The dialogue party — William Isaacs

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer William Isaacs

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer William Isaacs

From The Hill

Two hundred years ago (August 24, 1814), the British burned the U.S. Capitol and White House to the ground. This took place at a time of an intensely divided American government — where rancor, bitterness, and profane curses were commonplace in Congressional debates between Federalists and Republicans.  Yet, these same Members of Congress stood together to turn back the British and rebuild Washington.

Polarization and intense difference hold sway today too. Shall we come together or let the house burn down?

One of the inspiring lights of that earlier era was Dolley Madison, remembered as the country’s  first “first lady.”  She took it upon herself to provide a context for engagement that cut through the animosity of the time. She redesigned the White House, carving out grand social spaces, to make it possible for people to meet together.

Dolley was a master at facilitating the informal conversations that naturally produced compromise and conciliation—you might say a “dialogue party.”  Her soirees were open to all – friends and enemies. She enlisted most of the Members’ wives and daughters, leaving calling cards all over the city.  When the war broke out with the British, attendance at Dolley’s parties climbed from about 300 to 500. Less than a month after the White House burned down she found a temporary official residence and soon after restarted her social engagements. People around the country rallied to her steadfastness and refusal to retreat.

Read the full post at The Hill.

William Isaacs is a Senior Lecturer in the MIT Leadership Center at the MIT Sloan School of Management.


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