Category Archives: democracy, dialogue, government

Till The Ground (From A Midwest Metaphor)

A Metaphor From The Midwest

harvesting-metaphor-3Once 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.

Choose The Field (From A Midwest Metaphor)

A Metaphor From The Midwestharvesting-metaphor-2

When thinking ahead to the harvest, you first need to decide where you will plant the seeds you want to sow. To some extent you will be constrained by geography. As you assess the field you will also need to consider the suitability of the available land and climate for different types of plants. For example, it is easier to grow wheat and corn in the Midwest than rice or cotton. There are other questions to ask as well: has the quality of the soil been depleted by past crops? Has the soil been weakened from the use of fertilizers designed to boost short term growth? In planting, as in politics, overuse of any one technique generally leads to poor growth and diminishing returns at harvest time. Worse still, the soil may be poisoned by overuse of herbicides or pesticides.

As we consider our political field, there are also limits on what we might do. Our representative form of democracy sets some constraints as does the constitutional separation of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. There are different levels (local, state, or national) on which our political discussion is occurring. Certain issues and problems align with certain branches or levels of government more so than others. Each of these levels, though, informs and affects the others, and so their interactions must be studied and understood.

Regardless of the level at which our field is located, there are many past actions and trends that have depleted and poisoned our political soil. At least three of these could be remediated through dialogue.

The first trend that could be remediated is the categorizing of broad groups of individuals, whether by location, education, race, culture, or economics, into the “them” that threatens the “us”. This stereotyping has been an intentional focus of “wedge politics”, a strategy designed to maximize the returns (in votes and dollars) for both of the dominant political parties. The heated, polarizing, and partisan language used by many political leaders, which is repeated through social and other media, is as poisonous to our democracy as herbicides and pesticides  that leach into soil and water. Such language strangles the growth of new ideas, restricts our ability to consider facts that are different from our preconceptions, and makes it easier for us to deny the humanity, aspirations, interests, and needs of others. The dangers of “Themification” are summarized well in this Ted Talk by Dick Simon. We have moved away from the “united we stand, divided we fall” sentiments that grace many of our public spaces, towards a “what’s in it for me and my tribe” focus.  By doing so we have limited our ability to plan for and take pragmatic steps toward a future that might benefit us all.

The second poisonous trend that could be remediated through dialogue has been the rise of a passive notion of citizenship.  We elect our “gladiators” and sit back to cheer or jeer.  Too few of us engage in the the hard work of informing ourselves, working through the competing choices, or getting directly out into the arena. The media and political parties have been only too happy to lend their support to feeding this “blood sport” of politics by handicapping the players, and focusing much of their effort on raising money in order to “win” the most current “contest”. This approach has eroded both our individual and collective capacity for the critical  analysis that most complex problems require. Instead of identifying and engaging voters on the difficult trade-offs involved in finding solutions, the parties and media are more likely to present “slices” for consumption – dividing complex problems into a series of isolated issues.  These “slices” are often then supported with data that are incomplete or taken out of context, and are argued as if there were a single definitive “right” or “wrong” answer.  This way of presenting what are, in fact, complex issues is highly misleading.  Framing these issues in simplistic either/or terms also ignores the reality that the analysis of most complex issues requires reasoning within multiple systems (e.g. information, values, interest, experience, etc.) and some element of subjective judgment. These fundamental flaws in our collective reasoning are  rarely discussed and often go unnoticed. As we fail to consider the integrative effects and trade-offs across issues we miss opportunities both to identify and to work together to implement solutions for our common good.

The third poisonous trend is the rise of a “bullshit” and celebrity driven entertainment culture that has infected both our news and our ability to reason together.  What do we mean by a “bullshit culture”? In his best-selling book from 2005, “On Bullshit” , Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt attempted to provide a framework to describe communications made with no objective factual constraints or boundaries.  He characterized these as statements “unconstrained by a concern for the truth”, or “bullshit”.

Consider the following quotes:

The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides . . . is that the truth values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to support the truth nor to conceal it. ” (55)

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A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers the statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all of these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man or the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (55-56)

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[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” ( 61)

The leaching into our political sphere of a tolerance for, and even admiration of, bullshit as a means of discussing serious political issues, has further eroded our ability to think critically about and solve the problems we face as a country.  In a culture that often mistakes celebrity — conferred by the ability to entertain or simply attract publicity– for character or merit, this tolerance for bullshit as political speech is even more damaging.

So, what harvest do we want? Do we want a “government of, by, and for the people”? Do we even believe that is possible? Our current political soil neither nurtures the sense of community that many citizens say they want nor promotes pragmatic problem solving for the common good. Taken together, the above trends have led many to believe there is no way even to discern what that common good might be, and so feelings and affiliations take the place of hard facts and critical analysis in making decisions. If we aren’t willing to change or challenge these trends, we will continue to be disappointed in our political harvest.

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We have a workbook that can help you assess civic health in your community, and other resources for building dialogues.

A Metaphor From The Midwest

harvesting-metaphor-1You reap what you sow. That aphorism is well known to us in the Midwest. The reality is a bit more complicated.  Your harvest is affected by the soil, the quality of the seed, the weeds that grow, the sun and rain, and other conditions at the time of harvest.  For example, if you poison your soil, it may help your yield in the first year.  Over time though, yields will decline.  Failure to weed may ruin your crop, or at least diminish your returns.  If you don’t have the right weather conditions or sufficient labor at the time for the harvest, your crop may rot in the field. In politics, as in farming, you reap what you sow.  The dismay expressed by many citizens over our bitterly partisan political system, and its inability to create broadly accepted and sustainable policies reflects a poor harvest or return on our collective efforts.  The next few posts will examine conditions and practices that have led to our current state, and how a commitment by citizens to dialogue  and more collaborative practices might lead to new growth and a more satisfying harvest.

How Do Patriots Speak?

Patriot – “One who loves his country and zealously guards its welfare.” Webster’s Concise Dictionary of the English Language, 1997

On this July 4 we look back at Resolution 108, passed by the American Bar Association, in 2011. The ABA warned then that  “political discourse continues to spiral to unprecedented levels of acrimony and venom”, and that “orderly debate all too often is giving way to invective, distortion and gamesmanship”.  Six years later the tension and heat in many quarters have only increased.

Why should we care? As the report behind the resolution points out, a toxic political discourse leaves citizens frustrated, disillusioned, and angry; the problems of our society go unsolved; the rule of law is threatened, and some turn to violence.

If we care about the health and future of our country, then we need to focus on how we talk with each other – as individuals, as political parties, and government and citizens.  Three things we can do, especially as individuals and citizens:

  • Ask Questions.  The questions to ask are open-ended ones, not the sarcastic “Why are you so stupid?’ or “Who knew you were so dumb?” questions often used to shut down others.  Open ended questions sound like “I’m curious as to why you would say that, can you tell me more?”, “What information are you relying on?”, “What do you fear would happen and why?” These questions invite further dialogue if sincerely asked and the answers received with some level of respect for the speaker. Sometimes the best questions to open-up the conversation are simply definitional – “how do you define ‘being an American?'” “what do you mean by “conservative”/”liberal”?”  Other times a question that simply focuses forward  can change the conversation, for example, “What would you like to see happen over time? Why?”
  • Speak-Up for Civility And Model It Yourself.  We don’t support bullies in schools and we shouldn’t in our public life either.  Bullies often back down if someone standing by is willing to call them out. What if more of us were willing to speak up and also to vote against bullying behavior even by those politicians with whom we agree?  Or if we actually rewarded efforts at more informed and civil discourse at the polls?  We can also plant the seeds for more civic discourse in our conversations with friends and family by speaking up and responding to hateful or bullying speech. Simple phrases like “that kind of speech is not helpful”,  “if we can’t speak civilly I will leave”, or “I love you and have experiences that give me a different perspective, which I hope some day we can share”, may not immediately change the speaker, although they can change the course of the conversation over time. Speaking up often will encourage others present to respond in constructive ways as well.
  • Learn and Use “Stories of Wisdom.”  Martin Luther King, Jr. once said “Hate doesn’t drive out hate. Only love can do that.”  Much of our political discourse is hateful. Recognize those patterns and avoid responding in kind.  Stories of wisdom offer an alternative pattern, one that can help you to both acknowledge the underlying concerns that affect us all and re-frame divisive arguments.

How does a patriot talk about the problems that face our country?  With care, with compassion, with a willingness to learn, and with the hope that if we listen to each other and work together we can heal our divides and improve our future.

New E-book

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