In an age of polarized public discourse, there aren’t many voices out there that move beyond the war of words to take a deeper look at the issues that so sharply divide us. Krista Tippett is the rare exception. An author and broadcast journalist best known for her radio show On Being (formerly, Speaking of Faith), she launched the Civil Conversations Project in 2011 to restore nuance and context to the most complex issues of our day, from abortion rights to same-sex marriage. Her soft-spoken approach belies a toughness that becomes apparent in her unflinching commitment to hold a question before opposing sides, challenging each to develop a clear understanding of how the other thinks. The point, she often says, is not to force common ground but to learn to live together with differences.

Personable and open-minded, Tippett draws from her guests an intimate honesty that often leads to unlikely friendships between otherwise bitterly divided camps. Although not a Buddhist herself, her intuitive grasp of Right Speech models a new way of engaging those we most disagree with.

Tricycle editor and publisher James Shaheen chatted with Tippett by phone in December.

I’d like to start by asking you to explain a little bit about what the Civil Conversations Project is, what you hope to achieve with it, and how you developed it. The Project started around the fall of 2010, during the polarized election season. I think one thing that’s gone wrong with public discourse is that we have an assumption, informed by our democratic process, that if we have a disagreement, at some point we’ll get on the same page about it and if not, we’ll take a vote and move on. But we’re living in this historic moment when we are visiting questions that are intimate and civilizational, and we may not fundamentally be on the same page for decades. To me the really defining question of our humanity and of our civil society right now is not can we agree. That’s kind of idealistic, and it’s not helping us. It’s more about how can we live together while we disagree about these things that are so personal. This requires much more of us spiritually and practically than the illusion that we’ll force agreement.

I was just listening to your interview with abortion rights activist Frances Kissling. Her feeling is that the pro-choice and pro-life movements have so focused on an absolute yes-or-no perspective that the context and complexity are lost. You seem to agree with her. Can you talk about that? We have all kind of unconsciously given ourselves over to a culture that says this is the way we resolve disagreement: it’s yes or no. Abortion is a great example. It’s intimate, it’s civilizational, and it’s nearly impossible to discuss that way—you’re for or you’re against—while the fact is that almost none of us are on the extreme. Few say, “It’s always great,” or “It’s always wrong.” I’m standing up for saying that “yes or no” is not the way to frame this important discussion or our encounter with people who feel differently about it than we do. With Civil Conversations, we began interviewing people who I felt brought wisdom and nourishment to the issues. We tried to reintroduce the context and the human complexity by starting every discussion in a different place than we’re used to, one that points out a lot of possibilities that remain unexplored. We got out of these well-worn grooves.

Right. We usually begin by trying to bring the other side around to our view and, if not, to find common ground. But as Frances Kissling says in the interview, common ground is not the goal: “The National Conference of Catholic Bishops could never find common ground on abortion,” she says, “but people with differences come together with the goal of getting a better understanding of why others believe what they do.” Her sense is that the pressure of coming to agreement is in fact counterproductive. We don’t hear that often, if at all. I know, it’s really countercultural, isn’t it? But it rings true in terms of what we know about our complexity as human beings.

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