Category Archives: Communities In Conflict

Reach Out, Listen, and Talk

In both classes and casual conversations, people are asking, How did we get here? How will this end?

Some feel despair, some see an opportunity to address long-standing issues in our democracy. All hope for a better future for their children.

Those who despair decry the harsh partisanship of our politics and the confusing overwhelm of information that is pushed at us from every turn. They ask how can the average citizen be heard? How can we change? Where might we go?

And in all these conversations people are looking at how to bring our political and economic lives into line with the needs of people – how to build a more caring economy, a more compassionate culture, a wiser democracy.

The pandemic has revealed many weaknesses in our culture, economy, and political infrastructure, which developed over many years.  And it is providing an opportunity, should we choose to use it, to shape our futures through dialogue.

So now is the time to reach out and talk with others, even if — especially if — those are difficult conversations. And by talking we don’t mean talking at.  Instead we need to be talking with others in ways that acknowledge our concern, care, and interdependence.  None of us has all of the answers, and for better or worse, our futures are intertwined.

So let’s make it for better.  Reach out and connect with your family, friends and neighbors. Hear their fears, share yours, generate new ideas together, and engage others. Build a dialogue that has the potential to move us forward.

Teaching Democracy Depends on Us

“Democracy must be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife.” (John Dewey)

How do we teach engaged citizenship and the kind of deliberative dialogue that can lead to wise public judgments?  We can’t leave it to to schools, and we certainly can’t leave it to political parties who promote factionalism and hyper-partisanship.  Each generation must teach democratic values and practices to the next.  My generation (Boomers) hasn’t done the best job.

As one small effort to remedy this deficit, we have written several e-books designed to help citizens and community organizations plan and host public dialogues. These books are relatively short and provide pragmatic advice related to planning, hosting, and facilitating dialogue in your community.  In honor of Law Day and last week’s National Week of Conversation we have discounted the prices by 50% and the discounted prices will stay in effect until May 21 when the higher prices return.   Following is a short description and link to each book.  We would welcome your feedback!

Understanding the Facilitation Cycle  For busy people about to engage a tough crowd on challenging issues. A quick, 20 page read. There are eight phases in the Facilitation Cycle. The first phase, Greeting, starts even before your meeting begins and before your participants come into the room. The last, Send Forth, magnifies the impact of your successful event for days and weeks after it has concluded. Current discounted price $3.99 (normally $7.99).
Dealing With Disruptors  What if you could make that disruptive energy productive? What if you could work with disruptors to increase understanding, broaden support, and build trust in your community? Dealing with Disruptors provides tools and a framework to make that happen. Current discounted price $4.99  (normally $10.99).
Navigating With 3D Evaluation: Public Dialogue for Results – Public engagement and dialogue can achieve valuable, lasting outcomes, but only when supported by ongoing, systematic analysis. This book shows you how to work with participants to set goals, engage everyone through a shared vision, maintain trust through common priorities and interim targets, navigate around obstacles like budget cutbacks and changes in political leadership, determine who is responsible for honoring the commitments made around the dialogue process, and demonstrate the value of your work.  Current discounted price $4.99 (normally $9.99).

Till The Ground

A Metaphor From The Midwest

harvesting-metaphor-3

Once you have your field, the next step in preparing for the harvest is to till, or cultivate, the soil. This means preparing the soil for planting, which includes both plowing to break up the soil and fertilizing to add nutrients. Both of these help the seeds you subsequently plant to grow.

In our political field, trust – a respect and belief in the integrity, good intentions, and capabilities of others – is the soil that helps us grow and flourish as a society.  The trends discussed in our last post have depleted our communal trust.  Using the rubric of “trust taxes” and “trust dividends” described in Stephen Covey’s “Speed of Trust“, these trends have resulted in a destructive tax on the citizenry. This is evidenced through the growing number of citizens who view those not of their own political party as “the enemy”, the excessive defensive posturing and legal positioning by our political parties, and the general level of venom used in discussing differences of interest or information. All of these factors suggest a “trust tax” of 60% or more.  This is a very high burden.

So how might we use dialogue to remediate some of the damage that has been done? Below are three actions that can help break up the hard crust of fear and anger that has formed, followed by two that can help prepare the ground for new growth.

  1. Invite.  Invite others into dialogue. Simply choosing to use dialogue rather than debate – to move beyond the right/wrong, win/lose framing used in debate and actually explore the complexities of intersecting issues —  is a step towards building trust. By choosing dialogue you are moving from an “Us” v. “You” competitive dynamic into a more inclusive “we are in this together and will be stronger together” partnership and problem solving mode. You might begin by acknowledging differences in values or interests while also exploring similarities, by exploring the different questions being asked, or by comparing and evaluating the different sources of information that are being used.  An invitation can be as simple as asking questions like “How would we like it to be? Why?”  Although you can introduce dialogue in everyday conversation, there are also many resources and organized efforts you can connect to and invite others to join.  Two current efforts include the Kettering Foundation’s annual “A Public Voice” collaboration and the Better Angels “One America” bus tour.
  2. Align.  If you are going to invite others into dialogue, once you are there you need to act like you mean it.  The communication patterns that promote dialogue are the opposite of competing factions spitting “trigger words” at each other or ridiculing, rather than engaging with, other points of view. No one likes to be attacked, dismissed, or shamed. If you are going to sustain a dialogue, you will need to act in ways that show interest in, and care and concern for, the others in dialogue. This means aligning your comments with a focus on the relationship, not just the issue being discussed. You can also think about how to align your narratives and questions with stories of wisdom and the common good.
  3. Listen: Often we ‘listen’ simply to find the gap in the conversation in which we might insert our own views, or to harvest fragments of statements to use in our rejoinder. This is not what we mean by “Listen”.  Instead we mean listening in ways that attend to the speaker.  This includes reflecting back an understanding of the speaker’s emotions and concerns, and inviting further thoughts on what might help the speaker move forward.  This kind of reflective listening calms emotions and enhances the speaker’s ability to process new information.  It also strengthens relationships and builds trust by demonstrating respect for the speaker’s presence in the dialogue.
  4. Educate.  John Dewey once said, “Democracy must be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.” As the last election showed, many citizens lack an understanding of how their government actually works, use very different sources of information, are unsure of their own ability to influence the decisions that are made, and might benefit from additional skills in the areas of communication and critical thinking.  Dialogue can help in all of these areas.  Note that in dialogue, education occurs through asking open-ended questions, sharing resources and experiences, and inviting reflection, not through lecturing or proselytizing.
  5. Commit.  Studies in different fields demonstrate that taking personal responsibility for one’s views and actions improves how information is processed, shared and evaluated. It also  builds trust.  This kind of commitment and willingness to be accountable for what one says and does is aligned with sincerity.  It is the opposite of the “bullshit” discussed in the last post. Taking responsibility for what you think and say, admitting what you don’t know, and inviting others to do the same, is the essence of effective dialogue.

Unpacking and Analyzing

Earlier this month we published a new e-book, “Understanding the Facilitation Cycle.”  This is the first in a series we are calling “Facilitation Analytics,” short guides that provide practical, focused insights you and your team can use immediately.

On April 8,  Sarah also presented at the Annual Conference of the American Bar Association’s Section of Dispute Resolution with Conna Weiner on the topic of Unpacking, Mapping and Evaluating Conflict.  You can download their written remarks here.

Healing Wounds

Last month I was sitting with friends and discussing recent events at the University of Missouri. One of those present – an African American – said with sadness “it’s getting to the point where I hope there isn’t another African-American president in my life-time.  I don’t remember it ever being this bad.” Another member of the group replied: “Sometimes you have to lance an infection so it can heal. What first comes out is ugly but that’s what starts the healing.”

Since then I have been thinking about wound care, and what we as facilitators can learn from it.

First, like an infected wound, unresolved conflict festers.  When lanced, or when the stitches previously put in place are pulled, there is often an explosion, and at least a quick leeching out, of the infectious agents and residue.  Opening the wound allows this not just to be released; it allows the infectious agents to be examined and removed, and the infected site to be cleaned and treated.

The worst infections are healed through “open wound care.”  This is a slow process, requiring constant care and vigilance, until the surrounding tissue begins to heal itself from the inside out. When that happens the tissue becomes lively and vibrant. Still check-ins are needed at regular intervals to prevent the infection from recurring.

Healing an infected wound takes considerable time, setbacks are not uncommon. Patience and perseverance are required.

Even when the wound seems to be healing well – or closes on the surface, pockets of infection may remain. Ongoing monitoring is still required, and use of the surrounding muscle may cause pain.  There is a need to go slow, to remain vigilant, and to be patient.

We have a long history of hate.  Dialogue can help us heal.  Yet that dialogue needs to be ongoing, consciously worked at, not sporadic. Vigilant monitoring with a readiness to intervene when needed is required to sustain progress and restore us to to health. In this season of peace and hope it is worth remembering that we each have the power to speak up, to pursue dialogue with others, and to disturb the patterns of hate when we hear them.  Working together we can make 2016 a better, healthier year.

“America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity.  Take a chance won’t you?  Knock down the fences which divide.”  – Justice Thurgood Marshall