Category Archives: Case Studies

Navigating DIfficult Dialogues: Phrasing Is Key

As a culture, we easily fall into “power based” patterns in our discussions.  Don’t believe me? Try filling in the blanks in this simple test:

  • “I’m right and you’re____.”
  • “It’s my way or the _____.”
  • “I’m going to talk and you’re going to sit there and ____.”
  • “You’re with us or _____.”

The ultimate question underlying all of these phrases is of course, “who is the winner, and who is the loser”? No-one wants to be the loser.

These power-based patterns occur in subtler forms:  “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “That is just stupid.” “Everyone knows …” “Yes, but …” Underlying all of these statements is the “right/wrong, winner/loser” dynamic. And that dynamic, in whatever form it is used, erodes trust; invokes negative emotions like disgust, anger and fear; and invites push-back. This is the dynamic behind our increasing partisanship, and inability to talk through difficult issues even with (or especially with) friends and family.

For these reasons, consciously avoiding “power-based” framing is a first step in talking through a difficult issue. The dialogue patterns of listening, reflecting, sharing, and inviting invoke very different responses than the “patterns of power.” This is because they accept the other person’s thoughts and feelings as sincerely offered and avoid the “winner-loser” dynamic.

Here’s an example of how that works in practice:  Recently at a wedding, I joined a conversation between a younger relative (liberal) and an older family friend (conservative) which quickly became strained.  The relative had observed that political decisions were often hypocritical, referencing conservative politicians who sought storm aid for their states having previously opposed such aid for New York City in the wake of a hurricane.  The friend responded that the denial of aid was justified “because no US citizens currently live in NYC”.

This was a surprising assertion to me because much of my family (all native-born US citizens!) live in NYC.  However, I could see that both were upset and the discussion was likely to get out of hand if I approached it as a question of “right or wrong”.  So I said to the family friend, “I can tell this issue is very important to you” (acknowledgement), and “I am curious where you got that information, could you tell me more?” (invitation).  That prompted him to talk about a news station he watched, and as we continued to listen, his concerns with over-reliance on government spending and immigration.  I then said “Sometimes it’s hard to know what information to rely on” (acceptance), “although your statement surprised me because much of my family lives in NYC” (sharing).

This exchange in turn led to a question of how my family fared in the hurricane, and then to a discussion of where he had been raised, why he had left, and how reliance on government welfare had undercut his family and the community he once lived in.  During this discussion, the relative was able, in a low-key way, to share information on how statistics were often mis-used, common assumptions that research had proved wrong regarding net givers and takers in various states, and other factual information, without any push-back.  We ultimately all agreed that if “ordinary Americans” had more opportunities to sit down and just talk, much could be learned and many problems could be solved. The conversation ended on a friendly tone, and when the friend saw both me and the relative at another wedding several weeks later, he greeted us warmly.

We need not agree on facts and policies or even values to communicate with one another.  We do, however, have to do something more than assert our own point of view.  We have to have a desire to understand and to connect.  The compassion for, and interest in others that underlie effective dialogue help us to connect.

 

 

 

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 – 2

Our second class discussion on developing a policy on guns in our hypothetical school district was a “world cafe” style facilitated meeting.  The facilitators laid the groundwork for productive dialogue from their initial invitation:

Please join your local School Board and fellow community members for a facilitated group discussion of the conceal and carry referendum that is currently before the Board. “We would like to hear the thoughts and comments of all interested community members, both those who are parents and those without children.”

Note how even this short paragraph both emphasizes that participants are coming together as a “community”, and sets an expectation for open, inclusive dialogue. Following this paragraph were four bullets, “What”, “When”, “Where” and “Bring”. This last bullet simply read “Bring: Your thoughtful comments and a willingness to hear others’ points of view!”

As participants came into the meeting they were greeted, handed an agenda, and invited to sit at one of two tables. One of the facilitators then welcomed everyone, gave a brief overview of the process and goal for the evening (to learn more and share thoughts), and invited questions.  This brief intro, which took less than 10 minutes also covered the “next step” in the overall process – – the more deliberative discussion scheduled for the following week.  This (i) let the world cafe participants know that their input would be meaningful as it would be used to shape the options for discussion at this subsequent meeting, (ii) confirmed the current session’s focus on joint learning and thinking, and (iii) provided the facilitators with a reference point that they could use to redirect participants away from premature deliberation as they explored the questions for that evening.  More than once, when participants began advocating for a particular action, the facilitators simply said “today we’re here to listen,”  and refocused on the broader topic.

The overall agenda was timed and covered three topics with breaks and opportunities for additional interaction in between.  The three topics, chosen after analysis of the previous week’s questions were “cost”, “safety” and “ideal policy”.  These were translated on the agenda into the following questions:

  • What economic cost concerns do you have about creating a new conceal-and-carry policy?  What do you think the costs will be? etc.
  • What does safety mean to you?  What about safety in a school setting? What does safety mean to the community? etc.
  • What would an ideal conceal-and-carry policy look like to you?

During the first segment of dialogue (5:10 – 5:35 pm), one small group discussed costs, and the other safety.  The groups then switched tables and topics during the second segment (5:40 to 6:05 pm).   (Facilitators stayed at their table.)  At the end of each segment the participants starred the 2 -3 comments/concerns that they thought most important. In between segments participants had a short break as they changed tables. They were also invited to write down additional comments or questions during the break. During the third segment (6:10 to 6:35 pm), both groups were invited to write down their “ideal policy” on note-cards or post-its before the discussion started, and then to share that with the group.  As the discussion concluded each was again asked to star the 2 – 3 comments/concerns that they thought most important.  After another short break, which also allowed the facilitators to coordinate, key comments (those most starred) were summarized, everyone was thanked for their hard work, and all were invited to come back and discuss options at the next scheduled session.

During the discussions the participants identified a wide range of costs which included administrative costs, training costs, tax impacts, economic development and lost opportunity costs, as well as the “cost of life”.  They also expressed a wide range of views on  safety and generated many questions relating to both safety and costs.  Several of those questions related to what conditions would be put in place with respect to screening, training, licensing, and re-certification if anyone other than law enforcement officials were allowed to carry guns in schools.  Overall, as the facilitator summarized, all were concerned about safety, and the group as a whole wanted a better understanding of both potential funding sources and the costs associated with planning, implementing, and administering any change, before a new policy was adopted.   As will be discussed further in the next post, these questions, and the ways in which they inter-related, laid the foundation for productive deliberations in the following week.

 

 

 

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.