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.

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