Tag Archives: Conflict

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

Community and Conflict: Prevention and Healing – An Interview with Bill Johnson for ABA Mediation Week

It’s ABA Mediation Week 2014, and the theme for this year is “Stories Mediators Tell:  From Rookie to Veteran – Exploring the Spectrum of Mediation”.  We are excited to be able as part of Mediation Week to share this interview with Bill Johnson who is a veteran at helping communities through conflict.  Bill was first trained as a mediator in 1985, and he incorporated that training into his work as the President and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester New York (1972-1993), and as the 64th Mayor of Rochester (1994-2005).  After several additional years (2006-2013) as the Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Urban Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology, he is heading a consulting firm focused on “bridging differences to build strong communities” — Strategic Community Intervention LLC.  If you are concerned about distrust and divides within our communities, listen to the following interview and find out what can be done to heal those divides, even after events like those that recently occurred in Ferguson, MO.  You can also download a summary of Bill’s thoughts and experiences here: SCI –Police and Communities Collaboration, 10-14.

Interview With Bill Johnson of SCI

Note: This video was filmed using VTC Stream.

Building A New Dialogue: Reflecting On Ferguson, MO


Listening is at the heart of any productive effort to resolve conflict. At times, it’s the only action that can help people move forward. Real listening is hard work. It requires adequate time and space.  It’s not the kind of “listening” that we often observe in public disputes. It’s not the kind of “listening” that takes words out of context and fits them into an alternative narrative of who is right and who is wrong. Nor is it “listening” in order to pull out components of a possible “solution” that can then be offered to “stop” or “settle” the conflict. It’s not the “listening” that takes place in scheduled forums where people are allowed to “have their say” within time limits and with no assurance – or even real expectation – that what they say will be taken into account as future decisions are made. All of these alternative forms of “listening” — which are frequently evident in public disputes — breed cynicism rather than hope.

Genuine listening requires an active willingness to put aside our own thoughts and opinions as we listen, so that we can hear and consider experiences and perspectives different from our own.  It requires some sense of humility, interdependence, and a desire to think through what the next step might be, together. It’s the kind of listening that President Obama was inviting when he stated that building trust between communities and citizens and police would “require Americans to listen and not just shout. . . That’s how we are going to move forward together, by trying to unite each other and understand each other not simply divide ourselves from one another”. Taking the time to listen this way is worth the effort. Through listening we learn more about ourselves and each other, and that learning feeds real change.

Others involved or observing the recent unrest in Ferguson also emphasized this kind of listening. The St. Louis Post Dispatch called for dialogue involving “some introspection that allows us to both recognize and learn from our region’s still strong racial divide. . .” Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson recognized both the despair that lay behind signs reading “I am a man” and “Black lives matter,” and that these signs represented an invitation to connect, to acknowledge the people behind them, and to genuinely listen to what they had to say.

As columnist E J Dionne  stated,  “. . . how we discuss and debate the events in Ferguson really matters.”  This is because we need to “step outside the usual boundaries of our discord” if we are going to rebuild trust within our communities. The very act of genuine listening stretches those boundaries and changes how we think.  How we define “community” is determined in part by who we are willing to invite into our conversation – – who we are willing to offer a listening ear to, and thus recognize as inextricably related to us. Genuine listening is the hard work of democracy, and it is the responsibility of both citizens and those in appointed or elected positions.

Before we can find “solutions” or “move on” from a deeply rooted conflict that erupts in our community, we need to create safe spaces for listening and sharing.  This includes a mix of informal processes like listening circles or conversation cafes hosted by individuals, churches, or civic groups, and formal processes that are supported with a commitment from those in power to act, and act collaboratively, on what is heard. And then we need to actually listen to each other, share, and build on what we have learned. Like tributaries to the Mississippi, it takes many listening conversations, small and large, and flowing together, to build the trust that sustains community.

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.

Cognitive Errors – Even More

In this post we review four additional  cognitive errors  that occur in our political discussions.  These are:

Fairness fallacies: This error is present when individuals or groups resent others for not meeting their personal standards of what is fair or not fair, or become angry when “doing the right thing” is not rewarded. The fairness fallacy may sound like this: “It’s just not fair”  or “That’s just not right to treat people like that, I won’t even give that the dignity of a response” or “I was polite and asked them nicely and if they can’t respond to that then there’s no further use in even trying.”  As when responding to “shoulds”, the facilitator will want to acknowledge the underlying concern and emotion, and invite further exploration of what motivates the speaker.

Blaming: This error involves failing to take responsibility for one’s own actions or contributions to an issue and shifting it to others. It is one component in the narratives that form the basis for cold hate.  It can sound like this:  “They asked for this (even though we may have voted for it or initiated the request) so it’s their mess to fix.” And it can sound like this: “If they had done X then I wouldn’t have done Y so it’s their fault we’re in this mess.”  Here the facilitator might reflect the conclusion and the corresponding action of the speaker, presenting them as two equal parts of a puzzle to be solved:  “So you think it’s their fault. And you and many others voted for it.  Would you like to say more?”  Usually the speaker would like to say more, and will provide some additional data points.  The facilitator can list those and invite additional speakers to contribute.  When there is a list of five or more items, the facilitator can invite a review and also invite the group to think about next steps.

Emotional Reasoning: When we let feelings define our reality, we are engaging in “emotional reasoning”.  Emotional reasoning sounds like: “I know it because that’s how I feel”, or “that upsets me so much it just can’t be right”.  Emotions need to be acknowledged and accepted as neither right or wrong.  Participants also need to be allowed to process their  emotions.  Juxtaposing “data” or “rational arguments” with emotional reasoning is more likely to inflame the emotions and erode trust among participants than to help a group move forward.  One approach to use when emotional reasoning is prevalent is to summarize the different directions participants are coming from, assign “homework”, and take a break.  This can sound something like this:  “Ok, we have some strong feelings, some information that people would like to consider, and a range of questions people want to ask.  This may be a good time for a break, and over our break, think about how we might proceed when we return.”

Fallacy of Change: When people believe they can change someone else’s views or perceptions simply by wanting to enough or persisting long enough, they are indulging in the “fallacy of change.” You will hear people say things like: “We just have to keep at it and eventually the truth will prevail,” or “if we could just meet more often, we’ll eventually break through.”  In this instance a facilitator might ask where the differences have been, or what values or information have been shared, and then merge that discussion into the question of why others might continue to see an issue from a different perspective.  Following that, the facilitator might raise the question of where the dialogue might go if not into agreement with the speaker’s stated goal.

In our next, and final post in this series, we will summarize some of the facilitation approaches that are common in navigating the various errors we have reviewed in this series.

More on Cognitive Errors

There are several other cognitive errors that regularly appear in our political discussions, including those related to gun violence. These include the following:

Mind reading: Although there is little evidence that most of us can accurately read minds, many indulge in that exercise anyway.  Mind reading sounds like this: “I know what they’re thinking, they’re thinking X and that means we need to stick with Y.”  To mitigate mind reading a facilitator might say, “So you’re thinking Y, and are sure then that they would think X. What else might you be thinking?” Or one might ask “What concerns you most about X”?  “How might it be different if you thought they were thinking A or B?”  As participants begin to explore their different assumptions, new avenues for dialogue can open.

Control fallacies: “Control fallacies” include both the false belief that one has total control, or that one has no control.  The first preempts discussion (“we don’t need to work with them, their views won’t have any effect”) and the second chills it.  If nothing can be done, why even try?  This second form is shown  in statements like “Our gun culture is deeply embedded. Not much can be done.”  A facilitator can respond to this first by reflecting what is felt: “So you feel you have no influence, and its not really worth the effort. Do you want to say more about that?” After hearing and reflecting the response, the facilitator can invite hope: “If it were possible, where would you start?”

“Shoulds”: When one creates a rigid rule of judgment, not tied to any clear principle or generally accepted rule, and becomes angry when others behave in a way contrary to that rule, you are witnessing the cognitive trap of “shoulds”.  We have all heard this in conversations: “she should have known that”, the government “never should” or “always should”, or “he should have seen”.  The key to opening  further  discussion here is to gently explore what lies behind the “should” – is it a principle? a past conversation? anger over an unforeseen consequence?  Exploring the speaker’s assumptions or beliefs will often lead to new questions, and an opportunity to offer additional information that in turn opens the speaker’s perspective.

Being right: The view that one’s opinion is always right results in automatic rejection of any conflicting data or viewpoints.  Not surprisingly, this makes dialogue and reasoned analysis very difficult. Generically this might sound like “That data doesn’t even make sense to me. It‘s just not that way. I already told you the way it is.”  Directly confronting the speaker about this cognitive error, and piling  on more  data, will only lead to more resistance. It’s more likely to be effective to reframe the issue being discussed to incorporate a range of views.  As more information comes into the discussion, the facilitator can invite an exploration of the range of data present: What makes some information trustworthy and other not?  what information is missing that the participants would like to see?  What would the group propose as the next steps?

Global labeling: This cognitive error, which often appears in tandem with “being right”, involves generalizing one or two qualities of a group into a negative judgment of the entire group, while ignoring evidence or other factors to the contrary. This error is evident throughout our public life, in such statements as in “All Democrats are godless” or “All Republicans are heartless”.  “Global labeling” is a type of “us” v. “them” thinking that reflects very low levels of trust of those who have different views or experiences.  Sometimes humor can help a speaker move forward.  For example, referring to the statements above, a facilitator might say something like: “really, all? No [group label, e.g. Democrat/Republican] is [state mirror positive attribute of insult used, e.g., faithful/compassionate].”  Humor should not be used though if the speaker is emotional, or if  global labeling is used in conjunction with other cognitive errors, as the use of humor could easily be viewed as an alignment with the “others” and against the speaker.  An alternative (and safer approach) would be to indirectly acknowledge the error and focus on what the speaker’s statement says about values or direction.  For example, the facilitator might say:” ‘all’ is a strong word and we may, given time, be able to think of some exceptions..  Faith/compassion is a strong value for you.  Would you like to say more about that here?”  Note the use of “we” in the first part of that response both reassures the speaker that he is accepted while signaling to the group that the global labeling is not accepted.  The shift to the word “you” in the next sentence invites the speaker to stay involved.