Unlike Minds and Warren George

Warren George is a walking contradiction. He’s a Quaker who volunteered to fight in the Vietnam War. Not because he believed in it, but because he thought the draft targeted people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and minorities. He’s the kind of man who donates to both Planned Parenthood and Right to Life because he thinks supporters of their organizations have equally legitimate viewpoints. He knows this because he’s talked to both sides.

When asked if he’s always found it difficult to fit into one box, George answered with a smile: “I would say that other people’s boxes didn’t fit me.” Perhaps this is why George devotes part of his life to connecting people who, at a glance, seemingly have absolutely nothing in common.

How Unlike Minds Works
George’s experience with Unlike Minds started as a participant. The program was founded around 2004 by Pat and Irma Canan. “You get eight people and you want them to be as different as possible,” George said. “Pick the people who have probably never talked to each other and, ideally, who don’t know each other.”

You would think that a group like Unlike Minds would dissolve after the first meeting –that some hot-button issue would push people right over the edge and they’d find it impossible to listen to one another. Part of the success of Unlike Minds comes from the selection process. People need to apply to be part of a group and George, like the Canans before him, uses these “biographical sketches” to choose people who are likely to succeed in this setting.

When the Canans left Corvallis, George continued the program because he found it to have so much value. He likes to stomp out what he calls bi-fractionalizing absolutisms. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but what he means is stubbornness and absolute views keep people from listening to one another. George’s aim is to show people another way to see the world.

“The important part is, you’re not trying to solve anything. You’re really trying to understand why other intelligent, rational people could have come to different conclusions than you,” George said.

After George forms the groups, the process is mostly left up to the participants. They meet at someone’s home about once a month and they choose a topic they’d like to discuss, such as immigration or healthcare. George facilitates at first, but after a while policing the rules becomes a group task. People are expected to speak with respect, not to interrupt others, to give everyone time to speak, and not to put words in other people’s mouths.

George added, “You have to be willing to listen seven times out of eight.”

Why It Works
George spent years as a plant manager in the field of industrial engineering. Now he splits his time between Corvallis and rural Pennsylvania, where he does consulting for titanium companies.

“I would get whiplash,” George said. In one state, he was seen as conservative and in another he was “so liberal” he was afraid he’d lose his job. It’s one of the reasons George joined Unlike Minds in the first place. He loves having his “own view of the world broadened by a collection of people” and he’s had a lot of practice.

New groups are typically formed in election years. One thing he noticed is that during the Bush years, they had an easier time recruiting liberals; during the Obama years, conservatives were more interested in joining. This year, he said, was off the charts.

In the applications he received, people wrote, “I can’t deal with the feelings in my own heart. How could this have happened? I can’t be that kind of person who has this much animosity.”

A lot of people viewed this election as a choice between a box marked “hate” and a box marked “love.” Of course, it’s never that simple. “An axiom that kind of originated in Unlike Minds is just because we disagree doesn’t mean one of us is right,” said George. The more people talk, the more they realize they’re talking to an actual person who wasn’t born with the ideas they hold so dear. These ideas came from somewhere and learning that can be very humbling.

“I think for some of us, we have this…kind of epiphany where we say, ‘Oh, I thought people who thought this particular way were just being stupid or just doing that to make me mad.’ The answer is, no, they really believe that and they’re genuine and sincere in their viewpoint,” said George.

It’s a Concept, Not a Patent
Not every Unlike Minds group has been successful, but most have survived the first couple meetings. Sometimes they evolve into something else and people meet for potlucks, to share conversation with people they consider friends.

Overall, the experience has been very rewarding for George, but there are moments when he feels discouraged because he’s only “saving the world eight people at a time.” People have suggested that he should expand the groups, that he could have 80 people meeting in the library.

“That can’t happen because we need that personal intimacy,” said George. Looking people in the eye, knowing their names, and listening to their story is part of the process George believes in. But, as Pat and Irma Canan used to say, it’s a concept, not a patent. George would be happy to see others take on similar projects.

Eventually, George would like to bring people from Corvallis and rural Pennsylvania together—a sort of Unlike Minds Retreat. For now, he takes the philosophy with him wherever he goes and continues to learn more about himself while he learns about others.

“We kind of take the color of the water that we’re next to,” George said. “But, once you look to others and have them answer the same questions you’ve thought about, you actually learn more about you. You say, ‘Oh, I get it. There’s a map of the universe and there I am. Right there.’”

If you’re interested in joining an Unlike Minds group, email Warren George at varied.strengths@gmail.com

By Anika Lautenbach