Navigating Our Blog

Welcome to the official blog of The Communications Center, Inc.

Read about our new workbook!

Read about how to approach dialogues on gun violence and download our article funded by the National Institute for Civil Discourse.

On this blog we link you up with stories and resources to help you navigate difficult issues and plan for effective dialogue.  You can find answers to frequently asked questions like:

  1. What is dialogue and why use it?
  2. Where and how do I start?
  3. What do I do if the public is not interested?
  4. What else can I do to build trust in the process?
  5. How can I manage the media?
  6. How do you start a dialogue when people hate each other?
  7. Do you have any guidelines for effective public engagement?

And there is more.  You can also find

Finally, here are 5 of the most popular posts on our blog.

We are here to help you.  If you have questions, would like to discuss resources, or need help working through problems in your own dialogues, send us an email at info@buildingdialogue.com.

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Phrasing and Planning

Among the questions asked by my students at the beginning of the semester were the following:  “how can you explore the space between two extremes” and “how can you teach the polarized combatants that the best solution may not be as simple as “yes” or “no”?” They had had ample experience with, and wanted to change the pattern of,  conversations that quickly degenerate from an exchange of views to insults (“didn’t know you were that stupid . . .”) or identity questions (“didn’t know you were one of them”/”so liberal . . .”/”so reactionary . . .”).  Students from other countries were particularly taken aback by this kind of response to a perspective shared from their own experience.

Our classes on dialogue, conflict analysis, and conflict mapping helped the students to answer these questions and to build the skills needed to facilitate the final sessions on gun violence.  Students learned and practiced the dialogue skills of reflective listening, reframing, and asking open-ended questions. The students also used the “pie chart” illustration of sources of conflict, “iceberg” chart of levels of conflict, and conflict maps, to analyze in advance where participants were likely to differ, the different language and framings used for different positions, and how that language might be reframed to best support the participants and invite their participation.

As a result of this analysis, the student facilitators were more confident intervening both to support participants by reflective summarizing, and to open conversations by using questions to link related points. They were able to listen and summarize in ways that educated the participants,  promoting more productive discussion (e.g, “so freedom of choice is important to you (1st person), and you (2nd person) want freedom to make choices about your child’s classroom.”) In addition, this pre-session analysis  helped the facilitators to maintain the dialogue boundaries for the individual sessions (e.g., when responding to a participant who was advocating for a particular solution at an early session: “we are not here tonight to debate solutions, although we are exploring the issues of cost and safety. You have strong concerns on . . .”).

Despite the dialogue training in class, the students who were participating in the discussions (as opposed to facilitating) did, as the discussions heated up, at times fall into more traditional positional framings (e.g., right/wrong; us/them; good/bad). Several also stated their views strongly, using associated rhetorical flourishes (e.g., “who wouldn’t agree? “all the studies show”,  “the only valid studies show”, “everyone knows”, only a fool would”).   Yet when this happened, most participants failed to take the bait, using both humor, questions, and another dialogue technique  — “I statements with invitations” ( example “I have had a different experience, do you mind if I share it?”) — to continue the dialogue.

The “superintendent” was particularly effective at introducing new information in a non-threatening way, using such introductory phrases as “something that troubles me is . . .”, “I’m not sure of the effect that would have on [then naming a cost category like insurance, additional training, amending the collective bargaining agreement, etc.].  At other times he framed his remarks by inviting others to help with a problem that would need solving ["how would we respond to that concern? (referencing a parent's comment that they would not allow their children in the classroom if the teacher were allowed to carry a gun)].  Other participants also used phrasing that drew others into agreement including an observation that “we don’t want to be an experiment” and a question: “if we’re going to have to raise money, what is the best way to spend it?”

Through this process the students were able to directly experience how responsive phrasing that demonstrates respect and care for the speaker, leads to better listening and understanding for all participants, and ultimately to more informed choices by the group.

 

Sequencing Public Engagement -Do We Have Time?

One objection often made to using a sequenced series of engagement steps is that it “takes time.” Although it does take some additional planning time and energy, separating and sequencing different types of dialogue can save considerable time and energy over the long run. Each of the dialogues in our three session sequence on gun violence took less than two hours.   The first helped frame the discussion and allowed the participants to begin to get to know each other.  Some of those who had strongly worded opinions also had a sense of humor and calmed down as quickly as they ramped up.  This kind of relationship knowledge helped participants move through the more difficult dialogues that followed.  The second session produced a lot of information and questions that challenged pre-existing opinions and promoted thinking about new approaches as participants prepared for their more deliberative session.  In the third session participants were able to come to a mutual — and sustainable — decision on how to move forward.

Successful resolution of complex issues requires integrative thinking about several different factors -  information, interests, values, and rules or standards. Integrative thinking takes time.  Sequencing discussions can provide the necessary time for new ideas and options to emerge.  Effective integrative thinking within a group also takes trust in the others that you are making decisions with. Without trust, information is discounted and risk to one’s personal interests is likely to take precedence over the effects on others in the community. Simply put, building trust requires an effort to build relationships.

One of the facilitators in our third dialogue later noted that “there were polar viewpoints on the options. However, due to the set-up of introducing the options, the groups were able to become more in agreement on the issues.”  The overall sequencing of the more informal dialogue based processes to the more formal deliberative process helped to  both build relationships and promote integrative thinking. The more informal structures that were used in the first two sessions did this in part by giving more freedom of choice for each individual in how to raise issues or express opinions. This freedom of choice helps to lessen fear and regulate emotion as compared to premature deliberation. The informal structures further allowed participants to surface and explore tensions between values such as accountability v. autonomy v. safety, as well as to share information.  Time between sessions allowed participants to assimilate new information, talk with other constituents, and integrate their thinking on options and trade-offs.

This type of sequencing, with time off between sessions, actually lessens the overall in-person time need for groups to come to agreement, allows for better option development, and promotes more productive deliberations at the time deliberative thinking is required.  It is far more likely to result in sound and sustainable policies.  Given those benefits, it is well worth the time.

Teaching the Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Sequence – 3

Our final class forum was more deliberative. Participants were given a student-created discussion guide, modeled after the National Issues Forum topic guides. This guide featured three “options” and asked the participants to consider the pros and cons, and tensions among each.  Again, the forum invitation emphasized that all were welcome.  It also reflected the universal concern with safety that had been expressed at the prior forum:

Please join the community, and the local school board tonight, . . . to discuss the proposed conceal- and-carry referendum and discuss options that are associated with the issue.  Don’t miss your chance to protect not only our school, but our community.  All are welcome to attend.  We look forward to your input and any ideas you have about the issue!

As at the prior session, participants were welcomed as they arrived, and the facilitators explained how the options for that night’s discussion were drawn from the previous sessions.  This confirmed that the participant input was both valued and being put to good use.  Participants were also given a timed agenda which promoted focus during the discussion that followed.

The options presented for discussion in the guide were:

  1. Arm and train school personnel to act as a first line of defense.
    This option focused on selecting and training a few employees to use and carry weapons in schools, with required, ongoing training and evaluation.  Drawbacks identified included the cost of training, the potential for accidents, and the potential for higher insurance premiums.
  2. Allow teachers and community members to carry and help protect the school.  Here the guide noted that community members might be in a better position to respond to incidents quickly.  The guide noted as drawbacks the potential for alienating some parents, the difficulty of controlling an already chaotic situation, and the potential for higher insurance premiums.
  3. None of the above, look for alternatives. A primary drawback noted here was that the adoption of a policy would be delayed, leaving questions of security unanswered and no clear guidance for emergency situations. Embedded in this option, however, was the fact that there was an existing, although unwritten, policy that allowed police to carry in schools.

Participants explored a number of concerns during the small group discussions, including cost, coherency with the educational mission of the schools, and the unknown consequences of various approaches. As one participant summed it up: “we don’t want to be an experiment.”  Another participant re-focused his small group with the question:  “if we are going to raise money, what is the best way to spend it?”

Although the participants were separated into two different groups for discussion, the patterns of dialogue in each group were similar. During the discussion of the first option, the participants identified components that still needed be defined or answered, and raised new questions like whether parents could seek waivers. Participants in both of the two small discussion groups also universally rejected the second option after identifying a wide range of safety concerns.  Each group also found that it had a common comfort level with the third option and its embedded “status quo” of having police provide security. Each also discussed how to raise taxes to pay for extra police hours.

Towards the end of the session the two groups were brought together to share their thoughts.  They were energized by how similar their conclusions were.  As one of the facilitators later observed, this “validated the view that the group could create options that had support of the entire community.”  As the groups debriefed, they quickly embraced the few small tweaks or options that the other had not thought of (such as including additional funds for counseling or early intervention with troubled teens). Each “tweak” addressed questions that both groups had been struggling with.

A suggestion by one participant, to approve the emerging consensus as an “interim policy” subject to a future referendum (in the event that a significant segment of the community requested a referendum on a policy change), sealed the deal.   The group unanimously endorsed this approach of adopting an interim written policy that incorporated the status quo of allowing only law enforcement officers to carry in schools. As they did so, participants who had entered the discussion with widely divergent views explained their support of the “interim policy” in similar ways.  These included references to a number of factors that had arisen during the prior discussions, including “allowing time to gain experience”, the ability to “monitor problems and gather data”, the confidence the community had in its police, the need to identify and secure a funding source before increasing costs, and the cost-benefits of relying on police rather than others.  Participants appeared to be both surprised and relieved with what they had achieved.  As the meeting ended, the energy level remained both high and positive, and participants engaged in friendly conversation as they adjourned.

 

 

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Sequence – 2

Our second class discussion on developing a policy on guns in our hypothetical school district was a “world cafe” style facilitated meeting.  The facilitators laid the groundwork for productive dialogue from their initial invitation:

Please join your local School Board and fellow community members for a facilitated group discussion of the conceal and carry referendum that is currently before the Board. “We would like to hear the thoughts and comments of all interested community members, both those who are parents and those without children.”

Note how even this short paragraph both emphasizes that participants are coming together as a “community”, and sets an expectation for open, inclusive dialogue. Following this paragraph were four bullets, “What”, “When”, “Where” and “Bring”. This last bullet simply read “Bring: Your thoughtful comments and a willingness to hear others’ points of view!”

As participants came into the meeting they were greeted, handed an agenda, and invited to sit at one of two tables. One of the facilitators then welcomed everyone, gave a brief overview of the process and goal for the evening (to learn more and share thoughts), and invited questions.  This brief intro, which took less than 10 minutes also covered the “next step” in the overall process – - the more deliberative discussion scheduled for the following week.  This (i) let the world cafe participants know that their input would be meaningful as it would be used to shape the options for discussion at this subsequent meeting, (ii) confirmed the current session’s focus on joint learning and thinking, and (iii) provided the facilitators with a reference point that they could use to redirect participants away from premature deliberation as they explored the questions for that evening.  More than once, when participants began advocating for a particular action, the facilitators simply said “today we’re here to listen,”  and refocused on the broader topic.

The overall agenda was timed and covered three topics with breaks and opportunities for additional interaction in between.  The three topics, chosen after analysis of the previous week’s questions were “cost”, “safety” and “ideal policy”.  These were translated on the agenda into the following questions:

  • What economic cost concerns do you have about creating a new conceal-and-carry policy?  What do you think the costs will be? etc.
  • What does safety mean to you?  What about safety in a school setting? What does safety mean to the community? etc.
  • What would an ideal conceal-and-carry policy look like to you?

During the first segment of dialogue (5:10 – 5:35 pm), one small group discussed costs, and the other safety.  The groups then switched tables and topics during the second segment (5:40 to 6:05 pm).   (Facilitators stayed at their table.)  At the end of each segment the participants starred the 2 -3 comments/concerns that they thought most important. In between segments participants had a short break as they changed tables. They were also invited to write down additional comments or questions during the break. During the third segment (6:10 to 6:35 pm), both groups were invited to write down their “ideal policy” on note-cards or post-its before the discussion started, and then to share that with the group.  As the discussion concluded each was again asked to star the 2 – 3 comments/concerns that they thought most important.  After another short break, which also allowed the facilitators to coordinate, key comments (those most starred) were summarized, everyone was thanked for their hard work, and all were invited to come back and discuss options at the next scheduled session.

During the discussions the participants identified a wide range of costs which included administrative costs, training costs, tax impacts, economic development and lost opportunity costs, as well as the “cost of life”.  They also expressed a wide range of views on  safety and generated many questions relating to both safety and costs.  Several of those questions related to what conditions would be put in place with respect to screening, training, licensing, and re-certification if anyone other than law enforcement officials were allowed to carry guns in schools.  Overall, as the facilitator summarized, all were concerned about safety, and the group as a whole wanted a better understanding of both potential funding sources and the costs associated with planning, implementing, and administering any change, before a new policy was adopted.   As will be discussed further in the next post, these questions, and the ways in which they inter-related, laid the foundation for productive deliberations in the following week.

 

 

 

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Sequence -1

Both policy-makers and the public can make wiser decisions if they think through an issue together. This means involving the public in some way

  • when defining an issue,
  • when thinking through what might be needed to fully understand that issue,
  • when identifying the options to discuss, and
  • when weighing those options.

Having a sequenced approach to public engagement helps to build both public understanding of, and trust in, the decisions ultimately made as compared to those situations where the public is simply asked to comment once a course of action has been tentatively decided on, or not consulted at all.

We started our class dialogue on gun violence with several question based discussions. Inviting people to share or respond to open-ended questions is often a good way to begin a difficult conversation because it

  • moves them away from positional argument,
  • allows them to get to know each other,
  • introduces new concepts and information in a way that does not require an immediate response or rebuttal, and
  • is clearly “exploratory” as opposed to “deliberative”.  (This last characteristic minimizes the fear associated with “deciding on the (wrong) answer”.)

More generally, thinking in questions allows participants to “unpack”, and look at the component parts of an issue, which better enables them to think about where and how those parts interact with each other, as well as with additional issues or concerns that the participants may have.

Our group first generated questions using our sources of conflict “pie-chart”. This led to the identification of a number of things to explore further, a listing of key interests and values, and a listing of relationships that might be affected or considered.  The group also developed a set of questions about the boundaries, rules, statutes or procedures relevant to the issue of gun use in schools. Using a different analytical tool, the group considered what ultimately needed to be decided by their group and why, who should be involved, and what subjects would need to be addressed in considering how any decision might be implemented. Finally they used a “jurisdictional grid” to consider how other levels and branches of government might affect or intersect with any policy that might be adopted by the local school board.  The notes  from these discussions  were then given to a smaller group to plan a “world cafe” type dialogue the following week.  What happened in that dialogue will be the subject of our next post.

Wise decisions require a kind of integrative thinking that takes time.  Participants need to take into account data and information, the context in which that information was collected and disseminated, and the broader context of relationships, values and experience. The question based format used to begin our discussion of what policy should be adopted to govern gun use in our hypothetical community school district promoted this kind of integrative thinking.  It also helped to inform those planning the dialogues as to what additional information might be useful and how to present it.  Wise decisions also require participants to look at both long term and short term consequences of their decisions, as well as what is unknown or assumed.  This requires some evaluation of risk, both to one’s personal interests and to the broader interest of a community.   Thinking in questions helped the participants begin to think about these intersections of interest.  This session also built skills for navigating differences. Participants continued in later sessions to interact by asking questions when points of conflict emerged, which minimized the acrimony that so often develops over complex issues.  And participants were able to use the time between sessions to think further about their own views, and other perspectives they had heard, and to seek out additional information and input.

 

 

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Structure

There are many different ways to start a public conversation. Unfortunately the ways that are most often used can make the navigation of difficult issues even more difficult than it needs to be.

For example, we often move to deliberation too quickly in our public processes. The public is invited to give input on one or more “options for decision” when it hasn’t been fully informed on the issue or disagrees with how the issue (and the options) are framed.  Forcing deliberation in this way triggers fear, distrust, and opposition.  Participants end up trying to indirectly navigate the tensions in their diverse interests, information sets, and values in the context of “reviewing the options”.  However those differences are never explicitly identified, discussed or resolved as arguments build over which option is “best”.  Even if they can’t fully articulate why, participants will identify what they don’t like though – and in addition to particular options that might be on the table, that includes those who are pushing for those options.  As the process deteriorates, participants hold fast to fixed positions, dismiss alternative views, and resort to name-calling or other disruptive behaviors.  Not our desired outcome!

At other times, the public may be invited to give input on an issue although it is not clear how the input will be used or even if it is really desired. The ubiquitous “town hall meeting” often falls within this category.  Participants are invited to share thoughts and comments with the people in charge of that meeting, but time is limited, the agenda is tightly controlled, the participants do not directly interact with each other, and there is little follow-up after the meeting. This type of process leaves people frustrated, and often feeling powerless. It also builds distrust towards both leaders and the engagement process.  As frustration builds, participants often do little more in these sessions than “vent” their frustration and anger.

There are other, more effective ways to start a public conversation, especially when trust is low and fear is high, or when participants are coming in with very different sets of information, experiences, and values. Three of our favorites, which we have written about before, are the Question Formulation Technique, the World Cafe, and the Conversation Cafe. Each of these help the participants to build relationships with each other.  These formats also allow for the introduction of  new information in a non-threatening way.  As participants ask questions or engage in informal conversation, they naturally explore their differences. In so doing they subtly interrupt the “us v them” (or “us v. you”) positional framing frequently used in public discourse of difficult issues. Each of these dialogue structures also promotes both joint learning and joint problem definition, which again builds understanding and lessens animosity among the participants when options are later identified and explored.

As will be discussed further in the next post, for our class dialogues we used a range of techniques including the World Cafe, before moving to a more deliberative format. At their final meeting, all participants ended up agreeing to proceed with an “interim policy” despite the wide range of views they had started with. They were surprised at how much the work done in previous weeks affected the tone, tenor, and depth of the deliberations.  As will be explored more in the next post, the dialogue based sessions allowed them both to get to know each other and also explore how different components of the overall issue intersected before they entered deliberations.  Better relationships and better knowledge led to more effective deliberations.

If you are interested in reading more about how structure affects our public ability to problem-solve, read our post series on structuring engagement, and our series on using evaluation to plan for and improve your engagement processes.  If you are planning for community wide dialogue, our workbook can help you too.

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Intro

Last semester (Fall 2013), I (Sarah) was asked to redesign and teach the Public Policy Dispute Resolution class at the University of Missouri School of Law which I greatly enjoyed doing. The last third of the semester the students planned and participated in a series of dialogues around the issue of gun violence in the context of developing a policy on guns in schools.  The next series of posts will look at how we prepared for these dialogues, and what occurred.  Even though this was a classroom exercise, it illustrates many of the points we have discussed on this blog.

At the outset of the semester, the students were asked to write an essay about why they had enrolled and what they hoped to learn.  The majority of those essays reflected the students’ deep concerns, as citizens, with the partisan nature of our political discourse and their frustration at how quickly discussions on difficult issues, even with friends and family, turned into name-calling and debate.  The students expressed a desire to better understand and address such things as “media-fueled divisiveness”, lack of “nuance in everyday politics”, and “polarization”.  They also asked to learn about how points of view form, how policies are made, how to help opposing groups communicate, and how to “explore the area between two extreme views.”  These questions were discussed in the first part of the semester when we focused on skills such as conflict mapping, question framing, and use of non-adversarial dialogue patterns.  Next we looked at the procedural structures and characteristics of both formal and informal options for working through public policy issues.

Although the final practice exercises involved a hypothetical community, the students were given a clear context, using the demographics of an identified nearby school district and a law that had been recently adopted in Kansas.  Class members came into the discussions with a wide range of viewpoints and were also assigned roles as community members.  The two students who agreed to serve as (i) a school board member highly supportive of both the law and of allowing more guns in the schools, and (ii) the superintendent responsible for managing budgets, safety, personnel, and overall administration, received more detailed supporting information for their roles.  They were instructed to raise or share this additional information as seemed natural or appropriate in the discussions.  Although starting from very different places, the students were (to their surprise), over three sessions, able to reach unanimous agreement on an interim policy that could be placed into effect immediately.

This series of classes was designed to allow the students to directly experience how the choice and sequencing of dialogue structures, and dialogue-based phrasing, can change the usual scripts used in discussion of a politicized, highly charged issue like gun violence.  Our next few posts will look at these three components – choice of structure,  sequence of discussion, and dialogue-based phrasing – and how each contributed to the ultimate outcome.