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This Thanksgiving, can family and friends have productive discussions about Israel and Gaza? Maybe.

John Sarrouf from Essential Partners, shown at a training, teaching a dialogue framework to others who will help opposing parties come together and talk. In November, for instance, a group who went through a similar training at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester,  Massachusetts, led campus dialogues about the conflict in Israel and Gaza.
Submitted
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Buck Butler / Essential Partners
John Sarrouf from Essential Partners, shown at a training, teaching a dialogue framework to others who will help opposing parties come together and talk. In November, for instance, a group who went through a similar training at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, led campus dialogues about the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

The conflict between Hamas and Israel has caused significant political fallout in the United States, along with an uptick in hate speech and incidents of violence on college campuses and elsewhere.

As family and friends come together for various holidays this and next month, they may be tempted to talk about this and other divisive issues. But will they? We took an informal survey in western Massachusetts.

"At Thanksgiving, we probably will not be talking about the Hamas-Israel crisis. We try to stay away from politics and religion," said Brian Konieczny. "We have some opinionated people, yes."

"Most of my friends are not political, so they probably wouldn't talk about that stuff. But if it does come up, it'll probably be, especially with my daughter," Cheryl Whalen said. "I wouldn't say she's political, but she has her own way of thinking and it makes me stop and think about it."

"[My] family's not political at all. I really have no input on anything" Jack Conroy said. "There have been protests and rallies and stuff, but, I kind of stay out of it."

"I mean, I might bring it up in terms of how upsetting it all is. I think about how how we're all feeling about it," Sarah Hoxie said. "I mean, I'm a therapist, so I'm always talking about feelings. There's a lot of people telling you what you're supposed to think and feel, and being angry if you don't think or feel the way they do. And that makes, I think, people really scared to say what they actually think."

Is it possible to have productive Thanksgiving conversation about the war between Israel and Hamas when people disagree so strongly?

Maybe — with some agreements in place, said John Sarrouf from Essential Partners, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, nonprofit that works with colleges, businesses and others to help people talk through their differences.

But even if friends and family members agree to talk about the war, Sarrouf said, it's not going to be easy.

John Sarrouf: Well, if this is a conversation that people want to have, and I think it's important for people to be willing to have it in order for it to go well — I mean, the question would also then be, why are we having it?

Maybe this is an opportunity for you to share some of what matters to you, how you've come to your beliefs, what you most care about — and for me to do the same. Not to convince each other. If we're dug in, we probably won't be convinced.

Now, if you go into it with that orientation, that's a very different conversation, and there are different possibilities.

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: It sounds actually really difficult to even get to that point, if people have strong beliefs. But not impossible. There has to be some agreement, I understand, to get into this dialog. If you're going to have a conversation about this situation, what are those agreements that have to be put in place first?

One of the things we know about arguments is that they're fast-paced. You say something, I cut you off because I disagree with something, so I don't let you finish.

One way to disrupt that pattern of argument is to just say, "Let's have an agreement: We don't interrupt each other. let each other finish our speaking. Let's speak about our own experience and from our own learning rather than on behalf of other people — which is to say, I'm not going to say, 'People who are like that are this, this and this.' No, we're going to speak from my experience."

That helps us get more personal. It helps us get more specific, to not overgeneralize. So there are just some agreements like that that help us not get into a cycle of an argument.

It sounds to me like one of the most important agreements in having this conversation is that you're not trying to convince somebody to change their mind.

You know, if your purpose is to try to convince people, well, then just name that — "I want to convince you that you're wrong." Our experience is that that doesn't go very well because people listen differently and they are defensive and they aren't willing to speak about what they really care about because they're worried that somebody's going to take their words and twist them.

So we start almost all of our dialogs with an agreement that we're not here to try to persuade each other, but to understand better, to learn from each other and to learn something about ourselves.

I mean, that's one of the most exciting things about a good dialogue is that I come away from that experience feeling like I understand my own beliefs a little bit better.

When we're in that place where we're not trying to convince each other, I'm actually more likely and willing to share complexities in my own beliefs than I would if I were in a debate where I'm trying to win.

So how are you going to pull somebody in? You're not trying to change their opinion. What are the ways?

Three really important questions can go a long way in helping people understand each other.

The first is, could you share a story that would help me understand how you've come to the beliefs that you have about this issue?

The second is, what is at the heart of this for you? What value or commitment drives your beliefs about this? Why is that value or commitment important to you? Where does it come from for you?

And the third, and this is really powerful — are there ways in which you feel pulled in different directions? Are there complexities here, or questions that you have even about your own beliefs?

And that gives me an opportunity to share that this is my firm commitment. This is my belief. And yet, at the same time, I acknowledge and I understand these other concerns and beliefs.

Those three questions are magic in terms of helping people have a productive conversation about these very difficult issues.

John, you're not going to be at the table, I know this, when people are having these conversations. And very seriously, people have to self moderate, they have to be willing — those agreements, these questions.

Does the dialogue have to be 50/50? Do I have to allow the person I'm talking to to go through all three of those questions before I speak? Do I have to hit No. 3, which sounds like it is the most important, the nuances of my opinion, that I'm a little bit torn about how I believe in something?

It is for us about a commitment to sharing the space. We're not going to hold a timer for each other, though — in our own work — sometimes we do that when things are particularly polarized. So, it's really about internalizing a commitment to stay in relationship with each other, to listen and be listened to.

Having those questions, if you if you want to print them out and put them there and offer them, I think that is a powerful and useful way to proceed.

And then feel free to ask each other questions, but let them be genuinely curious questions. Questions that aren't rhetorical, aren't judgments. "Gosh, I want to know more about that. Why is that important to you? Where did that come from for you?" They're not easy conversations.

Not everybody will do this. Not everybody can do this. Not everybody wants to do this.

Not everybody will and some people are going to, in the midst of this, get pretty engaged and perhaps, you know, find themselves in a place where they're struggling to listen. And it's OK to call a time-out, to say, "You know what? I said that I was willing to do this. And now I find myself so angry about this moment, I think I need to take a break because it's not going to be productive after this. "

That's a fine place to be. Just pausing and slowing things down is a great way to help people have a better conversation.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."

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