Category Archives: Our Work

Simple Tools For Sorting and Mapping Public Input

Last week on a call with others who are working on “naming and framing” various issues in their communities, someone asked for recommendations on how to sort the notes of various volunteers into a summary document that would be useful. As we discussed on the call, one simple low cost approach is to set up a spreadsheet (using a platform like Google Drive allows for easy sharing) that corresponds to the five sources of conflict.  As they take notes, volunteers can code them (V = values, S = structure, R= relationships, IN = interests, and IF = information) and then sort those later into the corresponding sections of the spreadsheet. Levels of intensity can also be marked on the notes with a + corresponding to higher levels of emotion and ++indicating an even higher level of tension evidenced by  “us v. them” language and active expressions of threat or fear.

As a baseline, those coordinating a project might map what they expect to hear based on sources like newspapers and blogs and then, as notes are entered, analyze whether what they are hearing confirms or challenges those expectations.  Other sources external to meetings or planned dialogues could also be captured and compared throughout a project.

Another tool we have used to track dialogues is to sort comments and questions into a grid tracking “What” (what topics are coming up, what themes are appearing, what information is being used, what values are referenced, what tensions are present; what regulatory or other limitations exist, etc.); “Who” (who is present, who is missing, who is referenced, who would be affected, who can help, etc.); “How” (how would we accomplish that, what resources are available, how can they be accessed, and “Why?” (this category encompasses mission, and vision (why are we doing this?), ideal scenarios (why not dream big?), and creative thinking (“why not do this a different way?)).  Grouping things this way during a discussion has the added benefit of helping the facilitator in real time identify, sort, and sequence questions in ways that promote effective  group discussion.

A complementary process that might be used as volunteers report in, particularly to capture new people and organizations being brought in, ideas generated, and actions taken, would be to track those through ripple mapping.  In any event, planning questions or categories in advance that help you “harvest data as you go along” will make the job of compilation and analyzing what you have much easier!

Back on Track

It’s been a busy few months.  Sarah’s daughter got married and, along with other matters, we have been working on a very interesting project with the Kettering Foundation involving the media and democracy. Sarah has also been working through a local nonprofit on dialogues about youth and education, using another Kettering sponsored guide. We sponsored some calls looking at the role of trust in dialogue, and most recently facilitated a dialogue on issues relating to the EPA’s 111(d) regulations.  Subsequent posts will summarize ‘lessons learned’ in all of this work. As we get back on track with regular posts we want to start by  sharing one from Brad Rourke of the Kettering Foundation.  In his post, Brad summarizes a problem often encountered in public deliberation – lack of agreement on what the issue is, why it matters, and who should be involved.  He also provides a  graphic that is very useful for analyzing whether there is sufficient agreement to compel the community to act, and if not, where to begin the discussion.  As we pointed out in our earlier post on the data to wisdom continuum, one reason public deliberation efforts often fail to gain traction, or even result in increased polarization, is that they focus prematurely on specific solutions without engaging citizens on the component parts that would help build understanding and awareness.  Creating more safe spaces for exploratory dialogue, and providing for citizen driven interaction, would help promote more effective public deliberation.

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.

Celebrate ABA Mediation Week 2013

This year we are once again sponsoring an ABA Mediation Week event together with the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri School of Law and the Association of Missouri Mediators.  This will truly be a statewide event with on-line video streaming and opportunities to connect at 4 physical locations that will be linked through videoconferencing.   The program will kick-off with an open discussion on the impact of mediation on the community, business, families, and the legal profession.   The AMM’s annual meeting will follow.  The four locations are as follows:

University of Missouri-Columbia
Room 001 Bond Life Sciences Center
1201 Rollins Street
Columbia, MO 65211-7310
Phone re directions: 573-424-4254

Mercy College of Nursing and Health Sciences of SBU
4431 S. Fremont Avenue
Springfield, MO 65804
Phone re directions: 417-820-7423

Kansas City
Cornerstones of Care
300 East 36th Street
Kansas City, MO 64111
Phone 816-508-1700

St. Louis
University of Missouri St. Louis
South Campus Computer Building 200A
1 University Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63121

Working Through Cognitive Errors – A Review

In this final post in our series on cognitive errors , we provide a general summary of some of the key approaches that facilitators or others might use to keep dialogues on difficult issues going even when cognitive errors threaten to shut down those dialogues.

What facilitators should not do is point out that something is a cognitive error!  We already had one reader express concern at the use of the phrase “cognitive error”, reacting to the phrase as if we were judging right or wrong on a particular argument. The phrase “cognitive error” is a term from the field of psychology, although “cognitive distortion” is also used.  As we explained at the outset of this series, a “cognitive error” is a thinking pattern that distorts the processing of facts, emotion, and other information.  In this sense “error” is similar to the term as it is used in baseball:  A defensive misplay.  When cognitive errors appear in dialogue, they are often defensive in nature.  They also make the discussion more difficult and frustrating for others.   Whatever the term, this series has looked at approaches facilitators or others can take to avoid an impasse and keep the discussion moving when it threatens to stall.  Here are some of the key points:

In order to feel safe enough to participate effectively, process new information, and consider new ideas, people need acknowledgement of their thoughts and acceptance of their fears, concerns, and efforts.  In difficult conversations then it is important for facilitators to be gentle with the individual speakers, avoid direct confrontation, invite participation, and reflect, reframe, or shift perspective in the ways we have discussed.  As Fisher and Ury urged in their groundbreaking book “Getting to Yes”, we need to “separate the person from the problem.”

A facilitator can also ask about data and information relevant to the conversation, share new data, summarize the information received, and invite reflection.  Before summarizing and inviting reflection, it is useful to have a list of five or more points.  Having a longer list helps to avoid participants falling into a debate over one or two points.  With a sufficient number of points to reflect upon, a facilitator can use open ended questions aligned the “data to wisdom continuum” to encourage evaluation, and the consideration of new perspectives.  Another way to encourage dialogue when participants are losing hope is to shift from the present and ask questions like “If it were . . .”, or “What if . . ./would that make a difference?”  As those questions are explored people are often willing to start looking at the issue of what might move us closer to an acceptable next step.

We have also found that both providing “choice points” for the group (example: “we can stop now or pick up another topic or continue/what would you prefer?”) and breaks combined with “h0mework” (reflections to write, process questions to think about, information to reflect on or obtain) is very helpful for moving through difficult issues.  This means that you must plan for multiple sessions from the outset.

The above also means that for the most part you assume the goodwill of every participant.  We are not naive, and know that there are those who deliberately disrupt dialogues.  In our experience though, the intentionally disruptive are in the minority.  How to handle those is a subject for another post.  Many more show up because they are genuinely concerned and want to be heard.  If you assume goodwill, acknowledge and accept all contributions, and help the group navigate through cognitive errors and other sticking points, they will start to hear each other and consider new approaches.  When that occurs, dialogue serves to rebuild the sense of community among the participants and effective and sustainable solutions to difficult issues can emerge with surprising speed.