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When Divisive Discourse Seeps into Nonprofits

This year’s political discourse has been brutal. Conversations between presidential candidates quickly turn into verbal warfare, scathing social media posts solicit scathing replies, and family gatherings can get heated. Rather than two-way conversations, these political dialogues often become “mutual monologues—laced with verbal Molotov cocktails designed not to invite reflection but to discredit the other position (or person).”

While this divisiveness is particularly heightened in politics right now, it also manifests in social sector organizations. Divisive discourse often stems from deep philosophical divides. These might emerge when an organization is adopting a new strategy, shifting program direction, navigating generational differences or determining which tactics to use to achieve goals. In these situations, “mutual monologues” can severely stunt an organization’s ability to drive transformational change.

Through our work, we’ve learned the critical nature of communication and ways individuals can bridge philosophical divides. It takes specific actions with a dose of humanity—neither of which is as easy as it sounds.

How to Bridge Philosophical Divides

  1. Check in: If you see divisive discourse in your organization, explore whether the root cause is connected to a fundamental difference in values or philosophies. Naming that difference will inform your work to improve communication.
  2. Empathize: Once you’ve named any existing values divides, seek first to understand where each person’s values stem from. Design thinking touts empathy for a reason: Understanding where someone is coming from is critical in designing a solution around them.
  3. Unpack your assumptions: Walk through the situation and related feelings with all individuals involved in the discourse. Stop when you cross an assumption. Check these assumptions with relevant parties and give people, including yourself, permission to change perspective.
  4. Acknowledge power dynamics: Hierarchy can unintentionally limit open discourse. Work to understand and address power dynamics, including the power and authority within your own control. Then work collaboratively to explicitly establish a dynamic that encourages bi– and multi-directional dialogue and direct, respectful communication.
  5. Find common ground and build from there: No matter how different each person’s values or philosophies, they are likely united around driving your organization’s mission. If it’s hard to find common ground, start there.

The divisive political discourse can shine light on alternative methods social sector organizations can use to communicate and drive action. Foundations in particular have an opportunity to bridge the political divide. Though starting a productive dialogue may lead to a series of difficult conversations, and may even uncover a necessary split between an individual and an organization with unresolvable differences, it is critical in ensuring a strong organization and, ultimately, driving impact.

Photo courtesy of #WOCinTech Chat.

Lauri Valerio

About Lauri Valerio

As communications manager, Lauri Valerio works to communicate sector trends and learnings from Community Wealth Partners’ work. She creates and edits content including case studies, articles, blog posts, social media posts and proposals. See Lauri's full bio.

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