Tag Archives: wisdom

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Sequence – 2

Our second class discussion on developing a policy on guns in our hypothetical school district was a “world cafe” style facilitated meeting.  The facilitators laid the groundwork for productive dialogue from their initial invitation:

Please join your local School Board and fellow community members for a facilitated group discussion of the conceal and carry referendum that is currently before the Board. “We would like to hear the thoughts and comments of all interested community members, both those who are parents and those without children.”

Note how even this short paragraph both emphasizes that participants are coming together as a “community”, and sets an expectation for open, inclusive dialogue. Following this paragraph were four bullets, “What”, “When”, “Where” and “Bring”. This last bullet simply read “Bring: Your thoughtful comments and a willingness to hear others’ points of view!”

As participants came into the meeting they were greeted, handed an agenda, and invited to sit at one of two tables. One of the facilitators then welcomed everyone, gave a brief overview of the process and goal for the evening (to learn more and share thoughts), and invited questions.  This brief intro, which took less than 10 minutes also covered the “next step” in the overall process – – the more deliberative discussion scheduled for the following week.  This (i) let the world cafe participants know that their input would be meaningful as it would be used to shape the options for discussion at this subsequent meeting, (ii) confirmed the current session’s focus on joint learning and thinking, and (iii) provided the facilitators with a reference point that they could use to redirect participants away from premature deliberation as they explored the questions for that evening.  More than once, when participants began advocating for a particular action, the facilitators simply said “today we’re here to listen,”  and refocused on the broader topic.

The overall agenda was timed and covered three topics with breaks and opportunities for additional interaction in between.  The three topics, chosen after analysis of the previous week’s questions were “cost”, “safety” and “ideal policy”.  These were translated on the agenda into the following questions:

  • What economic cost concerns do you have about creating a new conceal-and-carry policy?  What do you think the costs will be? etc.
  • What does safety mean to you?  What about safety in a school setting? What does safety mean to the community? etc.
  • What would an ideal conceal-and-carry policy look like to you?

During the first segment of dialogue (5:10 – 5:35 pm), one small group discussed costs, and the other safety.  The groups then switched tables and topics during the second segment (5:40 to 6:05 pm).   (Facilitators stayed at their table.)  At the end of each segment the participants starred the 2 -3 comments/concerns that they thought most important. In between segments participants had a short break as they changed tables. They were also invited to write down additional comments or questions during the break. During the third segment (6:10 to 6:35 pm), both groups were invited to write down their “ideal policy” on note-cards or post-its before the discussion started, and then to share that with the group.  As the discussion concluded each was again asked to star the 2 – 3 comments/concerns that they thought most important.  After another short break, which also allowed the facilitators to coordinate, key comments (those most starred) were summarized, everyone was thanked for their hard work, and all were invited to come back and discuss options at the next scheduled session.

During the discussions the participants identified a wide range of costs which included administrative costs, training costs, tax impacts, economic development and lost opportunity costs, as well as the “cost of life”.  They also expressed a wide range of views on  safety and generated many questions relating to both safety and costs.  Several of those questions related to what conditions would be put in place with respect to screening, training, licensing, and re-certification if anyone other than law enforcement officials were allowed to carry guns in schools.  Overall, as the facilitator summarized, all were concerned about safety, and the group as a whole wanted a better understanding of both potential funding sources and the costs associated with planning, implementing, and administering any change, before a new policy was adopted.   As will be discussed further in the next post, these questions, and the ways in which they inter-related, laid the foundation for productive deliberations in the following week.

 

 

 

Teaching The Navigation of Difficult Dialogues: Sequence -1

Both policy-makers and the public can make wiser decisions if they think through an issue together. This means involving the public in some way

  • when defining an issue,
  • when thinking through what might be needed to fully understand that issue,
  • when identifying the options to discuss, and
  • when weighing those options.

Having a sequenced approach to public engagement helps to build both public understanding of, and trust in, the decisions ultimately made as compared to those situations where the public is simply asked to comment once a course of action has been tentatively decided on, or not consulted at all.

We started our class dialogue on gun violence with several question based discussions. Inviting people to share or respond to open-ended questions is often a good way to begin a difficult conversation because it

  • moves them away from positional argument,
  • allows them to get to know each other,
  • introduces new concepts and information in a way that does not require an immediate response or rebuttal, and
  • is clearly “exploratory” as opposed to “deliberative”.  (This last characteristic minimizes the fear associated with “deciding on the (wrong) answer”.)

More generally, thinking in questions allows participants to “unpack”, and look at the component parts of an issue, which better enables them to think about where and how those parts interact with each other, as well as with additional issues or concerns that the participants may have.

Our group first generated questions using our sources of conflict “pie-chart”. This led to the identification of a number of things to explore further, a listing of key interests and values, and a listing of relationships that might be affected or considered.  The group also developed a set of questions about the boundaries, rules, statutes or procedures relevant to the issue of gun use in schools. Using a different analytical tool, the group considered what ultimately needed to be decided by their group and why, who should be involved, and what subjects would need to be addressed in considering how any decision might be implemented. Finally they used a “jurisdictional grid” to consider how other levels and branches of government might affect or intersect with any policy that might be adopted by the local school board.  The notes  from these discussions  were then given to a smaller group to plan a “world cafe” type dialogue the following week.  What happened in that dialogue will be the subject of our next post.

Wise decisions require a kind of integrative thinking that takes time.  Participants need to take into account data and information, the context in which that information was collected and disseminated, and the broader context of relationships, values and experience. The question based format used to begin our discussion of what policy should be adopted to govern gun use in our hypothetical community school district promoted this kind of integrative thinking.  It also helped to inform those planning the dialogues as to what additional information might be useful and how to present it.  Wise decisions also require participants to look at both long term and short term consequences of their decisions, as well as what is unknown or assumed.  This requires some evaluation of risk, both to one’s personal interests and to the broader interest of a community.   Thinking in questions helped the participants begin to think about these intersections of interest.  This session also built skills for navigating differences. Participants continued in later sessions to interact by asking questions when points of conflict emerged, which minimized the acrimony that so often develops over complex issues.  And participants were able to use the time between sessions to think further about their own views, and other perspectives they had heard, and to seek out additional information and input.

 

 

Planning For Civil Discourse About Gun Violence

As we noted in our last post, political parties and citizens alike remain deeply divided on what might be done to reduce gun violence. There is however growing support for reducing that violence. Doing so will require more  substantive and civil dialogue that is sustained over time.

In February we were selected by the National Institute for Civil Discourse to write an essay on how to navigate this difficult dialogue. A review of why dialogue on this issue is so difficult can be found in our last post. Below are some of our recommendations on how to plan for dialogue on gun violence.

  • At its base level “civility” means communicating in ways that reflect mutual respect, care and concern, and that support joint action and effort.  Leaders can model communication patterns that respect rather than attack those with whom they disagree.  Leaders can also demonstrate an understanding of (or make an effort to understand) views that differ from their own.  What we need is less partisanship and more listening and reflection. You can read more about the dangers of extreme partisanship and the role of civility in navigating difficult policy issues here.
  • Those seeking dialogue need to frame issues in ways that invite and allow the underlying fears, distrust, and differences in values, information and experience that derail most discussions on gun violence to be addressed. This means starting at a level other than positional debate on, or evaluation of, specific policy proposals.
  • Transparency regarding information development and evaluation is another key element in building trust in a dialogue process. Although dialogue participants need access to clear, consistent, understandable and honest data, they also need to be invited to discuss what makes data understandable and honest.
  • When dialogue is difficult, leaders need to allow the necessary time and space for reflection and also provide participants with choices on how and when to engage as they proceed to work through the issue.
  • Starting dialogues on gun violence at the local and regional levels around questions that reflect a common concern – such as “how do we want our communities to be?” —  can also help to mitigate fear and distrust and set a good foundation for a broader national dialogue.
  • Leaders can further promote civil discourse by using “stories of wisdom.”   These are narratives that emphasize the common good, accept the fact that differences exist, and reflect the hope that a path forward will be found.  Stories of wisdom help dialogue participants to navigate differences in experience, interests, values, and information.

You can download our complete essay, “Aim Higher, Dig Deeper” as a pdf here.  This essay was prepared for and with funding by the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, as part of a collection of essays on supporting a national conversation about gun violence. The collection has also been posted on the NICD blog.

Collaboration: Accounting For Conflict

Some conflict is like a latent staph infection in a body that otherwise seems healthy – waiting to flare up and dangerous when it does.   Well-meaning efforts to engage the public can founder in the face of such a flare-up.  We have seen this happen to public officials who proudly announce a new economic development effort expecting to be praised for working to create jobs, and are instead attacked for hiding information, playing favorites, and engaging in conspiracies.  We have seen this happen to public officials who schedule “town hall meetings” and are surprised with angry venting and personal attacks.  And we have seen many times when the underlying conflict is so deeply rooted that no one shows up to scheduled meetings, dismissing them as mere “window dressing” intended to manipulate a gullible public into believing they actually matter.   How can you know whether your effort is at risk before you begin?

You can start to assess this risk by analyzing issues or arguments that arise repeatedly within your community.  Group these into broad areas, like development, law enforcement, resource allocation, etc.  Then analyze whether certain themes are repeated in how these issues are framed, and what groups tend to appear within each area.  Do those themes suggest the conflict involves deeper differences than differences over interests or information?  For example, is there a clash of values, or arguments regarding the “justice” or “fairness” of governance systems?  How intense are the conflicts?  One measure of intensity is the inflammatory nature of the language used and the tendency to characterize others as “enemies” or “fools”.   Efforts to engage on issues related to areas where conflicts are recurrent, deeply rooted, and intense are more likely to see flare-ups and require careful planning on when, how, or even whether to engage.

If you are interested in systematically assessing your community’s resilience in the face of conflict and its readiness for productive collaboration, we have developed a workbook that will help you do so.  For more information, contact us at info@buildingdialogue.com.

Collaboration: Ready or Not

In our last post we talked about  the importance of assessing your community’s readiness and resilience before determining how to move forward.   Some communities are ready to collaborate, and public engagement efforts will work there relatively well.  Other communities are not.   A community that is clearly ready to work through difficult issues together will exhibit the following characteristics: a strong sense of community, clear vision, strong and collaborative leaders, easy flow of information, and a demonstrated ability and willingness to work through conflicts.   At the opposite end of the readiness spectrum would be communities that have high levels of distrust (demonstrated through either high levels of conflict or active disengagement),  few shared values or interests, and leaders who behave in a highly partisan manner.

Most communities, of course, fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  Determining where your community falls on this “readiness spectrum” will help you identify the capabilities that can be engaged and those that need to be built, and to identify likely bumps in the road.  This kind of assessment and planning will in turn help you to figure out how to foster the civility and respect that is needed for effective dialogue, to provide needed information, and to build an understanding of how government structures work and their boundaries.

If you are interested in systematically assessing your community’s resilience in the face of conflict and its readiness for productive collaboration, we have developed a workbook that will help you do so.  For more information, contact us at info@buildingdialogue.com.