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.

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Closing Thoughts

Over this last week we have looked at  how a commitment to civility and more widespread use of the communication tools that mediators use can make a difference in our national politics.  During the US government shut-down, it was reported (NYT 10/101/13)  that Bruce Josten, a lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce, was making the rounds advising Democrats and Republicans alike that

The name calling, blame gaming – using slurs like jihadists, terrorist, cowards, that kind of language – it does not get you to a deal . . .

As ABA Resolution 108 warned, that kind of language appeals to and inflames personal hates and resentments, promotes division, and leads to stalemates.  We can change. By using stories of wisdom that emphasize our interdependence and other mediation techniques in our personal and public conversations we can begin to heal some of the partisan divides and work through the complex issues that affect our future together.  In his remarks to the nation, the president quoted our pledge of allegiance “One nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all”.  Is it possible? We can certainly do better.

Ongoing progress requires not just vigilance in changing destructive patterns of communication, it will require ongoing commitment to the rule of law.  Writing in his recent book “American Lawyers“, Paul D. Carrington observed

The law is really the main thread in the fabric of organized society.  It is the compulsory part of the rules men have arrived at for living together.  There is dignity and pride in dealing with the law.  Our great public buildings, capitols, and courts, are designed to express that dignity.  They are the homes of government and law. And government itself is law.

This country’s lawyers and dispute resolution professionals are uniquely equipped to help us find a way forward – resolving problems rather than simply quarreling with periodic respites over the same issues.

Commit to leading wherever you can, with civility, and with the rule of law as your foundation.

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Event Today

Sarah, who is an active member of the ABA, is pleased to again co-sponsor a mediation week event with the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri’s School of Law, and the Association of Missouri Mediators.  Both of these organizations have long been involved in “bridging differences in positions, perspectives and people through mediation”, which is the focus of this year’s mediation week.  This event will also be streamed on-line.

We also welcome the end of the government shut-down.  With that experience behind us we can always hope that we will move towards a political culture with less brinksmanship, name-calling, misinformation, and shortsightedness.  In addition to reviewing ABA Resolution 108, we would recommend two of William Ury’s books – Getting Past No, and The Power of A Positive No -  to all who would like to improve the ways we work through difficult issues.  All of us, citizens and elected leaders alike, can work to make our politics more effective.

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Additional Resources

The ABA has a number of resources to help families, businesses and other organizations think about how to effectively resolve disputes through mediation.  Many of these are available through the Mediation Week Toolkit.   If you are a party thinking about mediation or a mediator working with parties, you will find the downloadable mediation guides  useful.  In addition to the general guide there are guides for family mediation, and complex mediation.  The ABA has also prepared a resource to help businesses plan for early dispute resolution.   Another great resource for parties to a dispute – including parents battling over custody, feuding partners, and disputing neighbors –  is the “difficult conversation preparation worksheet” and instructions created and shared by Triad Consulting on their website.  We urge you to review, use, and share these resources!

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Civility Is Not Enough

Yesterday we wrote about how a commitment to civility and more widespread use of the communication tools that mediators use can make a difference in our national politics.  Today we look at the importance of critical thinking.  Critical thinking requires ongoing and systematic analysis of how we are thinking so we can improve how we evaluate, use, and integrate different kinds of information.   This extends also to thinking about how we communicate our thoughts, and how we receive and process what we hear.  In a world of sound bites, competing and biased narratives, and positional maneuvering, critical thinking is “critical” to finding our way.

One resource I really like and have used in several dialogue contexts to help participants think about how and what they are communicating is the “Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools” booklet from The Foundation for Critical Thinking Thinker’s Guide Library.  As is noted in the very beginning of that booklet, without the effort to think critically, much of our thinking is “biased, distorted, uninformed, or downright prejudiced”.  As the authors go on to note, this is dangerous because “the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought.  Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life.”

The stages of critical thinking outlined in the booklet align well with the “data to wisdom continuum.”  Both tools can be used to help participants generate questions about where they are, what they know, and what they don’t know and would like to explore further.  Developing these types of questions helps people move from simply trading talking points, to more productive dialogue.  Another great resource to check out is  FlackCheck.org. Here you can review some of the common ways information is manipulated or distorted when reported through the media, illustrated with real life video examples.  Our post series on cognitive errors  also works well with this resource.

The educator John Dewey observed that “Democracy needs to be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife.”  As Dan Yankelovich has pointed out, our national problem solving capacity has eroded as our collective ability to think critically together has declined.  By integrating educational tools like those above into our dialogues we can help to restore that capacity.

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Looking Back At Resolution 108

In 2011, the American Bar Association passed its Resolution 108, affirming civility as a foundation for democracy and the rule of law.  The accompanying report warned that the increasing levels of “acrimony and venom” and “polarizing diatribe”  in our political discourse endangered the quality of governmental decision-making and left “citizens frustrated, disillusioned, and reluctant to participate in democratic governance.”

And here we are, starting ABA Mediation Week 2013, in the midst of a shutdown of the federal government.  And this is accompanied by the fear of a possible default on our national debt.  Will reason and statesmanship prevail over distrust, misinformation and power-based gamesmanship?  We can hope that it will, and we can also each individually resolve to act to improve our national politics in the year to come by practicing and promoting the skills needed for more civil discourse.

Mediators and facilitators are well equipped to teach the tools that can help citizens actively question the information they receive; identify and focus on common interests;  reaffirm and apply commonly held values; and change the patterns of communication that lead to debate rather than productive dialogue.

In the words of the report accompanying ABA Resolution 108,

“Words matter.  How we treat each other matters.  In our public discourse, it is time to begin talking to each other with mutual respect, no matter how much we disagree.”

If enough of us commit to this principle, work to understand both those with whom we may not agree and the complexity of the issues before us, and demand that our elected officials do the same, we may be able to fix what is broken in our current system.