Courageously Promoting Peace

By Brooke Deterline, Fred Collignon and Maxim Schrogin

At 8AM, on a clear, cool morning in late January 2017, 130 Rotarians from 20 different Clubs—some driving as many as four hours—gathered in a low-ceiled meeting room at a Berkeley Marina restaurant, getting ready to walk through conversational minefields.

These Rotarians spent the next four hours learning the science and practice of “Courageous Conversations”: evidence-based tools to have open-hearted and open-minded engagement across differences, in an effort to promote greater peace in their clubs, their communities, and their country.

Which sounds great…until you imagine actually talking with your Cousin Tim about immigration, or (heaven forbid!) being in a conversation with your best customer when it somehow turns to politics.

Just like the majority of people in the United States, an overwhelming number of Rotarians at these trainings raise their hands when asked if they feel anxious about the state of public life in the US. For the first time, Americans from across the political spectrum rank fear about the current political climate (57%) and the future of our country (66%) as a leading cause of stress—equaling or surpassing old standbys like money and work.

Said one participant in the January 2017 “Courageous Conversation” training involving Districts 5160, 5180, and 5190: “I realize how much I avoid difficult conversations.”

And yet, some 2 ½ years later, 500 Rotarians have participated in some form of Courageous Conversation training: through 20+ club trainings, breakouts at large district conferences, and two large four-hour multi-club trainings through a partnership between Courageous Leadership, LLC and Northern California Rotarians that originated with the Berkeley Club with the support of a District 5160 grant. (Courageous Leadership’s evidence-based methodology has been used in organizational settings for over a decade with organizations such as the Hewlett Foundation, Microsoft, GE, Pfizer, the Omidyar Network, MIT Sloan, Columbia Medical Center.)

As Brooke Deterline, CEO of Courageous Leadership, LLC and one of the training facilitators pointed out, there can be a counterintuitive upside to this anxiety and stress: “It can signify that we care deeply about something–if we didn’t care, we

wouldn’t be upset about it.” (Dr. Lynne Henderson, a Berkeley Rotarian, is another facilitator and creator of one of the evidence-based tools used in the training.)

At the same time, Deterline noted: “There has been a significant uptick in political engagement, and a desire to engage with people who have different ideological, cultural, and political views.”

Still, many people report feeling woefully ill-equipped for this task. But by the end of the four-hour training, Rotary participants reported:

· 94% want Rotary to continue to develop these sessions,

· 92% learned important information, and

· 86% will behave differently in the future because of the training.

According to an evaluation done by Civil Politics(run by Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at NYU and author of The Righteous Mind): “These are some of the strongest results of any group we’ve assessed.”

Haidt has for years been evaluating the results of a variety of approaches to bridging divides. Using pre- and post-testing, Rotary Courageous Conversation participants achieved statistically significant increases in:

· Sense of belonging,

· Motivation to bridge political divides, and

· Willingness to work to achieve common goals across differences.

There were other benefits as well. One Rotarian reported back to his Club: “Yes, it was helpful at work and in political conversations, but the best part was it’s been great with my wife! Learning to really listen has changed my marriage.”

As this training indicates, we can learn to override our reactions and build everyone’s capacity for civil and productive conversations and work across difference, while building our collective capacity to address and solve the challenges of our time.

Rotarians are uniquely positioned to combat the polarization that undermines peace. Rotary can leverage the success of the Rotary model: Service Above Self, creating a larger shared identity, values, and shared good work with Rotary’s influential network to help people holding disparate perspectives come together to solve problems. Rotarians do it every day in their clubs. With Rotary’s help, the proven methodology of “Courageous Conversations” has the potential to have a tremendous impact on the way people—and not just Rotarians—treat and communicate with each other in their communities. We can help us all reclaim a sense of belonging, shared humanity, and common purpose.

These events would position Rotary as a hub to learn and practice skills and increase Rotary’s visibility, membership, and community engagement.

There are many organizations that are doing this work and others that wish to do it through Rotary, both because of its extensive network and because of its reputation as a neutral and professional organization. In addition to Courageous Leadership, LLC, Mediators Beyond Borders is doing this work with Rotary Clubs in Southern California. Braver [Better] Angels and are also beginning to seek alliances with us.

The hope is that Rotarians learn these tools of civil discourse to address differences within and between clubs but also to become a community resource for the transformation of conflict on all scales. The Rotary organization can become a vital leader in reducing the polarization that is afflicting our communities. This also might help raise the profile of the Rotary Clubs everywhere.