Caroline Mehl: Helping People Communicate Across Divides

Philanthropy Roundtable recently spoke with Caroline Mehl, co-founder and executive director of the Constructive Dialogue Institute. In her role, Caroline advises workplaces, universities, philanthropists and communities on how to create more open and inclusive cultures. The Constructive Dialogue Institute offers a training program called Perspectives that helps individuals from varied backgrounds communicate across the areas that might divide them.

Q: Tell us your story – how did you get involved in this space?

I started my career working in private equity but very quickly realized it wasn’t the right fit for me. I realized I wanted to do work that would have more of a social impact. 

I became very interested in the intersection of psychology and social entrepreneurship. I started to think about how we could leverage insights from psychology and make them more accessible to individuals, organizations and society. On a parallel track, as the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I grew up hearing stories about the persecution and oppression of European Jews on the basis of their religion. That sparked my interest in learning more about the psychology behind prejudice and out-group animosity — to try to understand how could this happen in a society.

One lesson I learned was there’s a very clear path from having contempt for others to dehumanizing them, and ultimately being willing to commit violence against them. I became really concerned about that trajectory, and I also started to notice those same kinds of dangerous themes cropping up in the United States. Those trends were growing more and more alarming, especially around the 2016 election. That prompted me to co-found the Constructive Dialogue Institute — which was previously known as OpenMind — with psychologist Jonathan Haidt in 2017.

Q: What is the Constructive Dialogue Institute and what is its purpose?

The Constructive Dialogue Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to equipping people with the mindset and skill set to communicate across divides. Jon Haidt and I were troubled about the fact that, as a society, we’ve been growing more and more divided. When we founded the organization, we felt Americans had lost the ability to communicate across our differences. And we wanted to do something about that.

Our main offering at the Constructive Dialogue Institute is an online learning program called Perspectives. We’ve taken psychological insights about what leads to divisions and distilled them into bite-sized practical skills and knowledge that help foster openness to diverse perspectives and equip people with tangible strategies for navigating differences more effectively.

Q: How do you apply the Perspectives training with clients? How does it fit into their diversity and inclusion initiatives?

Many companies include Perspectives as part of their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training. Typically, companies will implement Perspectives in one of three ways. 

First, they might include it in their new employee onboarding plans. By going through this training at the outset of their time at the company, employees are given a shared language and set of skills for navigating differences. This helps lay the groundwork for employees to discuss complex topics around DEI.

The second main approach employers might take is including Perspectives in leadership development trainings. These can be manager trainings or other types of instruction where they’re aiming to prepare leaders to provide environments where people feel included, where there is psychological safety and where the leaders themselves can model these types of principles and practices to their own direct reports.

The third approach to implementing Perspectives is making the program available across the organization as a whole. Some companies put Perspectives on their internal learning management system and inform employees about its availability. Companies also organize cohorts where employees can attend trainings with their colleagues. This provides employees with the flexibility to complete the online learning independently, and it also provides experiential learning with their colleagues.

Q: What type of clients do you typically serve, and what needs are they looking to fill in hiring you?

We work with a variety of institutions, including colleges and universities, high schools, nonprofits, for-profits, foundations and local government. The main thing our corporate clients are seeking is a way to adapt to the tremendous changes in workplaces in recent years. Increasingly, as social and political issues have ramped up on the national level, those same issues are seeping into workplaces. That has led to a lot of internal conflicts, and many companies are now trying to address these challenges.

Q: How does the Perspectives training work?

Perspectives is a blended learning program. It has eight interactive online lessons that each take about 30 minutes to complete, and it also includes a peer-to-peer component. The eight interactive online lessons are intended to be completed asynchronously. Employees can access this online learning on their own and complete it independently, and each of the lessons is highly interactive and adaptive.

We also recommend that employees are assigned a partner. Over the course of the program, they are able to meet one-on-one and participate in four peer-to-peer conversations, which are about 30 to 45 minutes each. In each of these conversations, participants receive a conversation guide that provides everything they need to participate in the discussion. This helps them stay accountable for completing the program and gives them the opportunity to practice their skills.

At the end of the online program, we encourage employees to participate in a capstone session, where they have the opportunity to come together, reflect on what they learned online and discuss how they can put those lessons into practice in their day-to-day work.

In addition to our online learning program, we offer in-person training sessions. These are typically intended for company leadership, and we teach the same concepts but through live workshops. We also either lead the capstone workshops ourselves or we offer a “train the trainer” model, where we train facilitators in-house at companies to be able to lead those workshops themselves.

Q: How is your approach both similar and different from the typical DEI approach?

There are three main things that differentiate us from most traditional DEI trainings:

The focus of our program: Traditional DEI trainings are typically about issues related to race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. We don’t explicitly dig into those topics. Instead, we focus on differences related to divergent perspectives, beliefs and values. We view Perspectives as providing foundational training that prepares employees to delve into those other topics.

The approach of our program: This isn’t true of all DEI trainings, but I know that there are critiques of certain DEI trainings that some of them tend to engage in “group essentialism” and explicitly try to make participants feel a sense of shame due to aspects of their identity. Science tells us these types of approaches are often ineffective and can even backfire by making people feel extremely defensive. Instead, we focus on emphasizing each person’s individuality, recognizing that a person’s identity is incredibly complex –  we all defy any simplistic labels. We also take a non-judgmental approach, where we focus on explaining key aspects of human psychology and tendencies that we’re all prone to due to our psychological wiring.

Our commitment to research: This work is tricky and delicate. A lot of good intentions can go awry. You might think that by teaching a certain thing in a particular way, you’ll achieve a positive outcome. But human beings are complex, and they might not respond as you were hoping. We believe it’s important to actually measure how these types of trainings are impacting the individuals involved. As such, we take a rigorous approach to not just teaching evidence-based practices, but also conducting research on an ongoing basis to evaluate the effectiveness of our tools. Based upon that research, we are constantly refining our tools to ensure they’re as effective as possible.

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