Category Archives: Case Studies

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.

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Intro

Last semester (Fall 2013), I (Sarah) was asked to redesign and teach the Public Policy Dispute Resolution class at the University of Missouri School of Law which I greatly enjoyed doing. The last third of the semester the students planned and participated in a series of dialogues around the issue of gun violence in the context of developing a policy on guns in schools.  The next series of posts will look at how we prepared for these dialogues, and what occurred.  Even though this was a classroom exercise, it illustrates many of the points we have discussed on this blog.

At the outset of the semester, the students were asked to write an essay about why they had enrolled and what they hoped to learn.  The majority of those essays reflected the students’ deep concerns, as citizens, with the partisan nature of our political discourse and their frustration at how quickly discussions on difficult issues, even with friends and family, turned into name-calling and debate.  The students expressed a desire to better understand and address such things as “media-fueled divisiveness”, lack of “nuance in everyday politics”, and “polarization”.  They also asked to learn about how points of view form, how policies are made, how to help opposing groups communicate, and how to “explore the area between two extreme views.”  These questions were discussed in the first part of the semester when we focused on skills such as conflict mapping, question framing, and use of non-adversarial dialogue patterns.  Next we looked at the procedural structures and characteristics of both formal and informal options for working through public policy issues.

Although the final practice exercises involved a hypothetical community, the students were given a clear context, using the demographics of an identified nearby school district and a law that had been recently adopted in Kansas.  Class members came into the discussions with a wide range of viewpoints and were also assigned roles as community members.  The two students who agreed to serve as (i) a school board member highly supportive of both the law and of allowing more guns in the schools, and (ii) the superintendent responsible for managing budgets, safety, personnel, and overall administration, received more detailed supporting information for their roles.  They were instructed to raise or share this additional information as seemed natural or appropriate in the discussions.  Although starting from very different places, the students were (to their surprise), over three sessions, able to reach unanimous agreement on an interim policy that could be placed into effect immediately.

This series of classes was designed to allow the students to directly experience how the choice and sequencing of dialogue structures, and dialogue-based phrasing, can change the usual scripts used in discussion of a politicized, highly charged issue like gun violence.  Our next few posts will look at these three components – choice of structure,  sequence of discussion, and dialogue-based phrasing – and how each contributed to the ultimate outcome.

Guns and Dialogue: Exploring Why Civil Discourse Is So Difficult

After the mass shooting in Newtown, communities around the nation began dialogues on what steps might be taken to reduce gun violence.  Some states have adopted new laws, and in others no resolution has been forthcoming.  As Congress returns next week to to take up the issue, political parties and citizens alike remain deeply divided on how to proceed.  Simple discussion of the issue can raise strong emotions.

What makes dialogue on this issue so difficult?  We were asked by the National Institute for Civil Discourse in February to write an essay on this issue.  Some of the reasons why dialogue on this issue is so difficult are:

  • All of the primary sources of conflict are present in this one issue.  These include differences in values, interests, and information, as well as other differences.
  • Instead of identifying and exploring these differences, discussions relating to gun violence too often focus prematurely on action items and are posed in “either/or”, “us v. them” terms.
  • This then inflames regional and other differences, and reinforces  suspicion and distrust of those who don’t “share the same way of life”.
  • Fear, alienation and anger make it difficult for individuals to process new information, and in many cases leads to the automatic rejection of new ideas and approaches.

It is, however, possible to plan for and promote civil, productive dialogue.  This kind of dialogue is crucial if we as a country are going to find ways to reduce gun violence in our communities.  How leaders and citizens might promote that kind of dialogue will be discussed more in our next post.

You can download a complete copy of our essay “Aim Higher, Dig Deeper”, as a pdf here. The essay links up to additional resources through endnotes. You can click on the endnote number to access the related text. 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.

Accountability in Action

A key part of accountability is reporting back to constituents on the effects of various programs and policies in a consistent and understandable form. Several local governments have put in place dashboards or other reports that allow citizens to easily track progress toward certain goals.  Here are some examples:

Albemarle County, Virginia

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Westminister, CO

The best reports of progress are those that (i) are aligned with clearly identified citizen priorities, (ii) help citizens understand cause and effect, and (iii) allow for ongoing discussion of new options and actions.  See for example the indicators of the degree of government influence at the Albemarle website, explanations of each measure in the Minnesota reports, or trend lines and comparative data in the Westminster reports.

Engaging With The Media – A Case Study

This week we continue our discussion on working with the media during a public engagement process by providing an example of how the wrong message can create unneeded conflict.  This example occurred a few years ago while we were working as facilitators in the Imagine Columbia’s Future visioning process.

After the participants in the process had been working together for nearly a year to create a set of vision statements, goals, and action plans, the overall process consultant at the time (not us!) organized a workshop to get public feedback on emerging plans.  During this workshop, those who had not been participating in the visioning process more generally were to be given the opportunity to review what the groups had come up with and put “dots”  on what they considered to be the best ideas.  The overall purpose of the workshop was to create a snapshot of community concerns that could be used alongside other information being generated through the working groups in putting together the final plans.

Although this workshop was intended to be an interim check-in and not a decision-making point, it was titled  “Community Choices”, and was reported in the media as if community members’ votes would result in a ranking of ideas and priorities, through which certain ideas would “win” or “lose”.  As a result, the local Chamber of Commerce reached out to its members and further exacerbated the situation by asking members to turn out and sure their priorities won the day.  When a local group which was concerned about the pace of development found out the Chamber was organizing its members to vote, it sent out a similar message to its members.

At the actual event, facilitators who were there to help community members engage with and understand the ideas, concepts, and connections that were being identified in the working groups, instead spent much of their time explaining that the workshop would not result in a “win/lose ranking”.  Despite this effort, several participants used all of their dots for a single strategy or goal in an effort to make sure that goal “won”, while others followed instructions to use one per idea.  Efforts were made after the workshop to explain to the media that no ideas had won or lost, and that, given the different approaches on placing dots, the “vote totals” were not very useful data.  The media still reported on the vote totals, although the post workshop efforts did mitigate to some extent how they were reported.

At the most basic level, providing an opportunity for broader community input was a good idea.  The event was successful at generating interest and attendance. However, the failure to clearly communicate the purpose of the workshop and how the data would be used in advance led to unnecessary confusion and rekindled existing animosities between community groups. This confusion could likely have been avoided entirely with an appropriate and clearly organized message delivered consistently to the public and to the key groups likely to participate.   This case study illustrates the need to review, both when planning for an overall process and for individual events, the possible conflicts that could arise and the potential for  misunderstanding regarding the purpose of a process.  It also illustrates the importance of explaining how the data generated will be evaluated and used, and how participant are expected to interact.   This community workshop would have been more fun for the community and more valuable to the overall process, if there had been a clearer articulation of its purpose and a clear statement that the  data generated would be folded into a longer dialogue.  Providing the media with an explanation of how dialogue differs from traditional win/lose processes could have helped as well.