Author Archives: sjr

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.