Category Archives: democracy, dialogue, government

Pursuing the “American Dream”

In a recent dialogue class for older students we were discussing the “American Dream” and how this concept shifted over time from a dream based in community (“with liberty and justice for all”) to one rooted in more individually focused consumerism, with a particular focus on home ownership. In previous discussions members of the class had expressed a concern for loss of community and expressed dismay at our bitterly partisan politics.  On this day, the class agreed that one dream they had for the next generation was a political system that was less chaotic and divisive, more productive, and one that encouraged individuals and groups to explore ideas, analyze information, and work together.

What might help us move toward that dream?  A place to start is promoting dialogue rather than talking past each other. Another class, held in the Spring of 2018 developed this “citizen’s guide” to encourage just that.  We recommend this guide to anyone interested in more productive political dialogue before, during, and after our upcoming elections.

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).

Harvesting (From A Midwest Metaphor)

from A Midwest Metaphor

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We reap what we sow. The seeds of hate, factionalism, and greed that affect our current politics were planted and allowed to grow, diminishing our hopes for peace and prosperity.

But we can weed, and we can nurture the growth of the seeds that promote community. We can use dialogue to change our harvest.

What could our democracy look like if we as citizens did listen to each other? Or if we demanded more accountability from our public officials in terms of problem solving, fairness, or accuracy of information provided? What if more of us had the courage to speak up and to ask hard questions? Or made the effort to think critically and consider differences in data and interests and values, and struggle with the tensions between those?

If we welcomed a range of voices, moved past either/or narratives, and explored the common good, would we make wiser decisions? Would we be able to find some bounds that defined civility and common sense?

In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville studying democracy in America wrote:

Democracy does not give the people the most skillful government, but it produces what the ablest governments are frequently unable to create, namely an all-pervading and restless activity; a superabundant force, and an energy which is inseparable from it and which may, however unfavorable the circumstances may be, produce wonders. These are the true advantages of democracy.

But energy, unharnessed, can become destructive rather than productive. We need to reconsider how we engage with each other. Dialogue provides a channel that can help us to harness our energies towards finding and pursuing common goals. Rather than continuing in partisan battle, we can choose to begin to work together, much as gears engage to move a process forward.

Dialogue serves best when we as a people are confronted with equally legitimate but one-sided visions of the future and asked to choose between them. If they are truly one-sided, being forced to make a choice leads to a dead end. Sustained, hardheaded dialogue can help us to avoid making that false choice and forge a new vision that transcends the limits of each.” (Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue.)

The role of the citizen can be more than just voter, spectator, or recipient of information packaged by others.  Citizens, who are willing to work together to make wise decisions about their future, are essential to a good harvest. Acting as a guardian of democratic values requires vision, effort, and active engagement.  Moving forward means working together.

There is no “them” – only us. Our lives are intertwined. What kind of us do we want to be?

 

Weeding and Watching – Part 2

 

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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In our last post we identified a number of weeds that are growing in our civic soil, including inconsistency and incoherence, deflection, distortion, and denial.  So how do you weed? Whether you are a citizen or a facilitator, there are a number of tools you can use.

Key tools for addressing inconsistency and incoherence are to simply point out the gaps, seek to align rationales and principles, and use open-ended questions to guide discussion towards a more rational analysis.  This might sound like, “I’m interested in understanding your thinking there.  I’m not sure how X leads to Y.”  Or it might sound like “If we were to do that, how would that help us [stated purpose], or further [core value]?” Or it might take the form of an observation:  “I’m not sure why we aren’t worried about growing the deficit now when we were so opposed to that in the last administration. I would like to see some consistency in how we evaluate our policies. Are there principles or values we might use to guide us?” Another approach is to focus on a point in the future and then work backwards. For example, you might ask “How will [current approach] help or hinder our progress?”  Still another approach is to invite reflection on the integrative effects of a particular proposal on related issues, e.g. “If we were to take that approach, how would we fund [accepted programs]”, or (using a real life example) “If we were to create jobs by subsidizing ethanol production, how might that impact the price of the corn we feed our cattle and the health of our agriculture industry? Could one harm the other? What might be the net effect on the economy?” The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking published by the Foundation for Critical Thinking is an excellent resource that can help you identify questions you might ask as you encounter the weeds of inconsistency and incoherence.

Key tools for deflection are to stay persistent in your focus, to break up references to the “either/or” dichotomy and, when deflection takes the form of ad hominem attacks on individuals and groups, to #justsayno2mean.  Staying persistent in your focus includes not taking the bait when a provocative comment attacking something you cherish is offered as a response to an observation or invitation you have made. When such a comment is made, you might say something like, “I’m not sure how that relates, and before we move to another topic I would really like to discuss [the topic at hand].”  A key question for breaking up the “either/or” dichotomy is to ask “can we talk about both?”  or “what if it’s both?”  For example, “I understand you are concerned that leaks are important, as is the interference in our politics by other countries. Can we talk about both?”  Or as another example, “Could it be that both individual choices and systemic injustice contribute to poverty in our community?  Can we explore both, and even other factors that might come into play as well?”  When deflection takes the form of an attack on others you can point out your discomfort (“I don’t like it when others dismiss us that way and I’m uncomfortable talking about my fellow citizens in that way”).  You can also offer a positive observation or experience with the targeted individual or group, or reframe the conversation using the “Stories of Wisdom” patterns.

Key tools for distortion are to request and share sources, invite mutual analysis, and explore underlying emotions, especially fear.  For example, you might say,  “it sounds like we have been looking at different sources of information.  Here is what I have read and I would like to know more about what you have been reviewing.”  And then (after some discussion on sources), note differences in perspective and where the information overlaps (if at all), and ask questions about context, data evaluation, and real life experience that are aligned with the data to wisdom continuum. As you explore why a particular source of information seems credible, you can also identify and discuss the experiences and emotions that affect trust in that source.

Exploring fear and anger is also a key tool for addressing denial.   For example you might ask, “What makes this such a difficult issue to discuss?  What do we fear might happen if it were true?”  or “What harm is there in taking some action if we don’t know for sure?  What would we lose?  What might we gain?”   You might also invite comparisons with the standards used to make nonpolitical decisions. “Before we trust in that denial, what questions might we ask?  If were making a personal investment based on that, what might we want to know?”

Note that all of the above approaches invite dialogue and avoid debate.  As with force-feeding food, force-feeding facts or opinions usually evokes a gag reflex. Debate oriented approaches are ineffective weeding tools precisely because of the emotional and intellectual resistance they automatically produce. Also, none of the weeding approaches discussed above involve the poisons of derision or scapegoating.  All do, however, involve phrasing that emphasizes community and invites joint problem solving.

As with weeds in a garden, rooting out the weeds in our civic soil takes persistence as well as patience and effort. It’s up to us to change the discourse.  Will we?

Weeding and Watching – Part 1

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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A weed is a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to grow. Many weeds are invasive and propagate quickly, crowding out or killing the plants that you do want. The seeds from which weeds spring can be buried in the soil, mixed with the seed that was intentionally sown, or carried in by wind, flooding, birds, or animals. Often weeds like to root in damaged and exposed places, and they thrive in poor soil where the plants that bear fruit struggle to survive.

Keeping weeds out of your field is hard work. It takes research (some weeds look attractive although many don’t), effort (many weeds have long and tenacious roots), vigilance (weeds can sprout quickly), and persistence. However, the more good plants there are, the longer they grow, and the more regular you are about maintaining your field, the easier it is to defend against weeds.

Our national civic life is full of weeds, many of which were intentionally planted and then cultivated by our political parties. These weeds reflect the erosion of our civic soil. They incorporate rhetorical habits that are designed to divide, confuse, and alarm. They crowd out opportunities for productive dialogue and limit our ability to identify or implement pragmatic solutions that meet our collective needs. You can identify weeds by looking for the following characteristics:

    • Inconsistency and incoherence: Inconsistency is shown by the gaps between talk and action. This occurs both when unrealistic commitments are publicly made and then quietly abandoned, when parties fail to take responsibility for the consequences of policies whose enactment they urged, or when one party castigates the other for violating “rules” or “principles” that the critics and their colleagues are themselves unwilling to live up to (and at times are actively violating even as they accuse others).  When both parties lack a consistent set of values or principles to guide policy development, and when leaders are willing to “change the rules of the game” depending on who is in power, inconsistency often descends into incoherence. Inconsistency and incoherence are also evidenced by conflicting rationales between policy issues. For example, we argue on one hand that education is “failing” because children are not achieving more in math and science both of which are critical to our future, yet then reject scientific consensus on some of our most pressing issues. As another example, “local government” is lauded as the best level for making decisions, except when the local government doesn’t agree with the direction of a party and then the argument is that the state or even the federal government should step in. The misnaming of bills and policy efforts to reflect a direction different than what is being sought has become common practice and reflects another kind of inconsistency known as hypocrisy.
    • Deflection: Deflection  is another way of avoiding accountability, especially on the hard issues. It is used to shut down inquiry or challenge by diverting the focus to other subjects, and follows the pattern of  “look over there, not over here!”  It might sound like,  “I know you asked about this issue, but what about that other issue?” Deflection is particularly problematic when combined with denigration of a particular individual or group. For example you might hear “I don’t have to answer that, because the people raising it are____”, or “We would never be in this state if it weren’t for the prior actions of ____” Often deflection incorporates the cognitive errors of “either/or” framing or “shoulds”, or follows the confusion of victim and actor that is common in narrative patterns of hate. Use of scapegoats – – blaming one person or group for the misdeeds of another — is a another common form of deflection.
    • Distortion: Distortion includes both outright misrepresentations (e.g. “Pizzagate“) , and the confusion of fact and fiction that characterizes bullshit. It also includes the cognitive errors of overgeneralization, and catastrophic thinking. Conspiracy theories and the conjuring of bogeymen (e.g.” ‘they’ are different, full of malice, and out to get you”) are also common forms of distortion.
    • Denial: Outright denial takes the form of a declaration that a statement is untrue (this includes its dismissal as “fake news”). It also includes a denial that the statement you just heard simply didn’t mean what it sounded like or wasn’t in fact said (often followed by selective editing and restatement). It may also take the form of a refusal to acknowledge or discuss a well-established doctrine, finding, or proposal, or the validity of someone else’s experience. Denial is currently a fast-growing weed. It aligns with the aphorism that ” the best defense is a good offense.” Forcible rejection and even mockery of what is otherwise clearly before us creates doubt, confusion, and cognitive dissonance, even in those who don’t believe the denial itself.

Note that the blurring of the label “fake news” (meaning “deliberately and strategically constructed lies that are presented as news articles and are intended to mislead the public”), with the reality that news reports are often biased (meaning actual facts are selectively presented or slanted toward a particular perspective,) is a hybrid of distortion, denial and deflection.

Deflection, denial, and distortion all flourish in the damaged soil of division, particularly when they root directly in the negative emotions of anger, hate, and fear.

All of these cause us to lose our focus, particularly on hard issues. With so many weeds, it can be hard to know who or what to believe. In our next post we will look at what you can do as a citizen or as a facilitator when you encounter these weeds in our democratic garden.

Plant The Seed

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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Seeds are amazing – small, seemingly lifeless, yet capable of generating new growth and change. Although planting the seed is necessary for growth, it alone does not ensure growth. Actual growth takes time and depends on the interaction of many factors.

For example, when choosing seeds to plant you need to know the type of crop you want and whether it is suitable for your field. You would also think about the correct depth for planting – too shallow won’t allow the seed to root properly, too deep and it may fail to sprout.  You might further consider the age of the seed, how many need to be planted together to ensure that something will sprout, how much water the seeds might need, whether the weather will be too cold or too hot, and how early or late you are in the season.  Some factors you control, some you don’t.

So, turning to our politics, what kind of a harvest do we want? If we want a more cohesive country, the capability to solve our problems, better accountability for our elected officials, and policies that place “citizens at the center”, then we need to plant different seeds through our civic discourse than the seeds of factionalism, hate, and fear of others. We need to be discussing what brings us together, how to promote “the common good”, and our hopes for the future. We need to discuss these questions directly rather than simply debating or protesting policies designed by partisan interests. And as we talk together, we also need to be promoting the habits of critical thinking and problem-solving

Two ways to plant the seeds of a new approach are asking questions, and sharing your own experiences and values.

Questions: Questions are a useful tool for both tilling the field and planting seeds. When planting, you can ask questions to open discussion, introduce the concept of a common good, and change the partisan focus.  For example you might ask questions like, “What are we hoping to accomplish? Why? What would progress look like? How might we work together to make progress? How would we monitor progress? What else might we do to better understand each other and move forward as one community? What don’t we know? How might we find out?” Note the importance of asking your questions  in an “open” way. This means using phrasing that allows for the potential that ideas other than the ones you favor might work as well.

One approach that often helps to broaden the focus of a discussion on policy and promote consideration of the intersection between issues comes from the school of Appreciative Inquiry.   This is to ask, ” What’s going well and how might we get more of that?” You can also gently introduce additional context or concepts by asking questions aligned with the five sources of conflict.  For example, depending on what direction you wan the inquiry to go, you could also questions like,” What types of values are coming into play here? What information do you think others are relying on and how might we compare that with what we are using? If we were to favor that interest, what other effects might it have on our community? How would that affect us, short term or long term?”

You can promote critical thinking by asking definitional and follow-up questions like the following: “What is it that makes America great? What do you mean by “great”? What role in that was played by pragmatism? Courage? Character? Collaboration? Concern for the next generation? How might those factors affect our thinking here?”  And you can also  introduce new approaches or ideas by asking “What if . . . ?” combined with an invitation for further input, “What if we were to [describe approach], how might that work or not work for us?”

As with any kind of planting you need to be both patient and observant. As you ask questions it is important to provide time for a response, and really listen to that response, asking follow-up questions as needed. We often say in our trainings that there are only three simple rules to communicating effectively with others, rules that are easy to state and hard to apply. They are (i) know your message; (ii) know your audience; (iii) speak so that your audience can listen and understand. When you listen you get to know and understand your audience better. And if your audience is to listen to and engage in conversation with you, at least part of your message needs to be “you matter to me, we are in this together” — or, stated in other words, “united we stand, divided we fall.” This subtext is reflected above in the repeated use of the words “we” and “our”, in the invitation to respond, and in the action of listening.

Sharing: John Dewey once observed, “We can have facts without thinking but we cannot have thinking without facts.” Open-ended questions can of course be used to introduce both facts and context on an issue.  And yet it is worth recognizing, particularly on complex issues, that the known facts may not in and of themselves provide clear answers. There is much we don’t know. Critical and integrative thinking requires a willingness to not only review data and the sources it comes from, but also a willingness to explore more subjective factors like values, interests, and feelings which affect both our evaluation of the risks and direction each of us might be willing to take on a particular issue. A sharing of facts though, when followed by mutual evaluation and further dialogue may well help to illuminate a next step. This sharing and invitation to further evaluation might sound something like this: “I understand it is very upsetting to think about [x], although I have also read [additional facts] and I am curious about what other factors are affecting our differences on this issue. Can we explore that more?”

When planting seeds, sometimes a question with listening is all you can manage. Other times, you will know that you can offer more – planting at a greater depth or with more seeds. When the interest is present you can offer to share an experience, idea, or perspective, saying something like “I have had a different experience, that I would like to share with you, if I can”, or “I understand your thinking on freedom, and there are some other values that I would apply here too that I would like for us to look at together.” Again your phrasing would emphasize the importance of working together, planting the seed of jointly pursuing a common good. As you think about this type of sharing, it is worth reviewing and aligning your phrasing with the elements in Stories of Wisdom.

N.B.: Change can be slow. Few seeds germinate overnight and most plants require weeks or months of growth before they bear fruit. So it is with both ideas and relationships. A successful future harvest requires hard work both before and after the seed is planted.