Couples Therapy Principles in the Design of the Braver Angels Red/Blue Workshop
By Bill Doherty
This is going to be an academic-type discussion on how couples therapy informed the design of the Braver Angels Red/Blue workshop. It was requested by a group of researchers studying the effects of this workshop. They noted that the design of the Braver Angels Red/Blue workshop was based on thinking that differed from standard models of inter-group relations, and they asked me to articulate the influence of couples therapy on the workshop design in a way they could reference in their research paper being prepared for publication. (By the way, they found that the workshop does reduce polarization!)
In reality, I designed the Red/Blue workshop without consciously and explicitly spelling out couples therapy principles. Those principles were with me intuitively, along with other principles and methods I’ve learned over the years about designing experiential group activities. For those, I particularly credit the ground breaking work of Laura Chasin and Dick Chasin, family therapists who created the Public Conversations Project in 1989 (now named Essential Partners) to apply family therapy principles to divisive social issues such as abortion (Chasin et al. 1996). I also learned about designing group processes from the National Training Labs (now known as the NTL Institute) in the 1970s.
Couples therapy principles and strategies make sense for the Red/Blue workshop because we are dealing with a conflicted and polarized political duo (Republicans and Democrats), unlike in other nations where there are often multiple political parties. These U.S. parties, like two parents in a family, are responsible for leading the country. When they and their adherents polarize and come to disdain one another, as has occurred over the past thirty years, the country suffers (Finkel et al., 2020). And like a couple who remain responsible for their children no matter what happens to their own relationship, reds and blues cannot simply walk away from each other. Neither side can “divorce” and move to a different country. For these reasons and others, the metaphor of marriage counseling has captured the attention of the media and the public. So it’s time to spell out how couples therapy principles have influenced the design of the Red/Blue workshop. (In a separate piece, I will describe how couples therapy has influenced the design of other Braver Angels workshops.)
For a delineation of core principles of couples therapy, I am using the work of Benson, McGinn, and Christensen (2012) in their article titled “Common Principles of Couple Therapy.” The authors set out to characterize the active ingredients or mechanisms of change across the leading evidence-based models of couples therapy. Benson and colleagues articulated five principles that underlie effective therapy for distressed couples. These are:
- Altering views of the relationship away from one-sided assignment of responsibility.
- Modifying dysfunctional interactional behavior (particularly toxic conflict)
- Eliciting avoided private behavior (such as sharing of vulnerability and affection)
- Improving communication
- Promoting strengths
I will next relate these principles to the design and process of the Red/Blue workshop. Note that the workshop also involves a number of standard group process methods such as having clear ground rules, intervening when ground rules are not followed, and combining pair, subgroup, and whole group conversations.
Altering perceptions of the other and the relationship away from one-sided assignment of responsibility
The Red/Blue workshop has three activities designed to help reds and blue see each other in a more complex way and reduce the tendency to see the other side as primarily responsible for the nation’s problems.
- The stereotypes exercise, which is expanded from the original design by Dick Chasin, invites each group to reflect on how they are seen in stereotyped fashion by others, to correct those stereotypes, and to acknowledge kernels of truth in those stereotypes (the kernels of truth part is an innovation in the Red/Blue workshop). The correcting the stereotypes part of the exercise gives each group (reds and blues) a deeper understanding of how the other group sees themselves in terms that feel accurate. The kernels of truth part encourages each side to be humble and vulnerable by stating how they may be contributing to polarization. It also encourages the other group to soften judgmental attitudes through witnessing this self-criticism. The goal is that both sides realize that the political “Other” is more thoughtful and self-reflective than previously imagined.
- At a process design level, I also want to note that because the stereotypes exercise is intended to elicit vulnerability, it’s important that they begin the activity in the separate red and blue groups with people who share their world view. Specifically, the stereotypes, corrections of the stereotypes, and the kernels of truth are developed collaboratively within each group separately, and the report out is done by one representative of the group. As for that spokesperson, the moderator nominates a group member whose contributions appear to be respected by the group and who seems comfortable with the kernels of truth.
- The fishbowl exercise invites each side to articulate the best parts of their own values and policies as well as their reservations or concerns about their own side. (The other side observes with no interaction, and then the two sides switch.) The first question (“How are you side’s values and policies good for the country?”) is designed to give the fishbowl observers unfiltered access to the ideals of those on the other side—seeing them as principled citizens who care about the country. The second question (“What are our reservations or concerns about your own side?”) is designed to elicit the kind of introspective self-criticism that moves participants away from one-sided explanations for the country’s polarization.
- The questions and answers exercise allows participants to pose queries that lead to thoughtful answers instead of defensive retorts. The process of generating the questions shows participants how easy it is to ask “gotcha,” polarizing questions (which they realize they are as prone to do as the other side), and guides them in developing and asking non-polarizing ones. Similarly, receiving generally thoughtful, non-antagonistic answers further augments the sense that the problems in the country are not one sided in responsibility.
Modifying dysfunctional interactional behavior
The workshop targets three common dysfunctional patterns: failure to listen to people on the other side, asserting only positives about one’s own side and only negatives about the other side, and looking for opportunities to catch the other side in mistakes or contradictions. The workshop process adapts couples therapy techniques to inhibit these negative patterns and substitutes alternative ones.
- The workshop design gives a number of opportunities to listen without responding, particularly in the fishbowl activity where participants are directed to listen and learn about those in the middle see themselves. The ground rule for the exercise prohibits verbal and nonverbal responses when in the outside circle, which frees people up to quietly listen. Participants often note that observing and listening with no expectation of replying frees them to pay attention to others’ perspectives in a new way. Asking one spouse to listen and not interrupt while the therapist is talking with their partner is a common technique in couple therapy that leads people to see their spouse in a more complex way.
- When participants are invited to respond to what they heard, the main question throughout the workshop is, “What did you learn about how the other side see themselves, and did you see anything in common?” This question focuses on understanding the other rather than reacting to the other, and on searching for what is shared rather than focusing on what divides. A common couples therapy technique is to ask one spouse to summarize what they heard their partner say, and without commenting on the validity of what they said.
- The questions and answers exercise provides a disciplined way to query others without “correcting them” or engaging in argument before understanding them—two of the most common dysfunctional interactions that occur in conversations about politics. In couples therapy, the analogue technique is called “checking out,” where spouses are directed to ask a question to the other rather than assuming they already know the negative attitude or belief the other one has.
- Moderators are trained to hold participants to the general ground rules and the specific process for each exercise, and to intervene immediately if someone diverges from the kind of interaction expected for each exercise. Unlike in some other group processes, we do not let negative interactions occur and then process them—we redirect or block off-process sharing. The reason is that trust is often so low between reds and blues, and the workshop so brief, that it could be hard to recover a positive group process if we allowed participants to diverge from the expectations for each exercise. (At the outset of the workshop, in the ground rules section, participants give the moderator permission to intervene in this way.) This is similar to the micro-process many couples therapists use: interrupting and redirecting if one of the spouses interrupts the other, speaks for the other, or puts the other down in a session.
- For example, in the fishbowl exercise, participants are instructed to speak only about their own side (contributions and reservations) and to refrain from making comparisons with the other side, or even mentioning the other side. If someone mentions the other side, even in a benign sounding way (“Of course, both side are too dependent on big money interests”), the moderator intervenes to remind the participant to speak only about their own side, even if they believe their point refers to the other side as well. The explanation is that it’s harder to really listen and take in what others are saying if they are characterizing one’s own side.
Eliciting Avoided Private Behavior (encouraging vulnerability and sharing of unexpressed emotions)
- As mentioned, the stereotypes and questions and answers exercises elicit the kind of vulnerability rarely displayed in political conversations.
- In the weekend version of the Red/Blue workshop, and in adaptations for involve public officials for whom the stereotypes exercise would be too threatening (particularly sharing kernels of truth which they might worry could go public), we use the following question: “What life experiences have influenced your values and beliefs about public policy and the public good?” Each participants gets four minutes to answer that question, and then the group reflects on what they learned from sharing and from listening to others. This exercise elicits personal stories that are rarely shared in inter-group interactions. It’s akin to couples therapists inviting spouses to reflect on how their personal background and family of origin experiences have influenced their current emotionality about a marital issue.
Improving communication skills
Although the Red/Blue workshop does not explicitly teach communication skills, participants learn to listen more intently, to speak for self and not characterize others’ beliefs, look for common ground, and pose good questions of understanding while staying in an attentive mode when receiving answers. These are standard skills that therapists help couples learn.
- The exercises give participants a chance to articulate the best aspects of their own side, including how their beliefs are good for the country.
- The workshop’s emphasis on humility and self-criticism can be viewed as promoting strengths. Strong individuals and groups strive for accurate, balanced views of self.
- The final exercise, where participants articulate how they want to contribute personally and collectively to the work of depolarization, gives an opportunity to reflect on the capacities of each person and each side to make a difference in their everyday lives, their community, and the larger world.
- Finally, at the end of the workshop when participants checkout and then do a group photo, they often express pride in having participated well in a healing experience for those involved and for the country.
- Contemporary approaches to couples therapy take an “assets-oriented” approach to emphasize couples strengths while working to offset their weaknesses.
In the Braver Angels spirit of humble self-reflection, I want to end by noting limitations of couples therapy as a guide to Braver Angels work. First, the red/blue divide in the United States has many more facets than an interpersonal therapy model can address, including institutions of power, large sums of money, continual jockeying for media attention, mass campaigns, lobbyists, and impersonal relationships between people with elected and appointed positions. Second, the Red/Blue workshop brings small groups together to get beyond stereotypes and find common ground, but it does not launch participants into immediate civic engagement. (Some participants do go on to join Braver Angels Alliances.) Third, a too-literal use of couples therapy tools, which focus on committed, intimate relationships and involve accessing deep emotion, would not be constructive in a civic conversation like the Red/Blue workshop. Reds and blues did not choose each other; they find themselves having to deal with each other in a highly polarized environment.
With that said, there is a reason why so many of journalists and fellow citizens are drawn the idea of marriage counseling for America. As mentioned before, reds and blues share responsibility for the national welfare, and they are getting along poorly. As a red workshop participant said a couple of years ago, “Neither side is going to finally defeat the others, so we better figure out a way to get along and run the country together.” A basic goal of couples therapy, after all, is to help people get along better.
Benson, L. A., McGinn, M. M., & Christensen, A. (2012). Common principles of couple therapy. Behavior Therapy, 43, 25-35.
Chasin, R., Herzig, M., Roth, S., Chasin, L., Becker, C. & Stains, R. R. (1996) Mediation Quarterly, 13, 323-344.
Finkel, E. J., Bail, C. A., Cikara, M., Ditto, P. H., Iyengar, S., Klar, S., Mason, L., McGrath, M. C., Nyhan, B., Rand, D. G., Shitka, L. J., Tucker, J. A., van Bavel, J. J., Wang, C. S., & Druckman, J. N. (2020). Political sectarianism in America. Science, 370, 533–536.