Category Archives: Resources

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.

Till The Ground

A Metaphor From The Midwest

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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.

Resources For Moving Forward And Best Wishes For The New Year

To peace-makers everywhere, we extend our best wishes for the new year.

Here also, following up on our previous posts about Ferguson, MO, are some additional resources that may be of use to those who looking for ways to address, and ultimately heal, the racial divides in our community.

John Backman wrote an excellent summary of points to think about when building a dialogue. One of the questions he raised was “how to make room for clumsy questions?”   There are many people of goodwill, who would like to bridge the divides, but who are also either afraid of offending, unintentionally offensive, fearful of emotion, hurting and in need of support and understanding, and untutored in the ways of helping each other through a difficult exchange.  How can we help structure a process that both allows diverse people to  connect and supports and cares for them at the same time?

Approaches that we have found helpful in past interfaith dialogues  involving issues of both faith and race include the following:

+ Start With Listening Only. Rather than starting with an interactive dialogue of a general issue, or a problem to be solved, start with something like listening circles.  Listening is key to both healing and understanding. Listening circles are  structured to focus the participants on simply listening and reflecting on what was heard. Because participants know they won’t be debated or questioned, they often open up far more than they would in a traditional discussion.  Feedback like “I was surprised by what I was willing to share” and “it was so healing to be heard” is not uncommon. This type of experience is more likely to encourage participants to venture into a broader dialogue at another time with the same people or at least organized by the same group. You can download a facilitator’s guide to listening circles here.

+Invite, and Provide Tools For, Reflection. Before starting listening circles or another form of dialogue, provide a short program about listening, the importance of being truly heard, and the need to listen beyond the emotions that may surface or the information that may be shared. Our “conflict in a box” tool can be used to orient a group on how easy it is for conflict to form, and on the importance of both questioning (and checking) one’s own immediate reactions and impulses, and assuming goodwill.  You can also provide a worksheet during or after this program and and ask people to record questions or thoughts as they listen. Or you can provide worksheets that help participants think about different perspectives and experiences in advance.

+ Use Question Cards.  However you structure your dialogue, invite participants to put questions on index cards that a facilitator can group and ask, sometimes in more diplomatic terms than what is written.

+Demonstrate Positive Dialogue.  Consider starting a session with a panel of people that reflect the diversity of the audience and are skilled at difficult dialogue. Listening to panel of community leaders talk in a civil, respective, and substantial way with each other can very positively influence the following dialogue of the audience. This panel can also, following a community dialogue, help to answer questions from question cards or talk about what they observed and encourage ongoing dialogue.  If you don’t have a panel, you might start with a video, like this one on “themification“. Again, providing a related worksheet that helps promote reflection before beginning the group dialogue is helpful.

Change takes time and perseverance. Healing does as well, and also requires care and compassion.  Your work does make a difference, and 2015 will be a better year as a result of the dialogues you start.  We wish you well.

Ferguson: Can We Move Forward? Will We?

Ferguson, MO is not unique.  Although Ferguson may be the site of the most recent flare-up, other communities have experienced similar unrest in the past, and other communities are at risk for the future. Many of our communities experience divides and inequities similar to those in the Saint Louis metropolitan area.  Our communities, and our country, need to address these issues.

Will we?  These are hard issues.  It’s easier to say “they need to fix their problems in St. Louis” than to look at what needs to be fixed in our own communities.  Or to decry the violence and ignore the inequities that exist and the lack of hope that many feel.

Martha McCoy from Everyday Democracy once observed that the that “lack of civility is a symptom of a structural problem that requires a structural remedy.”  Part of that structural problem is our unwillingness to listen  to those whose experiences differ from our own.  Another is the limited opportunities for many citizens to be heard.  As we have noted before, all conversations occur at three levels, information, emotion, and identity.  When difference or conflict is strongly rooted in the lower levels, emotions are easily inflamed and decisions aren’t always made in rational way.

We can see all three levels of conflict at work in Ferguson – Info: what exactly happened when Michael Brown was shot?  Emotion: sadness, anger, fear are all present and being expressed.  Identity:  what does it mean to be “American”? to be a community? to have hope for a future? to “follow the law”? to care for one another? to help one another?  who are our fellow citizens?  When we don’t have good ways to discuss and resolve issues like this  in our communities or in our country, the hurt and distrust build and get loaded onto other issues, and often explode in unpredictable ways. We need more direct, and more frequent, dialogue over values, and identity, and community, and justice.

All people need real opportunities to be heard, to address the difficult issues that affect their lives, and to know that their thoughts and concerns — their very existence — matter to others and will be taken into account when decisions are made by those who allocate our resources and write or enforce our laws.  Building those opportunities is as much, if not more, the work of citizens as of our elected leaders.   If you are a member of a church community, a service group, or other network, start a dialogue about what troubles you and what can be changed.  You can find many resources here.  Share your vision of what could be if our divides were bridged. Raise the question of what we collectively lose when those divides are ignored. When leaders promise action, ask from the outset how progress will be evaluated and reported.  Evaluations should be honest, transparent, and rigorous, if we are to learn and grow together. If leaders ask for input, sign-up and participate.  Much has been asked of the Commission appointed by Jay Nixon to address many of the inequities in the St. Louis region.  Whether real change occurs depends on citizens watching, listening, sharing, and being willing to work together.

I frequently end trainings with a quote from Admiral Hyman Rickover: “Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.”  In addressing the events in Ferguson, President Obama has at various points asked us to  “listen and not just shout”, to “understand not just divide”, and to lift up the kinds of “constructive dialogue” that can lead to “real progress”. Engaging in serious dialogue with those we don’t know or trust takes courage, patience, and practice.  It also is the only way that builds community and creates real and sustainable changes.

We can do this.  If we are willing.

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