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Can They Undivide-us?

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Meet the Austin-based social venture determined to build bridges of understanding to replace walls of discord.

“Why is it so fun to be right?” asks Katherine Schulz, in her 2010 book “Being Wrong.” “As pleasures go, is, after all, a second-order one at best … And yet, the thrill of being right is undeniable, universal, and (perhaps most oddly) almost entirely undiscriminating. We can’t enjoy kissing just anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything.”

The hunger to be right fuels bitter debates about movies at dinner parties, directions to Omaha on long car drives, and policy visions between political candidates. Being right leaves someone else wrong. And that dark chasm between correct and incorrect, victor and loser, painfully divides party guests, married couples and the allegedly “United” States. Enter undivide-us, a new venture by Kellie Jetter and Brian Cooper, who want to turn the whole system on its head. Debating the issues isn’t going to get us anywhere, they say. We should try “undebating” them.

Undebate, a new verb the two coined, has the potential to radically transform businesses and communities—and might even save some marriages along the way. It’s also the foundation of their venture. “Undebating isn’t about giving in, or even about compromise,” explains Jetter. “It relies on co-creation, and the notion that most happen in the middle, once people feel free to move beyond their positions. That’s when the great ideas begin to flow.”

Jetter and Cooper know their subject matter first hand. Back in 2008, a consulting trip Cooper took to Ethiopia revolutionized his concept of conflict resolution. “The Ethiopian staff were split in two,” he says. “We didn’t know where the problem lay. When we spoke to everyone, it turned out to be a divide between the Christians and Muslims, and it came down to a single person, who was full of fear. He’d told himself a story, and he firmly believed in it.” Once they’d established enough trust among the team to get to the bottom of the miscommunication, Jetter explains, they could begin bridging the divide.

“Why is it so important to be right versus doing the right thing?”

In the wake of the recent election cycle, Jetter and Cooper, who both have backgrounds in spiritual psychology, in addition to significant experience with corporate consulting and entrepreneurship, began talking about a way to transcend the entrenched positions they saw all around them. Their conversation expanded to include dialogue experts, such as Elizabeth Debold and Thomas Steininger, co-founders of “One World in Dialogue,” and local psychologist and mediator Karl Slaikeu. Both helped Jetter and Cooper formulate the core methodology of undebating. These steps—identifying starting points, suspending assumptions, listening and empathizing, dialoguing to solutions and unpacking beliefs and facts—can transform businesses, communities and individuals, says Jetter. MU/ DAI, a design firm, and Emerge Dialogue loved the concept so much they’ve jumped on board as major contributors and partners.

Listening to Jetter and Cooper discuss the vision for undivide-us, their enthusiasm is infectious. It’s not just the elegance of their rhetoric (“It’s not about us, it just takes us”; “Why is it so important to be right versus doing the right thing?”). It’s that such thinking quenches a thirst I didn’t even know I had. Driving home from my first conversation with Cooper and Jetter, I found myself thinking of areas in my life that could seriously use some undebating. And the two are quick to point out ways that their personal lives have been transformed by these principles.

“Years ago, an investor in my company approached me and said, ‘Brian, do you know you have a big need to be right?’” says Cooper. “Since then, I’ve been much more aware of that attitude, and I’ve tried to be much more open.” Jetter says her family often uses the “undebate” method, and her 11-year-old daughter, Amelie, came home from school recently to announce that she’d brought undebating into her fifth grade classroom, with some stunning results. Frustration mounted when an impasse arose during a website design assignment. Amelie introduced the concept, both sides heard each other, the project proceeded and received an A+. Her teacher was so impressed she has since used their project as a model in other classes.

Like Amelie’s story, there are many examples of what happens when you let down barriers, trust your teammates, and open yourself to new input. The underlying philosophies of undivide-us aren’t new. They’ve long embraced by fields as wide-ranging as conflict resolution (“getting to yes”) and improv comedy (“yes-anding your partner”). But the enormous platform that Jetter and Cooper seek to offer these approaches with undivide-us is unprecedented, as is the company’s solution-oriented emphasis.

“Most of the work that’s been done in dialogue studies has been academic,” says Jetter. “We want to make this available to everyone.” They are in the process of developing strategic partnerships with brands and foundations, creating an original TV series (“Undebatable”) that will model the process, and nurturing a growing grassroots community. “We’re on the lookout for anyone—both businesses and individuals—who want to play a role in bridging divides,” says Jetter.

So the next time you find yourself in a pointless argument with your partner about politics, or where to find the best taco in town, why not undebate it? Sure, it feels good to be right. But who knows? Reaching right together might be what you really crave.

Read more from the Community Issue | February 2017