Tag Archives: dialogue skills

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.

 

 

Collaboration: Accounting For Conflict

Some conflict is like a latent staph infection in a body that otherwise seems healthy – waiting to flare up and dangerous when it does.   Well-meaning efforts to engage the public can founder in the face of such a flare-up.  We have seen this happen to public officials who proudly announce a new economic development effort expecting to be praised for working to create jobs, and are instead attacked for hiding information, playing favorites, and engaging in conspiracies.  We have seen this happen to public officials who schedule “town hall meetings” and are surprised with angry venting and personal attacks.  And we have seen many times when the underlying conflict is so deeply rooted that no one shows up to scheduled meetings, dismissing them as mere “window dressing” intended to manipulate a gullible public into believing they actually matter.   How can you know whether your effort is at risk before you begin?

You can start to assess this risk by analyzing issues or arguments that arise repeatedly within your community.  Group these into broad areas, like development, law enforcement, resource allocation, etc.  Then analyze whether certain themes are repeated in how these issues are framed, and what groups tend to appear within each area.  Do those themes suggest the conflict involves deeper differences than differences over interests or information?  For example, is there a clash of values, or arguments regarding the “justice” or “fairness” of governance systems?  How intense are the conflicts?  One measure of intensity is the inflammatory nature of the language used and the tendency to characterize others as “enemies” or “fools”.   Efforts to engage on issues related to areas where conflicts are recurrent, deeply rooted, and intense are more likely to see flare-ups and require careful planning on when, how, or even whether to engage.

If you are interested in systematically assessing your community’s resilience in the face of conflict and its readiness for productive collaboration, we have developed a workbook that will help you do so.  For more information, contact us at info@buildingdialogue.com.

Collaboration: Ready or Not

In our last post we talked about  the importance of assessing your community’s readiness and resilience before determining how to move forward.   Some communities are ready to collaborate, and public engagement efforts will work there relatively well.  Other communities are not.   A community that is clearly ready to work through difficult issues together will exhibit the following characteristics: a strong sense of community, clear vision, strong and collaborative leaders, easy flow of information, and a demonstrated ability and willingness to work through conflicts.   At the opposite end of the readiness spectrum would be communities that have high levels of distrust (demonstrated through either high levels of conflict or active disengagement),  few shared values or interests, and leaders who behave in a highly partisan manner.

Most communities, of course, fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  Determining where your community falls on this “readiness spectrum” will help you identify the capabilities that can be engaged and those that need to be built, and to identify likely bumps in the road.  This kind of assessment and planning will in turn help you to figure out how to foster the civility and respect that is needed for effective dialogue, to provide needed information, and to build an understanding of how government structures work and their boundaries.

If you are interested in systematically assessing your community’s resilience in the face of conflict and its readiness for productive collaboration, we have developed a workbook that will help you do so.  For more information, contact us at info@buildingdialogue.com.

Collaboration: Resources That Help

We noted in our last post that, prior to embarking on a collaborative process,  it is useful to take stock of the resources available in your community that can help you collaboratively work through conflict.   What are these resources?  They include, of course, monetary and in-kind resources for funding a process and ensuring adequate administrative and technological support.  They also include a community’s general level of civic participation, relationships among groups, and the support of government and key community leaders.  Other assets less typically thought about include the level, type and ease of access to shared information within the community, existing process skills, past positive experiences in the community, a shared vision for the future, shared interests and values, a strong communal history, and governmental systems that are open and accessible.  The more assets a community has to start with, the more likely it will be successful in launching a collaborative process.  If your community is lacking significant assets you can still plan a sequence of actions that will help you to both build more assets and provide for some form of public engagement.  What you don’t want to do is start a process that is likely to fail, creating a pattern of cynicism and low expectations that will make future collaborative efforts more difficult.  Choosing where and how to start, or when to expand your collaborative efforts, will be the subject of our next post.

If you are interested in systematically assessing your community’s resilience in the face of conflict and its readiness for productive collaboration, we have developed a workbook that will help you do so.  For more information, contact us at info@buildingdialogue.com.

Collaboration: Getting Ready for the Right Intervention

Engaging citizens in joint problem solving or collaborative discussion of issues can help you move through the conflicts that inevitably occur in our diverse communities.   This does not mean though that simple invitations to sit down and talk will allow you to move forward and avoid a partisan stalemate.  Just as a doctor diagnoses a patient before deciding on an intervention, collaborative approaches work best if you assess your community’s readiness and resilience before determining how to move forward.  This includes analyzing both the sources of conflict  and the level at which they are occurring.   If there is little trust, or of even greater concern, patterns of hate that are active among community members, you will want to start in a different way and at a different point than you might if community members are already comfortable working together.   Put another way, if trust issues are not addressed upfront in designing your collaborative process, efforts to find joint resolution on substantive points are likely to founder on bipartisan resistance to “cooperating with the enemy.”   In addition to analyzing patterns and sources of conflict, is is also useful at the outset to take stock of the resources available in your community to help you work through conflict.  These will be the subject of our next post.

If you are interested in systematically assessing your community’s resilience in the face of conflict and its readiness for productive collaboration, we have developed a workbook that will help you do so.  For more information, contact us at info@buildingdialogue.com.