Is conversation the answer to what divides us?

World in Conversation executive director on the value of dialogue in a democracy

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — We’ve all been there: A family dinner or other event where the conversation turns toward a topic will lead to disagreement. Maybe it’s politics, or perhaps it’s something else entirely. Either way, it seems like it’s not even worth trying to have a conversation.

Laurie Mulvey, executive director of Penn State’s World in Conversation project, offered insight into how to handle those situations — and why it’s important to do so — on the latest episode of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Democracy Works podcast.

Mulvey said the key to overcoming ideological divides is getting past surface-level conflicts to forge deeper connections that transcend opposing points of view.

“We're always trying to find the beliefs that are underneath the facts,” Mulvey said. “Often times, the ground has to shake a little bit before other ideas, other facts or other information can be even considered.”

The World in Conversation has conducted more than 10,000 dialogues over the past 15 years. Each 90-minute session is lead by a trained facilitator. Many of the principles used in those conversations can just as easily apply around the dinner table or in any other impromptu situation.

The key, Mulvey said., is having a neutral third party to facilitate the discussion.

“Fundamentally, you need to be able to take all sides,” she said. “So you have to see that what your mom is thinking and saying and what your brother is thinking and saying, both have a core of truth to them.”

In addition to conducting dialogues among Penn State students, World in Conversation student facilitators have held virtual dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians and Afghan civilians and NATO cadets around the world.

In those situations, a dialogue is a first step toward finding common ground — which is an essential part of any democracy.

“Our colleagues in Afghanistan tell us that these dialogues are literally life and death for them,” Mulvey said. “When I see people in conversation, I feel hopeful about the possibilities, but you know it really requires a culture shift to make conversation important.”

Hear the full interview at or by subscribing through iTunes or Spotify. For more information on the World in Conversation, visit

World in Conversation Executive Director Laurie Mulvey discusses the role of dialogue in a democracy on the McCourtney Institute for Democracy's Democracy Works podcast. Credit: World in ConversationAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated May 21, 2018