Tag Archives: wisdom

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.

 

 

Planning For Civil Discourse About Gun Violence

As we noted in our last post, political parties and citizens alike remain deeply divided on what might be done to reduce gun violence. There is however growing support for reducing that violence. Doing so will require more  substantive and civil dialogue that is sustained over time.

In February we were selected by the National Institute for Civil Discourse to write an essay on how to navigate this difficult dialogue. A review of why dialogue on this issue is so difficult can be found in our last post. Below are some of our recommendations on how to plan for dialogue on gun violence.

  • At its base level “civility” means communicating in ways that reflect mutual respect, care and concern, and that support joint action and effort.  Leaders can model communication patterns that respect rather than attack those with whom they disagree.  Leaders can also demonstrate an understanding of (or make an effort to understand) views that differ from their own.  What we need is less partisanship and more listening and reflection. You can read more about the dangers of extreme partisanship and the role of civility in navigating difficult policy issues here.
  • Those seeking dialogue need to frame issues in ways that invite and allow the underlying fears, distrust, and differences in values, information and experience that derail most discussions on gun violence to be addressed. This means starting at a level other than positional debate on, or evaluation of, specific policy proposals.
  • Transparency regarding information development and evaluation is another key element in building trust in a dialogue process. Although dialogue participants need access to clear, consistent, understandable and honest data, they also need to be invited to discuss what makes data understandable and honest.
  • When dialogue is difficult, leaders need to allow the necessary time and space for reflection and also provide participants with choices on how and when to engage as they proceed to work through the issue.
  • Starting dialogues on gun violence at the local and regional levels around questions that reflect a common concern – such as “how do we want our communities to be?” –  can also help to mitigate fear and distrust and set a good foundation for a broader national dialogue.
  • Leaders can further promote civil discourse by using “stories of wisdom.”   These are narratives that emphasize the common good, accept the fact that differences exist, and reflect the hope that a path forward will be found.  Stories of wisdom help dialogue participants to navigate differences in experience, interests, values, and information.

You can download our complete essay, “Aim Higher, Dig Deeper” as a pdf here.  This essay was prepared for and with funding by the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, as part of a collection of essays on supporting a national conversation about gun violence. The collection has also been posted on the NICD blog.

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.