Tag Archives: Dialogue

Community and Conflict: Prevention and Healing – An Interview with Bill Johnson for ABA Mediation Week

It’s ABA Mediation Week 2014, and the theme for this year is “Stories Mediators Tell:  From Rookie to Veteran – Exploring the Spectrum of Mediation”.  We are excited to be able as part of Mediation Week to share this interview with Bill Johnson who is a veteran at helping communities through conflict.  Bill was first trained as a mediator in 1985, and he incorporated that training into his work as the President and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester New York (1972-1993), and as the 64th Mayor of Rochester (1994-2005).  After several additional years (2006-2013) as the Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Urban Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology, he is heading a consulting firm focused on “bridging differences to build strong communities” — Strategic Community Intervention LLC.  If you are concerned about distrust and divides within our communities, listen to the following interview and find out what can be done to heal those divides, even after events like those that recently occurred in Ferguson, MO.  You can also download a summary of Bill’s thoughts and experiences here: SCI –Police and Communities Collaboration, 10-14.

Interview With Bill Johnson of SCI

Note: This video was filmed using VTC Stream.

Building A New Dialogue: Reflecting On Ferguson, MO

Listen!

Listening is at the heart of any productive effort to resolve conflict. At times, it’s the only action that can help people move forward. Real listening is hard work. It requires adequate time and space.  It’s not the kind of “listening” that we often observe in public disputes. It’s not the kind of “listening” that takes words out of context and fits them into an alternative narrative of who is right and who is wrong. Nor is it “listening” in order to pull out components of a possible “solution” that can then be offered to “stop” or “settle” the conflict. It’s not the “listening” that takes place in scheduled forums where people are allowed to “have their say” within time limits and with no assurance – or even real expectation – that what they say will be taken into account as future decisions are made. All of these alternative forms of “listening” — which are frequently evident in public disputes — breed cynicism rather than hope.

Genuine listening requires an active willingness to put aside our own thoughts and opinions as we listen, so that we can hear and consider experiences and perspectives different from our own.  It requires some sense of humility, interdependence, and a desire to think through what the next step might be, together. It’s the kind of listening that President Obama was inviting when he stated that building trust between communities and citizens and police would “require Americans to listen and not just shout. . . That’s how we are going to move forward together, by trying to unite each other and understand each other not simply divide ourselves from one another”. Taking the time to listen this way is worth the effort. Through listening we learn more about ourselves and each other, and that learning feeds real change.

Others involved or observing the recent unrest in Ferguson also emphasized this kind of listening. The St. Louis Post Dispatch called for dialogue involving “some introspection that allows us to both recognize and learn from our region’s still strong racial divide. . .” Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson recognized both the despair that lay behind signs reading “I am a man” and “Black lives matter,” and that these signs represented an invitation to connect, to acknowledge the people behind them, and to genuinely listen to what they had to say.

As columnist E J Dionne  stated,  “. . . how we discuss and debate the events in Ferguson really matters.”  This is because we need to “step outside the usual boundaries of our discord” if we are going to rebuild trust within our communities. The very act of genuine listening stretches those boundaries and changes how we think.  How we define “community” is determined in part by who we are willing to invite into our conversation – – who we are willing to offer a listening ear to, and thus recognize as inextricably related to us. Genuine listening is the hard work of democracy, and it is the responsibility of both citizens and those in appointed or elected positions.

Before we can find “solutions” or “move on” from a deeply rooted conflict that erupts in our community, we need to create safe spaces for listening and sharing.  This includes a mix of informal processes like listening circles or conversation cafes hosted by individuals, churches, or civic groups, and formal processes that are supported with a commitment from those in power to act, and act collaboratively, on what is heard. And then we need to actually listen to each other, share, and build on what we have learned. Like tributaries to the Mississippi, it takes many listening conversations, small and large, and flowing together, to build the trust that sustains community.

Hate, Terror, and The Power To Heal

After the twin towers fell 13 years ago, my then 13 year old daughter struggled to understand the world she was growing into.  Ultimately she wrote a poem.  That poem began with a sense of helplessness:

I do not hold in my hand the power to change
 what happened on September 11.
I cannot turn back the hands of time,
and stop the towers from falling,
or the people from dying.
I cannot stop
destruction,
hatred,
loss,

It ended though with hope. The final stanza read as follows:

Some people might say I don’t have the power
to do anything, but they are wrong.
I hold in my hand the power to make a difference.
I can love when others hate.
I can lend a helping hand when it is needed.
Even a small gesture can mean a lot to another.
I have the power to make a difference,
and I hold this power in my hands, heart and mind.

And she was right. We each have the power to fight hate, often in seemingly small ways, but ones that over time can have a collective impact. As individuals we can work to improve our skills for listening, understanding, and productive dialogue.  As citizens we can recognize that too much partisanship is poisonous, and set boundaries both for ourselves and for our elected officials.  When we see patterns of hate developing in our private and public communications, we can act to disrupt those and instead build narratives that strengthen our sense of community. By working together to understand our diverse experiences and perspectives, we can make wiser decisions.

Yes this is idealistic.  We could instead give in to cynicism and despair, allowing the spores of  injustice and hate to grow.  Or we can hold onto our faith that the world can be a better place, and do what we can. It is not impossible for individuals and even nations to change, even though progress may be slow.

So persevere.   Speak-up with courage and compassion, find and encourage others who seek a more peaceful world, forgive where you can, and extend a welcoming hand to those who are different from you.  Dialogue can make a difference and we urge you to build dialogues where-ever you can.

 

 

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.