speech proponents, advocating for bringing in underrepresented and critical voices, and sometimes those voices would be critical of equity and inclusion. There was a lot of tension.

The equity students decided that they needed to reach out to the other side. They invited the free speech students to a dialogue, which I facilitated for them.

We spent the first hour of the session making safety rules and some agreements about how we were going to talk to each other. The way I do it in the deep democracy methodology is that there’s no standard set of agreements. It really depends on the group and what makes sense for them. They recognized that they would have a lot of conceptual, philosophical, political and ideological disagreements. They agreed that they would go into those, but that they wouldn’t use supercharged words that were weaponized in a way, thrown around on the internet, that tends to really upset people. Like “race-baiter,” playing the race card. And “fascist” and “neo-Nazi.”

I think it was a brilliant agreement. It shifted the nature of the conversation because so much of this often becomes a war of words with these loaded terms. I think that this group of students did a really great job of dealing with that issue so that they could actually have a little bit of conversation with each other.

They didn’t solve all of their disagreements, but in my view, that’s what universities are about: spaces where we can expand our thinking and be exposed to new ideas, including ones that we don’t agree with. We can learn how to do that responsibly, how to do that without being cruel or dehumanizing other people. It’s a fine art, not trivial by any means, and the kind of art that we need to learn to be able to be together.

From UBC, you went on to work for another large institution: the City of Vancouver as the first chief equity officer. What’s it like doing that work for a government body that historically had a lack of equity and still struggles with it today?

I think most of the explicitly racist policies that the City of Vancouver used to have, have been replaced, like policy that said certain racial categories can’t live in this neighbourhood. Now, it’s much more nuanced, it’s much more subtle and implicit. I would see policies or processes that the city was enacting and embodying which were intended to do something good, like being financially responsible or creating order, but at the same time, were marginalizing a lot of people. My take is that, for the most part, the folks that are working for local governments aren’t intentional about trying to create discrimination.

In February, there was a motion brought to city council that asked for help, for staff to look at all of the city bylaws and determine which ones we need to revise to bring an equity lens into it. For example, the question of whether the snow removal bylaw is discriminatory is very interesting.

The bylaw right now says you must clear the sidewalk in front of your home within 24 hours, otherwise you’d get fined. There’s a good reason for that bylaw. But if you’re an older person or a person with a disability, you more than likely don’t have the capacity to clear snow from your own driveway. So you can get charged, but your disability or your stage of life is not taken into account. So there’s probably something about that bylaw that’s a little bit unfair, if not discriminatory, that we could be rethinking, making accommodations for the different levels of ability for different ways of being in the world.

I think at this moment, the devil is really in the detail — and so is all of the potential. I feel like it’s an exciting moment, because places like Vancouver are looking at very specific things like that. There’s big moves to make for equity, but a lot of what creates inequities is in the details. Through a hundred little things, that’s how you move the needle.

Your time at the city spanned the pandemic. What was engagement like?

During COVID, when all the public hearings and council presentations went online, we did actually see more participation, including more participation from some large marginalized communities that we weren’t seeing before. It did remove some of those barriers for participation, having an ability to speak directly to politicians or joining different committees.

For women with small children, it’s a lot of work to organize babysitting so they get to go and speak to council. But if you can log in for maybe 15 minutes of your time and your children are in the background, it makes it possible to participate, even when you have a demanding life like that. It’s the good and bad of technology.

You are also a planner by profession. What do you make of many of the debates we’re having in our region that have to do with choices about managing growth?

I think of it in the context of climate change, which is driving a lot of conversation about where growth should happen, where to have transit and how to get people out of cars. Can the planet sustain [how we’re living now]? On the other hand, I think people are scared and want to hold onto their comfort and their ways of being. At a moment where the climate crisis is asking us to be more open minded and try new things, we are also called into this protectionist stance of not wanting our neighbourhood to change and stay in our cars.

We have to have the ability to think beyond our own self-interest if we are going to survive. I don’t know if that’s too philosophical, but that’s what I see.

You talk about “dialogic spaces.” What makes a good one?

The first thing that comes to my mind is basic warmth and a sense of welcome.

One of the practices that I like when I’m convening is bringing in a red carpet and putting it in the front of the room. So as people are walking in, there’s this sense of honouring the people who are coming to speak, whether they agree with each other or not. The carpet and food in the room are visual cues for extra civility.

I think the facilitator’s skill is probably the most important thing in the room for dialogue to happen, to make sure that the marginalized voices are heard. I’m also talking about ideologically marginalized voices, such as conservative voices in a liberal environment. The facilitator needs to use their power and position to give that voice a chance to be heard, not necessarily to be proven true, but to get a hearing. If it doesn’t, it will become more and more extreme over time.

I think you can develop that capacity for yourself so that when you’re sitting at a dinner table with three other people, you can hear your own voice, but also bring out the voice of other people.

Speaking of the dinner table… in recent years, there has been no shortage of tough topics for people to dialogue about, especially with friends who might see things differently or that stubborn uncle at a family gathering. How do we have these conversations with people close to us?

I actually think that your own family members are the most difficult people to have this kind of conversation with. I don’t recommend that people try to convince their uncle. With families, there’s so much else going on. You have the ideological differences or some sort of viewpoint difference, but they’re also family, with issues of power, about who took care of whom and it’s all very charged. It mostly goes very badly.

What I would do is try to actually get third-party support for something like that, the equivalent of a facilitator, therapist or mediator. It’s very hard to be in conflict and also be reasonable. And just remember to listen to the other person and also step back to remember the bigger picture.

Friendships, I think, are actually the better space for that because there’s an ethics of caring for each other. We mostly choose our friends. Without the complications of family, it’s a good container for having some of the more contentious conversations.

What’s rewarding about this work?

Maybe this is a bit of a Canadian thing, but a lot of us think we can’t have this or that conversation because it’s not going to go well. The fear of talking about it is kind of paralyzing. It feels very good to be able to take people who disagree through a conversation — even if they don’t resolve everything.

Sometimes, people will have big insights or a kind of softening and they’ll take responsibility for what they’ve said or done. I’ve had people apologize in spaces that I’ve held, and I think that’s so healing. Those moments are very special and they renew my faith in humanity a little bit. I feel very proud when those moments are possible.  [Tyee]

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