In today’s highly charged political climate, Utah Governor Spencer Cox wants us to disagree better. He has made it his chief initiative as the new chair of the National Governors Association (NGA). And as Harvard Kennedy School Associate Professor of Public Policy Julia Minson knows from years of research, there is science behind productive disagreement.
Governor Cox joined Minson at a John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum to discuss how to help people work through differences more effectively. Cox was at HKS to kick off the first gubernatorial chiefs of staff program at the School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, a collaboration between HKS and the NGA. Many of the staffers from across the country were present at the Forum, which was co-sponsored by the Taubman Center.
“It's just impossible for our institutions to function the way they're supposed to function in a deeply polarized environment like we have today,” Cox said as he explained the 2023-24 NGA Chair’s Initiative: Disagree Better, co-developed by vice chair Governor Jared Polis (D) Colorado. “And so what we've done is take a chance with this idea of disagreeing better.”
Minson is a decision scientist whose own research addresses the psychology of disagreements—her recent work helped people around the world to engage Russians in virtual conversations about the facts of the invasion of Ukraine. She knows that the science supports the practice. And yet she recognizes that putting that science into practice is hard.
“I'm always surprised by how difficult it is to live those principles, which I know are the right things to do from the research perspective, of finding out what the other person thinks,” she told the Forum. "If I want to make better decisions, if I want to advance my cause, then I really need to say ‘tell me more.’”
Cox agreed that many roadblocks stand in the way. He half-jokingly suggested getting rid of social media. He sincerely recommended turning off cable news. “Getting outside your own bubble is so important,” he said. “Finding opportunities to have face-to-face contacts with people who are different from us is powerful and important.”
Minson noted that having elected officials model this type of positive engagement with those who disagree is a great place to start. Cox offered that people can also work within their own families or faith—“there is a peacemaking ethos in every religion,” he said—on school campuses, or in the workspace. And as Minson has shown with her work in the Minson Conflict and Collaboration Lab, even holiday dinners give us the opportunities to have better conversations.
Cox was passionate when he spoke about how we can move forward successfully. “We have to stop doing this thing where if somebody disagrees with us, we just shut them down and cancel them.” He said it can be most effective for liberals to convey this message of better listening to other liberals—and for conservatives to do the same with people from their camp. “It means we have to police our own tribe,” he said. “That’s the only way this will work.”
Photos by Bethany Versoy