Tired of our political divide? Using civic dinners and conflict styles

A few months ago I was introduced to the idea of “Civic Dinners” by Atlanta-based community activist Jenn Graham.  Her Ted Talk ( captured her journey of transforming her Atlanta community from one of division and polarization to that of collaboration and mutual respect.  Conditions she described in Atlanta mirrored much of what I see today in the United States: judgment, incivility, and silos. Her journey also mirrored what was happening in her own life, where her Facebook and Twitter posts had caused some members of her own family to stop talking to her.  Civic Dinners calls for diverse groups of community members to meet over food and conversation, all in the hopes of finding common ground around mutually important issues.

Jenn Graham’s talk was encouraging to me – the idea of transforming a community is right in line with how I want to show up.  Her Ted Talk was a call-to-action for me to break out of my conflict style of competing and try something that taps into longer-term goals of cooperation and unity for our country.  

As one of the instructors for Crucial Conversations for the University, I’ve been working with people for over 8 years to help them have honest and respectful conversations with those they live and work with.  Chances are high that our relationships with these people are built on some common ground, e.g., success of our kids and family, our collective goals at work, etc., but what happens when we feel like we will have nothing in common with someone across the political divide?            

Even though looking at different conflict styles is part of my daily practice as an Ombuds, admittedly I haven’t been using this to address my role in our nation’s divide.  The most well-known theory comes from management consultants Kenneth W. Thomas and Ralph H. Kilmann, who modified Blake and Moulton’s leadership styles in 1964.  Here’s their model:



You can see there are five styles or modes one could operate in, based on how assertive or cooperative you would like to be.  Thomas-Kilmann says we naturally operate in one or two of these, but venturing out into other modes is the ideal. Also, no style or mode is the best; there are risks and rewards to each style and what you choose should depend on what you’re wanting to achieve.  

So, think of this in terms of where we are in our nation; according to the Pew Research Center, in 2019 Republicans and Democrats are now further apart in common goals for our country than we were ten years before (  

Let’s break the Thomas-Kilmann model down in relation to this topic:

  1. Avoiding – we probably do a lot of this when we know we’ll be around people of differing political views.  Also, we’ve probably pre-determined that it “isn’t worth it” to engage with that person, that they’ll never think any differently. You might have many relatives who would fit into this category – they might even think the same of you!
  2. Accommodating – this mode or style is good to use when the other person has a lot more power than you and if you were to challenge them, you would most likely end up on the losing end.  I see this sometimes at work when a supervisor might express an opinion that will go unchallenged – most likely because those who report to this person fear speaking up would result in some form of retaliation.
  3. Compromising – we usually employ this mode when we don’t have a lot of time or need to delve into the particulars.  Maybe you and another person might “agree” that there is a lot of political division, but probably wouldn’t take the time to learn why each person thinks this is so.  
  4. Competing – here’s where we (myself included) sit most of the time with this topic.  We want to assert our opinions, our truths and often the conversation is one-sided.  We might also assert our opinion for the causes of this division.
  5. Collaboration – lastly, this style is probably the least-employed mode when it comes to discussing our political divide.  And, yet, this might be exactly the style we need to begin using in order to change our outcomes.

Let’s say you’re interested in trying the Civic Dinner idea – bringing people in your community together with diverse backgrounds in order to learn and understand from each other.  If so, your best bet if you’re going to do this is to use “Collaboration” as your mode. This win/win strategy will allow the conversation to be as successful as possible, where listening is key, sharing perspectives and learning from each other.  Here are some questions to ask yourself if you’re considering venturing into a conversation using the collaboration style:

  1. What have I already tried?
  2. Is there a possibility I could be wrong?
  3. Is there a difference in power?
  4. How important is this issue to you?
  5. Is there a relationship?

If these questions still lead you toward collaborating, listen and ask open-ended questions (“Tell me more,” “Can you help me understand?”)  Lastly, as you are in conversation, focus on a motive of learning and understanding. This is all very easy for me to encourage you to do this; I’m planning on holding a Civic Dinner this summer…stay tuned!  

By: Lisa Neale, Associate Director, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office

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