Frenemies project participants
Two Frenemies Project participants with very different opinions discuss immigration during the workshop

Please visit for more information on the #FrenemiesDay initiative – A call for a national day of (re)friending across the divide. So let’s talk!

Frenemies Project introduction

This project is exploring if and how facilitated dialogue among individuals that hold negative perceptions of, and would rarely interact with, each other can foster mutual understanding and increase empathy. The idea is that civil discourse among these individuals will not significantly alter their values and priorities, but will increase their understanding of and respect for ‘others’, and help them to identify opportunities for coexistence and mutual gains.


From the caustic interactions characterizing the current U.S. presidential primaries to persistent disagreements around whether or not the climate is changing and what to do about it, the public seems to be increasingly polarized (Abramowitz and Saunders, 2008; McCright and Dunlap, 2011; Pew Research Center, 2014). Societal commitment to broad, inclusive discourse and a sense of shared values and goals may be declining, if it ever existed. Whether at the national or local level, we increasingly find ourselves in echo chambers of the like minded. The fragmented nature of our social interactions and atomized media exacerbate this trend; many of us get our news from outlets that closely mirror our values, interact both on social media and in the physical world with the like-minded, and even find ourselves living and working among people with similar viewpoints (Feldman et al., 2014; Sunstein, 2001). While our interactions may be limited, our perspectives of those outside our respective tribes are often adversarial, and based on caricatures. We lob insults and condescension over the line and demonstrate very little interest in understanding the ‘others’. Compromise has become a dirty word (Pew Research Center, 2014).

While balkanization into enclaves of the like-minded may be very comfortable, it constrains our ability to reach productive consensus around how best to address the pressing challenges we face. Many of our issues are collective in nature, requiring cooperation among, or at least buy-in from, multiple stakeholders, and reconciliation of various interests and priorities. Even more ominously, this balkanization can exacerbate tensions between groups that find themselves divided across political, socio-economic, racial, cultural, and other fault lines. Social harmony and any sense of interdependent wellbeing are easily degraded, but this is not costless to societies that aspire to healthy democracy, physical safety, strong social capital, and deep and widely distributed prosperity.

Goal and hypotheses

The goal of this action research project is to foster mutual understanding and increase empathy among individuals that heretofore have had little understanding of and appreciation for each other. The primary hypothesis is that structured dialogue that employs best practices to encourage deep but respectful conversations will foster understanding, enhance empathy and decrease ‘social distance’. A related secondary hypothesis is that enhanced understanding and empathy will help participants identify opportunities for substantive coexistence and even ‘mutual gains’. Last but not least, a tertiary hypothesis is that we need to be honest about the limits of dialogue and will find that, while these conversations enhance understanding and empathy, and help participants to identify opportunities for healthier and more stable coexistence, they do not significantly alter their values and priorities.


This project draws best practices from approaches that have been successful in facilitating dialogue among groups with deeply held differences, and histories of animosity and even oppression. They include practices employed in efforts to mediate ‘deep value differences’ (Forester, 1999), seek ‘mutual gains’ (Susskind and Field, 1996), and facilitate ‘truth and reconciliation’ (Hayner, 2011). These approaches are generally rooted in the notion of ‘communicative’ or ‘collaborative’ rationality (Habermas, 1984; Healey, 1992; Innes and Booher, 2010). That is, the belief that a group can come to a shared sense of reason when they engage in ‘authentic dialogue’ (i.e., free, open and inclusive discourse involving debate, learning and creativity).

The Frenemies Project is being implemented via facilitated, roughly half-day workshops. They may focus on virtually any issue, from gun control to local land use disputes. The workshops involve: participation in a role-play simulation exercise, one-on-one discussions post-exercise between individuals from each side of the issue, and then a whole group discussion among all participants. Workshop schedules look like this:

  • Consent process (10 minutes)
  • Pre-survey (10 minutes)
  • Introduction (15 minutes)
  • Exercise prep (10 minutes)
  • Exercise (35 minutes)
  • In-pair reflection (40 minutes)
  • Group discussion   (60 minutes)
  • Post-survey (10 minutes)

The emphasis is on fostering shared understanding and respect, while acknowledging that parties are less likely to alter their underlying values and interests. The goal is not to make participants think the same way, but rather to create spaces for more civil discourse and the discovery of potential ‘mutual gains’ and opportunities for stable and respectful coexistence. The role-play simulation exercise facilitates perspective taking by putting participants in each other’s shoes, and abstracts the discourse to avoid entrenchment (Schenk, 2014). Various other tools and approaches are loosely drawn from to facilitate more effective dialogue, including but not limited to Empathetic and dialogic listening (Stewart, Zediker and Witteborn, 2012), and the Conversation Café (2016) model.[1] An important part of the experience is giving participants the skills to engage effectively and appropriately. Participants are asked to follow ground rules that encourage difficult and probing but respectful dialogue.

The initial pilot at Virginia Tech focused on the issue of immigration and the place of immigrants in America. The workshop engaged university students and other VT affiliates here at Virginia Tech that hold very different perspectives on the issue. Participants were recruited via widely broadcasted email lists, and targeted emails to relevant student groups.

From a research perspective, participants were asked to complete pre- and post-meeting surveys to gain a better understanding of if (and how) the dialogue changes their opinions and perceptions of the ‘others’. The workshop was recorded and coded for analysis. Last but not least, follow-up interviews were conducted with some of the participants in the days following to gain deeper understanding of their perceptions of the process and its outcomes.

Pilot workshop findings

A pilot workshop, which was funded by a generous grant from the VT Institute for Society, Culture and Environment,  was run at Virginia Tech in the Spring of 2016, engaging a small group of students and faculty with strong opinions around the issue of immigration in the United States. When participants arrived, they were asked to complete a pre-workshop survey and given a brief introduction to the workshop topics and agenda. They were then put into pairs and engaged in a role-play exercise – called Jordan and Jaime: The class project that gets personal – that had them reverse places with their counterparts. That is, participants with negative views of immigration in the real world were given the pro-immigration role (Jaime) and paired with those with more positive views of immigration, but that were assigned the more negative role (Jordan). The exercise, which was especially prepared for this workshop, was designed to put the participants into each other’s shoes to facilitate perspective taking and initiate dialogue. Immediately following the exercise, the participants stepped out of role but remained in their pairs, sharing their own stories and opinions, and reflecting on the exercise experience, loosely following a set of ‘debrief questions’ and ‘ground rules’ distributed. The whole group then came back together for a collective debrief. Some participants were interviewed one-on-one in the days following.

While the sample size was too small to generate any statistically significant findings, the initial findings suggest that structured dialogue among participants increased their understanding of each other. They reported that the experience helped them to appreciate the humanity and perspectives of others with very different opinions on immigration than those they hold. In the words of one participant:

The way I’ve always viewed this argument, like most I think, [is to] inherently view the other side’s argument [as coming] from emotion and our side’s from logic. And then when you are talking about it you realize that [with] your argument, you’re using a lot of personal experiences as well. Not just the other side. So you realize the way that you [are arguing] isn’t completely different like you automatically assume.

In a similar vein, another participant reflected that the experience “helped me get more conscious of the way that I try to normalize my own little, tiny spot in the world and abnormalize someone else’s; [by] simulating a different point of view, the stereotypes about the different point of view became less resilient”.

Participants found the role-play exercise experience to be particularly invaluable, but challenging. According to one participant:

It was really difficult to try and come up with the arguments, but I think it allows the discussion afterwards, when we were giving our actual views, it allowed it to be a lot more civil because […] we talked about each other’s arguments ourselves. So, it’s easier to understand them because you’ve said them yourself even if you’re not personally supporting them. It allows it to feel more acceptable, and you cannot immediately dismiss it cause you’ve said it.

 When asked about the structure of the workshop, most of which took place in pairs, participants noted that the setting played a role in keeping the discourse civil. “I think more than having [ground rules] written down or anything, I think the setting has a big influence – [You] came to have a respectful conversation, and so you’re not going to start screaming at someone [Sitting face-to-face with your counterpart] might kinda help you realize you need to keep this conversation civil enough that it won’t be the most awkward 15 minutes of your life”, said a participant. He went on to note that, in contrast: “When you argue in a group you’re instantly a lot more aggressive because you can just say your super aggressive one statement and then leave and then have everyone else have to deal with what you said rather than having to back it up yourself”.

Virtually all participants qualified that the experience did not fundamentally alter their core opinions on the issue of immigration. However, many did note that the humanization of their counterparts made them feel both more compelled to find compromises and that some sort of common ground might be possible. In the words of one:

 If you think the other person is completely foreign, […] you immediately dismiss their argument because you don’t view them as, not even like a real person sometimes, you just view them as a set of ideals that you don’t agree with. So when you make it more normal, and make it something that maybe you could find a middle ground, you feel you have to make them more like a human being, like okay, this is someone I don’t agree with everything on, but I can find a few things that I agree with. It’s not just these ideas are wrong; it’s this person- we can find some common ground here.

 In a similar vein, another participant stated in the debrief that:

Usually you don’t have discussions this in depth as much, so you only get […] the same really basic arguments over and over. So you basically look at the other side just as these things and that’s it. There’s only these arguments and nothing else. And then you get really in depth with it. You see- you’re able to find more places where you’ll at least agree on parts of it. And then it’s- you’re able to work more on finding common ground there because you disagree with the core beliefs of the side, but some of the details you can agree with. And so you’re able to find a common ground in the details even if the end result you want is different.

This pilot workshop experience suggests that there may be substantial value in bringing people with diametrically opposing opinions on a policy issue together for dialogue to increase mutual understanding and, possibly, initiate discussion on fair, efficient, stable and wise policy compromises. As a next step, we plan to organize further Frenemies Project workshops.

These findings were also shared in an op-ed in the Roanoke Times (Oct. 12, 2016).

Beyond the pilot

The Frenemies Project model may be implemented in a wide variety of contexts to facilitate healthier and more constructive dialogue. The specific policy issues tackled will vary from case to case, but should be of great importance to those engaged. Topics may include, but are certainly not limited to: Immigration; gun control; transgendered bathroom use; environmental sustainability and climate change; gay marriage; and/or religious freedom. The initiative is currently developing proposals to engage opposing groups in various communities.

[1] These are just two examples. A wide variety of other tools and approaches may be drawn from. The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation is a good source for many (see:


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