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.