Working Paper 94-9 February 1994(1)
By Sallyann Roth
Public Conversations Project,(2) Cambridge, MA
(1) This paper is an edited transcript of a talk given by Sallyann Roth for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on November 6, 1993. Funding for this Project was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309- 0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail: email@example.com.
© 1994. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.
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I am here as a representative of the Public Conversations Project whose goal is to develop models for facilitating dialogue on divisive public issues. The work that I present today draws on the experience of four family therapists (myself, Laura Chasin, Dick Chasin and Corky Becker), and one writer and researcher (Maggie Herzig), who comprise our action research team. Our family therapy experience guides the way we ask questions, suggests particular ways of facilitating conversation, and certain ways of positioning ourselves with regard to relationships and issues. So far the model we have designed is primarily a singlesession model, which we have used for discussing the issue of abortion. In the last seven or eight months, we have been experimenting with other uses, which I may touch on a little bit, but mostly I'll describe our abortion dialogue format.
Our work is an effort to open space for dialogue in situations where that space has been closed. In polarized situations, it often appears that there is an invitation, if not an induction or even an instruction, for people to line up on one or the other side of a line. There are certain benefits to being aligned on one side such as social validation, having a place to stand, the support of likeminded people, and avoiding the risks of stepping out and being seen as different. For many people in intractable conflicts, standing on a side supports a sense of self and a sense of group membership. However, loyalty, or standing on a side, or allowing oneself be drawn to one pole or another also exacts costs, both from the individual and from the community. The cost to the individual has to do with the suppression of their own uncertainties and complexities, and sometimes, the suppression of personal experience, conversation, and inner conflicts about values. One of the most common costs that we have heard about is the suppression of differences between oneself and one's allies, which creates the appearance of a united front. These are the costs to the participants.
There are also costs to the nonparticipants -- the people who are on the sidelines. These include the silencing and marginalizing of people whose views don't fit at either pole; people who see themselves or fearing that they will be seen as "soft" or disqualified, because they don't speak up and don't appear to stand firmly on one side or another; people, who, for these reasons, may feel a sense of isolation. Most problematic of all, is that the community perceives the controversy as a win/lose situation, even though it is likely that there can be no simple win or loss. When there appears to be a win, the winning party feels that they need to defend their position, and the party who has lost rallies resources to retaliate. Stalemates and these "wins" and "losses" have extremely high financial costs. On the abortion issue, if all the money that has been spent on people fighting each other was spent, instead, on health care for women, what might have happened? I don't know the dollar amount, but it is absolutely phenomenal! Our investment in this work arises from this sense of waste.
We began by trying to design a model that would move people away from polarized debate and toward dialogue. We use the term "dialogue" to mean conversations in which people speak as individuals, not as representatives of causes, about their own unique experiences and beliefs. In these dialogues, uncertainties, as well as certainties, can be raised, and the limitations of the visible polarized, discourse can be acknowledged and overcome. In dialogue, ambiguities and uncertainties are brought to the foredifferences between individuals' views are recognized and addressed openly, which makes the differences and ambiguities less frightening.
We have become very aware of the difference between the visible, simplistic discourse and the invisible conversations people have with themselves -- conversations that never get into the media, and hence tend to be ignored. (When people get very caught up in a cause, they may even stop having these conversations with themselves.)
The visible discourse is often characterized by broad stereotyping and by dehumanizing images. The opponent or "other" is seen as less than moral, not quite human, and definitely not like the "self." Since stereotyping and dehumanizing behaviors fuel these kinds of fruitless public arguments, we have tried to find ways to break down stereotypes and to open up contact with people who have been seen as "other."
A family therapist from Norway named Tom Andersen speaks about the difference between inner talk and outer talk -- the talk that we do with ourselves and the talk that we do with others. He points out that in conflictual situations characterized by high reactivity it is not only the speaking and listening between the parties that gets lost, but also the chance to self-reflect and to have a complex inner talk. So in designing this model, we tried to help people to reflect and to expand their own conversation with themselves, as well as the conversation they were having, or not having, with other people. This, we find, is not only useful in situations where the visible discourse is very heated, but also where there is seemingly no discourse at all, where speaking differently, and possibly even thinking differently, is experienced as dangerous or hopeless.
So far we have facilitated nineteen groups, of varying size and gender mixes. The most reliably successful size seems to be about six people. We have found that the results are considerably different in single gender groups and mixed groups. I will not characterize what the differences are, because each of us has a different answer, and I don't want to impose my own views here. But there are differences.
The nineteen groups have largely been "stranger" groups: people who don't have a shared history, and who don't anticipate a future together. More recently we have been facilitating groups with people who do have a history with one another and who do anticipate a future with each other. One was a church group in Mississippi, another a women's group, and several other groups that have an ongoing life and are focused on other issues besides abortion .
How do we get people to come to our "stranger" groups? We get their names from various sources, and then issue both written and telephone invitations. The written invitation is very carefully drafted. The one we are now using probably took us 7075 hours to write. That may seem excessive, but we have the conviction that if we are inviting people to do something new and to come, as we say, "rhetorically disarmed," then we must provide them with a certain amount of safety. Some of that safety comes from all the participants having a clear understanding of the process, the groundrules, and how this process is fundamentally different from traditional debates or discourse on abortion that they might have seen or been involved in the past.
One person on our team, Maggie Herzig, has done all the initial telephone contacts for the abortion conversations. She spends as much or as little time as people need. She gives them opportunities to ask all kinds of questions, and she models openness and curiosity in an easy engaging way. She listens thoughtfully and respectfully to others, whatever their concerns. She will listen as carefully to somebody's question about what they should wear as to their question about whether or not somebody is going to attack them. She invites them to speak about any concerns that they have, giving them as much information as they need. We address the people that come to these dialogues as being coinvestigators with us, right from the beginning. We ask them to help us, to work with us, to try to find ways for people who are ordinarily drawn into divisive conversations to develop a new way to talk and to work with each other.
Along with the letter of invitation, we send a chart which clearly illustrates the difference we see between debate and dialogue. (A copy of this chart is included at the end of this paper.) Participants know exactly how we define dialogue. They know for which column they are being invited to come. They are specifically invited to bring the part of themselves that is able to listen thoughtfully and respectfully to others, and not the part that is prone to persuade, defend, or attack. We are assuming that people have a wide range of possible behaviors and we are inviting them to bring just one particular set of behaviors to this meeting. We have had 75 participants; only two people on each "side" who have been invited have turned us down because they felt they could not leave that part of themselves at home. Most of the people who have turned us down were simply too busy in their lives to attend another evening meeting. But only two felt they could not change their ordinary mode of interaction to include dialogue.
When the night of the dialogue session arrives, we start with an informal dinner. There are many reasons for having the dinner. One is that we have the idea that when people break bread together, something happens which is different than when they are having a debate. We invite them specifically to introduce themselves to each other in ways that do not reveal what side they stand on. It is fascinating to participate in these dinners, and see people trying to figure out who is who, and to see them find out that they can't. Not being able to easily figure out who is who is the beginning of the destereotyping process that continues throughout the whole evening.
Next, we review a series of agreements that have already been laid out in the phone call and again in the letter. These are agreements about confidentiality, and about using what we call "respectful language." We explain this by saying that participants have told us that they feel better, and are more likely to have a good conversation, if other people describe them in the same terms that they use to describe themselves, such as "pro-choice" not "anti-life," or "pro-life," not "anti-choice." Another rule is that there can be no interruptions. We ask people to wait until others finish speaking before they speak. To avoid grandstanding, we give time limits. We say, "This question usually takes about two minutes to answer. Will you please keep your reply to two minutes or so?" Then if people go over their time, the facilitators can interrupt. But no participant can interrupt. We also have a "pass" agreement, which means that everybody knows that they can say "pass" if they are asked to do or say anything that they don't feel ready to do or say. They can either pass for the moment or they can pass for good. They don't even have to say why. We also ask people not to speak about "them" or "us," but only speak from an "I" position for the duration of the meeting.
After these agreements are made, we ask three questions. The first one inquires about participant's life experiences in relation to the issue of abortion. The second asks them to state what is the heart of the matter for them on the abortion issue. The third asks them to describe an conflicts between their general position on abortion and another values they may hold. I will give the exact content of these questions later. These questions are given in a particular sequence for specific reasons that will become clear later. The wording of each question took almost as long to work out as the letter did, and was very much influenced by the participants. (Each group that participates gives us feedback, and we alter what we do depending on what it is that they tell us.)
Then we move to questions of curiosity, in which participants get to ask and answer questions of each other, which can be tricky, depending on the size of the group. Next is a section that we call "insession reflections on the process" in which we ask people questions about what they have done or not done to make the meeting go as it has. It is a chance for them to say their parting thoughts. A few days after the session we place follow up phone calls.
I have skimmed over the outline of the process because I want to focus on the premises that underlie the design. I want to describe why we do what we do and what we are thinking about during the process, rather than simply describing the process itself.
We see our process as having four components: 1) Preparing participants for a journey into the new; 2) creating a safe context; 3) avoiding the old debate while providing the conditions for entering into a new conversation; and 4) fostering the co creation of a new conversation. I want to discuss each of these in some detail.
1) Preparing participants for a journey into the new.
This is begun, as mentioned above, with the initial phone call and the letter of invitation. The reason that we think this preparation is so incredibly important is because when people are frightened, they fall back into what is usual, into their customary ways of discussing a topic and dealing with differences. Think about your own personal life. When you are in a jam, you probably end up using some way of operating that probably fit well into your life long ago, 1015 years ago, if not longer. We know that if you put people in a hot situation, the likelihood that they will slip back into the usual is high. So we want to structure the situation so that is less likely to be necessary.
One of the ways we do this is by making our expectations of participants absolutely clear. All these agreements that I mentioned earlier -- the confidentiality, the "we" and the "I" have all been described to participants long before they engage in dialogue. There is absolutely no room for their misunderstanding because, through our initial telephone conversations, we are sure that participants understand and accept these rules. In the calls, Maggie presents the idea of the session as an adventure, an adventure into being known and of knowing others in a different way. As part of the preparation, she sometimes talks about how strange they may feel, and says that many of the ordinary conversational tactics that people use will not be available, and that that may therefore feel funny. That is part of the preparation. So when people come, if they feel awkward, they know that everyone else feels awkward too. Hence they are unlikely to feel threatened or to be inclined to slide back into old modes of behavior.
Another idea we convey is that people are participating because they have certain shared concernsnot common ground. We totally avoid the phrase "common ground." The shared concern that Maggie uses when inviting people is a concern over how continuing to fight with each other is costing everybody something. Everyone acknowledges the high costs of divisiveness. The team engages participants in the externalization of polarization, seeing polarization as the enemy, not the "other" as the enemy. Some members of our team would not like that language because they don't like using anything as the enemy, but I find it a useful image. One of the things that must happen during in the initial phone call and letter is for people to buyin to a different process. They agree to come prepared to do something different. Some of the people tell us later that they worried about whether or not they would be able to do it. So it becomes a matter of pride -- of being able to do something different. They come, many of them, really, really wanting to be seen and be known by the other, partly because of something that was mentioned earlier -- it is not fun to be seen as a bigot or to be seen as "not Christian", if you hold certain views.
2) Creating a safe context.
Many of the agreements that I have already described are used to demonstrate our commitment to adequately protect people when they come disarmed. The confidentiality agreement serves to reduce the risk of public exposure. The "respectful language" agreement reduces the chance of being insulted. The "pass" agreement reduces the pressure to speak if someone is not ready to do so. Another agreement we make, which I have not yet mentioned is an agreement to abide by very explicit roles. We are very clear in every contact, right from the beginning, about what the facilitator's role is and what the participant's role is. The facilitators propose a structure and facilitate a process. We make no contribution to the content, absolutely none. We guarantee, up front, that we will make no contribution to the content. We think we are trusted when we say we will do this because, we, as conveners of these conversations at the Family Institute of Cambridge, are on neutral territory and are not seen as aligned with any single position. So those of you in organizations which are not perceived as neutral would have a more difficult task. You would probably either have to collaborate with someone who is your counterpart on another side of an issue and coconvene a dialogue on neutral turf, or do something else really creative. But we have found, repeatedly, that one of the reasons that people have been willing to come is because we are seen as not invested in the content. "Not invested in the content" does not mean that we don't have our own views we all do. But we are extremely careful not to let our own views influence the dialogue or even be known. So we think of role clarity as an absolutely essential element for safety.
The position of participants as coinvestigators also addresses some issues of safety. When people feel that they are being studied, they often feel manipulated or they feel that they are not getting all the information, that "the investigators" are holding things in their heads that are not being shared. Participants in such research often feel closed and frightened. We are committed to being open about every aspect of our process. If they ask why we do something, we give them a reason. We are extremely clear that our design has come out of meetings like this that we have had with other people. When we do followup calls, we are interested in the effects the process had on participants, and we ask if they have anything left over that they need to talk about, at the same time that we gather feedback for ourselves. So we hold ourselves responsible for participants' safety, even after the meeting is over.
3) Avoiding the old debate while providing the conditions for entering into a new conversation.
One of the obvious ways that we do this is by controlling the seating arrangement during the dialogue session. We have little place cards, as you would at a formal dinner, and people sit in the way that we ask them to sit. The arrangement is determined by a number of factors. First, we never seat people with different perspectives on opposite sides of the room. Each person is seated next to somebody who thinks differently than they think, within touching distance, in fact. We got this idea from a participant who said, "I don't think I could be yelling at somebody who is close enough to touch." Another benefit to this arrangement is that, when people the first two questions in order of seating, they initiate the dialogue with a variety of responses from different perspectives. Another factor we consider is openness. As I said, Maggie has had conversations with all of these people ahead of time, so she has an idea about who is likely to be very open in response to the beginning question. Since the person who speaks first tends to set the tone, we place those people who we believe are likely to be most open about themselves and others at the ends of the semicircle.
Another thing which helps to provide the conditions for entering into a new kind of conversation is the specific structure of each step of in the dialogue. We start by saying, "We are going to ask a question and we'd like you, Jane, to begin the answers. Each of you will have a maximum of two minutes to answer this question." With this introduction, people know exactly when they will get their turn and just how long it will be. They know they are not going to be interrupted, and they know they are going to be listened to. After we state the question, we pause, and ask them to take a minute to think about what they want to say before any one starts speaking. Therefore, people do not have to be preparing their remarks while another person is speaking. This makes them more likely to hear what people ahead of them have said. Additionally, they have paused to think about what they want to say from inside themselves, and their answer to the question is less likely to be reactive to what the person before them has said, at least in the initial goarounds.
When we ask them to leave out "they" and "them" and "us," we are really inviting people to move from the political to the personal. We have the idea that when people move from the political to the personal, it is the beginning of a change in the relationship between self and other that allows a new kind of conversation to happen. Once they do this, people can imagine different possibilities for what can happen next.
4) Fostering the cocreation of a new conversation.
The last of the four categories has to do with behaviors that foster cocreation of a new conversation. For example, we proceed at a very slow pace. We set a tone that creates an almost sacred space for this conversation. The pace alone makes this conversation feel different than other conversations. Even like a ritual, of sorts. The tone tends to be heartfelt, curious, respectful, and thoughtful. This kind of tone lends support for curiosity, complexity, and above all, the sharing of uncertainties as well as certainties. The whole design recognizes that chronic political conflict is generally not amenable to resolution through an exchange of facts. So, if we can set up a conversation that is rooted in personal experience and values, then the level of conversation will shift.
Some people ask how a meeting so heavily structured can allow genuine interchange and this meeting is very heavily structured. It becomes less heavily structured as we go along, but the beginning is very tight. Some of our friends who work very differently have challenged this tight structuring in particular. Our answer is this: a structure that suppresses some things can liberate other things. There is no freedom without structure, and there is no structure that doesn't suppress some kind of freedom. We are very aware of the tension this technique creates. We believe that the structure that we have designed suppresses dominant accounts on these hot issues (that is, accounts that are visible and polarized) and frees up nondominant accounts (unseen accounts that are varied, that do not fall neatly onto a "side").
In that way, our process is not neutral. The facilitators have made a decision to structure the process in a way that brings aspects of the conversation that are usually silenced into the fore and that (at least temporarily) silences those aspects of the conversation that ordinarily take up most of the space. Some of us have privately been so bold as to say that we see this as an act of social justice. We are quite conscious that, in fact, our values do guide our work. A major belief that drives our work is that the values of each participant deserve respect. We believe that, in any conflict, all voices need to be heard and need to be fully witnessed. By fully witnessed, I mean not only hearing the content and the words, but hearing the emotional valence which they carry. We believe that a process that invites the re-integration of affect into a story from which many layers of affect have been sifted out can lead to the inclusion of new issues and the development of new approaches to any conflict. It felt to us that designing such a process was a moral path to pursue.
In the model the first question we ask participants is this: "We would like you to say something about your own life experience in relation to the issue of abortion. For example, something about your personal history with the issue. How you got interested in it, what your involvement has been."
The answers to these question tend to fall in two categories. One category is something about it "being in the air, being in my family as I grew up." The other category of response tends involves a recounting of an intense, affectively important personal experience -- a turning-point, either with themselves or with a friend. The answers to this question are sometimes fairly long. People tell very personal stories.
Question two is: "We would like to hear a little about your particular beliefs and perspectives around the issues surrounding abortion. What is at the heart of the matter for you as an individual?" We have struggled over whether or not to keep this question in our protocol. It is a regressive question that invites people back to politicized statements. But what we have found, and what people have told us, is that if they don't that their stand is heard, they cannot speak about their doubts. If they don't feel fully seen in their deepest belief, they may feel too disloyal, or too vulnerable to being misunderstood, to reveal complexities or conflicts within their own predominant views. I would like to show you two answers to this second question on video.
Lorna: The fact that a child is wanted or not wanted by someone else -- it would frighten me to think that my life and the importance of my life is contingent upon the fact that someone wants me. I am special in myself and it doesn't matter to me whether someone wants me or not. My life certainly shouldn't depend on it at any stage.
This next comment is from a an African-American woman who lost both parents in the civil rights movement:
Elaine: The first thing I think about foremost is my survival because the only way that my kids and my offspring is going to survive is that I survive...being a woman out there by myself, it's very frightening. So any little choice taken away from me is frightening, you know, as a woman of color.
The third question has a very long preamble. It goes like this: "Many of the people that we have talked to in these sessions have told us that, within their general approach to this issue, they find some gray areas, some dilemmas about their own beliefs, or even some conflicts. Sometimes the gray areas are revealed and people consider hard cases, circumstances in which a prolife person might want to allow an abortion or in which a prochoice person might not want to permit an abortion, or in a very different way, sometimes an individual feels that his or her own views on abortion come into conflict with other different values and beliefs. We have found that it has been very productive and helpful when people share whatever dilemmas, struggles, and conflicts they have within their prevailing view. We invite you to mention any pockets of uncertainty or lesser certainty, any concerns, value conflicts, or mixed feelings that you may have and wish to share."
This question brings out differences among those with similar positions and suggests bridges between those with different positions. It encourages participants to grapple with the complexity of their own views, in front of each other. Here are the same two women you just saw, this time speaking about uncertainties:
Lorna: One time I was discussing this issue with a friend and said I was pro-life, and he said, "Obviously you never grew up an unwanted child." And he was right, they wanted me. I think of the children that suffer and think to myself, would it be better if they had been aborted? but then I think, they have life. But it's really hard to watch children in pain and sometimes it's hard to be prolife, but at the same time, I'm so pro-life. So that's something I really struggle with.
Elaine: When is a child really a child? Because, if I was pregnant myself, if I were more that three months pregnant, I, being pro-choice, don't know whether I'd have an abortion, that I don't.
I will read a few more sample answers to this question that are not on the tape. A prochoice woman said that her political position is in conflict with her religious beliefs and the sanctity of life. She said: "I don't think God takes it lightly that we make a decision to end a life." She would hate to see abortion be something that we could do without having to think about it. A feminist, prolife woman indicated that she was ambivalent about disallowing abortion in a society that did not have adequate supports for women facing unplanned pregnancy. Another prolife woman was very clear about her abstract beliefs, but when she is faced with a particular individual situation, she finds it very hard to hold her abstract belief in the center. A prochoice woman said that, when she thinks about the damage done to children by drugs and alcohol before they are born, she feels compassion for the fetus, and under those conditions, she begins to think that the fetus may have rights. So you can see the range of complex issues that people grapple with as they answer these questions.
Of these three questions, the first two questions are answered in a "go-around" with each person responding in turn according to the seating position. With the third question, we start to loosen the reins a little. We say, "When you are ready, answer this question, you don't need to answer in any particular order."
In this heavily structured beginning, people begin to learn a way of being with each other. Then we open space for more and more freedom, within the bounds of the ground rules of course, and something different from the usual continues to happen.
In the next step, which is an opportunity for participants to ask each other questions of curiosity, we pull back a bit as facilitators and, in fact, move our chairs out of the circle, but not too far away, so we will be ready if needed. For instance, if someone has difficulty phrasing a question as a genuine question of curiosity and slips into rhetoric, we will help them recast their question. But this is really their time. Our assumption is that since they have heard so much from each other already, they may really have some questions. We have one sequence from this stage on the video. It is a question asked by a prolife participant and answered by two prochoice participants.
Jessica: That raises a question for me, and I would like to ask of people on the prochoice side. Do you grapple with the complex repercussions of an abortion that has on a woman...?
Margot: I've always assumed that if I had an abortion that it would have serious emotional ramifications. But I also assumed that if I had a child that I didn't chose to have, that would have serious emotional problems. So, I...I feel that I would be carrying a certain amount of emotional baggage no matter what decision I made. There's no question in my mind that I would be aware of the birth date, I would think.. you know, "oh, I would have a little girl now, or a little boy.." or whatever...But on the other hand, if I couldn't have kids, I would try to adopt. You know, so it's...But I couldn't be the one giving up the child. It's weird, but...
Alice: Well, I'd like to speak to that, too, because I have had an abortion...I would say that I have not suffered any particular emotional or psychological repercussions...I am here as a living proof that this does not always need to be a tragedy, as with anything, I try to honor other peoples' experience and when people say, "oh, this has been very damaging to me," I am not here to say, "no it hasn't been," but I can say, "it doesn't have to be for everybody."
When we ask participants to reflect on the dialogue process, and to indicate what they have done or not done to make the conversation go as it has, people often talk about their curiosity, their feelings of open-heartedness, and their willingness to show parts of themselves that they may ordinarily have less access to. Here's one clip.
Jessica: I know that I came here conscious, very conscious of wanting to be "open minded" if not just open hearted. I, like everyone else here, I'm sure, if I were confronted by a stranger, or even a friend who opposed, I would immediately dive into debate and I would hold my position, you know, with both arms, hang on tight. But I feel as though I gave of myself in a way by coming here and allowing my own position to drop and then really care for where other people, really try to put myself in other people's shoes.
Many indicate that they had to exercise considerable self-restraint. One man said that he had bitten his tongue a lot. Many others comment on how our format enabled them to behave differently:
Margot: Part of the reason why all this works is the setting and the ground rules that you have set up. I think that unless, unless we all knew that there were certain limitations, I mean I, like you, at times just wanted to just sort of jump right in there! But those weren't the ground rules, you know, and I felt strongly that we all had to abide by those ground rules, that I had to abide by those ground rules.
Todd: I do think that taking the superheat out at least allows you to hear the other point of view better. And that occurred because we kind of had a stake in, you know, the atmosphere was supportive as soon as we walked in; people were very friendly and it was obvious that this was an opportunity to kind of be a little bit more of who you are and a little less guarded.
Still others remark on the discrepancy between what happened in the session and what occurs in the public debate. One prochoice woman was left with an expression of anger, not at the other side, but at polarization in general:
Kathy: I had this amazing sense of anger. I mean I was absolutely furious with the fact that we have, we have worked here this evening -- we have worked, you know -- talking about how we feel and really trust in the fact that we wouldn't jump all over one another, and I just really feel very angry for the people who seemed to control things out there that don't give us the room to really know one another and to work together, and that, that I, you know, I really even in this short time, I would like to know more of you in different ways...I have a real sense of what we lost because the energies really seemed so split.
Here are three people who seemed to leave with a sense of hope:
Lorna: I was kind of uncomfortable coming tonight and because I have a tendency to get really upset and have a bad temper. All the way over here I was yelling at the cab driver. But I am really going away with the sense that there is really something that can be accomplished, because it would have been easy for us to have polarized and we didn't.
Alice: We have all had the experience of being on the rhetorical end of these kinds of discussions. And it's very easy to talk about your experience with people you know, who you know are sympathetic to you, to your political positions. I think it's much more difficult to share with people who you know are opposing you on an ideological level. But this is, in my mind, how human community is formed and deepens. We do not change the world by staying on two sides of the fence and yelling at each other.
Elaine: I think the two sides can work together. My opinion is to think that the two sides can't work together, then why are we on this earth?
A woman at the end of one session in an ongoing group said, "None of us knows the truth, but together we can come closer to the truth. We can be safe, liberated, and accept this. We can continue to struggle even though we may never have it right." Sometimes the experience of listening and speaking in a new way in a dialogue group contains lessons for people's personal relationships. One woman said in a followup call, "I don't really make room for my husband's views. I hadn't thought about that before. So maybe I should change."
Now the last clip that we are going to show is a different illustration of shifting relationships. These women came from a church in Mississippi, but they weren't particularly friends and didn't really know one another. They came together for the purpose of having this dialogue. At the end of evening, one woman's reflection demonstrate that this kind of dialogues can help people to see others who are different as resources, not as impediments, to community.
Annalee: If I were to face a tragic choice related to this issue, I would already have [in this dialogue group] a community within my larger community of faith. We've seen each other and been known and allowed ourselves to be known. Though we differ on the issue of what answers we might provide for each other...I would call on this group of people for your very differences, and that's really exciting to me.
And we on the project have had our views seriously shifted in the process of doing this work. None of us has changed how we vote, but at this point, I would rarely say I am absolutely on one side of a particular issue. We have each had a tremendous renewal of respect for the "other."
A questionandanswer period followed the formal presentation. Not all of that has been transcribed, but some of the more pertinent points are included below.
Q: Can you explain a little more about how you design your process?
A: We think of it in five parts: convening, designing, facilitating, gathering feedback, and redesigning. This take a lot of time and attention. We put an incredible amount of time into considering each of these aspects.
Creating the design is a neverending process as it is a constantly reflexive process. Right into the nineteenth meeting, we were revising our protocol. We are still considering issues like "can we read the question? Won't people think it is weird if we read the questions? It is so unnatural." But we concluded that we are asking them to do something unnatural already. We put so much energy into trying to make the questions say exactly what we want to say, why slip up and let our own anxiety, or some momentary creative feather that floats across our brain, make something else happen? We shouldn't improvise each time, because our goal is not to just design a process, but rather, to design a replicable process that other people can use. So we read the questions. We review everything. "Is it still OK to read the question? Is this question still worded the way we want? Is there something we learned the last time that we should incorporate?"
We think that any design has to do several things. It needs to foster the "I" voice instead of the "they" or the "us" voice. It needs to bring out new information about this issue and people's relationship in the controversy. So we try to figure out better ways to do that -- better questions to ask. What questions will shift people's connection with each other and to the issue, so that they can really open up, so that the information that surfaces can be the focus of a new conversation? One question that we liked we picked up from Michael White (Adelaide, Australia) He was meeting with a group of six, three peace activists and three defense analysts from the Kennedy School of Government, who had been engaged in mutually dismissive interactions. Michael started the meeting with this question: "What are the advantages and disadvantages that you six can see to having a conversation with each other on these issues?" The conversation went on for a good hour and half. It is one of the richest conversations I have ever heard on the subject of conversation.
Q: Where do you find the people in the beginning, when you start making the phone calls?
A: The way we found the people for conversations on the abortion issue was word of mouth. We found one or two people and then they suggested other people. I did a facilitation within an agency that was split over struggles between gay and straight staff. Two people who had declared themselves "Christian" had said some things that offended the gay and lesbian staff. The whole agency had more or less exploded over this. It was a successful intervention, and when we needed to find people who identified themselves as pro-life, I phoned one of the women who had been involved earlier to get a referral. She then spoke to people in her church and said, "These people are all right, you can talk to them." So that's how we began to find participants in that community. Since then, a number of other avenues have opened up. Someone on our team had a connection at Planned Parenthood, and that is how we found some participants from the prochoice community.
Q: What do you do to empower the participants to take what they learn out of the session and do something further with it?
A: That has not been part of our process. Many people do this on their own. For example, one of the persons in the group was a college professor. In his feedback he said he had just designed some classes around this issue. Another person said that she realized that she had never spoken to people at her work who believe the same thing she believes, because she is afraid that they would believe in it a little differently from how she does, and they might have struggles. Now she said she was going to attempt to do that. So people have done their own thing. We don't see ourselves as having an investment in what they do particularly, but in them having the experience of speaking with others and listening to people who are "different."
I'm so glad you asked this question, the "so what" question. I am a skeptical person on our team and I sometimes say, "So what? So we've met with 72 people. There are a lot of people on this earth. Why do we think that meeting with 72 people is going to make a difference? Meeting with 72 people only makes a little tiny difference."
Then something happened that we hadn't predicted and hadn't planned for. In one of the more recent skirmishes over Roe v. Wade, somebody decided that having people talk to each other was news. In the past, only people yelling at each other was news, but somebody just got the idea that this was news. Somebody from the Cleveland Plain Dealer telephoned us and later a news agency picked up the story. Then a syndicated column went out all over the United States, which got picked up by other media outlets. NPR picked it up; Voice of America picked it up. Each did their own interviews. We did TV interviews, newspaper interviews, magazine interviews. Suddenly, we had an enormous amount of nation-wide publicity.
We began to get letters from people saying things like, "I thought I was the only person like myself and I haven't been able to talk to anybody. Do you know of anybody in my community?" Somebody else wrote to us and said, "Five of us have been trying to get something going in our community and we just heard about what you are doing and we would like to share ideas back and forth."
So a project that started out as a modest experiment shifted to something much bigger. In our most grandiose moments, we actually now consider that this approach could eventually help change the form of the public discourse on heated issues. We have gotten calls from Oregon, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Maine. We have worked with people in California; we have worked with people from all over who are doing their own projects; people who are teaching high school and college students. The payment that we have asked for our consultation is that when people do a project of their own, they send us a report on it, or they send us their materials, so we can see what they have done. We have been quite amazed to find out that people have done things that are really different, sometimes removing elements of our format that we think are absolutely central and they still have been effective. So we have used their information to challenge ourselves. Do we have to be this elaborate? It was not the participants, but what the media did, which was so different, that kicked us into a larger arena and into many public conversations.
Q: Approximately how long does it take to do one of these?
A: About three hours in the room and about a month or two months of preparation, multiple hours per week.
Q: Not counting the dinner?
A: Dinner is about half an hour. The whole thing takes about two and half to three hours.
Q: So the dinner is preceding?
A: Yes. We provide it. It is very informal. People like to be fed, to be taken care of. We have a break in the middle of the session in which they go out and have some cookies but we ask them not to talk about the issues.
Q: Why do you stop short of seeking common ground on which people could take further action?
A: It is not that we don't believe in action, we are all actiontype people, in our own ways. But we have a belief that we need to not be invested in action in this context if we want people to come together in a way that feels safe. I really want to make a crucial distinction about the facilitator position, which requires a lack of investment in reaching common ground, and a mediator's position which anticipates finding common ground. In an exchange, people feel more threatened if they are expected to give up something important to them or to change their beliefs. So when there is no such expectation, they are more willing to support people who are different from themselves.
For example, one of the groups that we consulted with this year is a group that included people from the Massachusetts Division of Social Services, people who are seen by battered women's shelters as taking children away from women, and battered women's shelter workers, who are seen by the DSS workers as inadequately protecting children. Any of you who work in these areas know that this is a very big and divisive debate. The conversations we guided included lawyers and judges from Family Court. It felt very, very important to structure the dialogue as we dowithout having an agenda about them doing anythingbut these are people who do things. It was in our brain that they would probably do something as a result of this dialogue, but it had to not be the facilitator's agenda. As it turned out, they did some phenomenal things, but action was not on the initial agenda.
Q: Have you had any unsuccessful encounters? If so, what happened?
A: I will tell you the most unsuccessful. We had two people who couldn't find any doubts...that was pretty shocking for people. We had one man who had participated actively according to all the rules, but, at the end, he crossed his arms and said, "I feel like I have been inauthentic and I don't like it." So we felt we had to really give that some thought. When we did the followup call with him, we were really ready. The person who did that follow up call was fully prepared to be totally open, to hear any negative thing, and the participant said, "Well, what I said at the end was true, and I also I did things I never do, and it was really interesting. If you hadn't set it up that way, it would have been the same old thing." So, I don't know if you consider that success or not.
We had a meeting on another issue in Washington, which we considered to be a partial failure because we were working with an entrenched conflict concerning people who had to continue working with each other. We didn't give it enough time. We had another meeting with a lot of the same people over four days instead of one day, and it made a big difference. So now we think it is necessary to consider the nature of what people need to do with each other, and what they are going back into, before you select a time frame. Also, we did this in Washington where most of them work, and they weren't fully able to take themselves out of the usual context. So the followup meeting was held far from Washington, and that made a sizable difference.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the team and their view of their own issues, for or against, and how that played out?
A: This is a really interesting question. At first it really limited us, because we were so persuaded by the nature of the public debate that we too were riddled with stereotypes -- not so much about individuals and sides -- but about what would happen if you put people together. So we didn't put them together right away. We held separate meetings including only members of one side or the other. The people themselves said to us, "Why are you doing it this way? Why don't you put us together with the other side? We would like to talk to each other." We realized that we had accepted the dominant discourse -- that people on this hot issue couldn't speak with each other. Those two first groups gave us almost all the instructions that we now use. They said that people should sit next to each other. They said people shouldn't know who each other are at the beginning. They told us that. It didn't come from us. It came from our participants.
As I said before, we learn as we go along, and alter the protocol as appropriate. We do this between sessions, but we may do it within one session too. We run the sessions in front of a oneway mirror, so there are two people in the room who have a protocol, which they are trying hard to stick to. Then there are the rest of us behind the mirror, who are trying to see what is going on. Are there things we should tell our facilitators at the mid-session break? Behind the mirror, where we don't have to be managing the conversation, we are freer to feel what is happening.
This entire experience has transformed us personally, in the sense that we now understand that there can be more than one "right way." Again, we haven't given up our personal beliefs, but we have expanded ourselves in very important ways. I don't think I can stand solidly on one side of an issue, without respecting someone on the other side ever again in my life. I could before.
Q: In the last session, Glen Morris talked about the conflict between the Native Americans and the Italian Americans in Denver over the celebration of Columbus Day, which was a very heated, deeprooted conflict. Mediation was tried in that case, by several people and organizations, but it failed to achieve any agreement. Do you think the dialogue process would work for a conflict like that?(3)
A: I would certainly try it. Not this format, exactly, but I would certainly design a process using these principles. Glen Morris indicated that none of the mediation processes that were used gave either side the opportunity to speak openly, or to really listen to what the other side's concerns were in any kind of personal way. One side, the side that had experienced themselves as less empowered, was desperately trying to tell that story, according to Morris. I only heard one side, but from Morris's perspective, the Italian-Americans seemed more focused on the use of power than on a personal connection with what the issue meant. So I certainly would have wanted to shift that emphasis.
As I said before, if you use a structure like this, it is not neutral. It does shift power, because it gives equal access to both stories -- equal access to both speakers speaking and to listeners listening. I don't know what would have happened, but I certainly would have wanted to try it.
Q: Can you talk about the rest of the issues that have been brought to you?
A: We have dealt with everything: rent control, abortion, gay/straight issues within organizations and at the state level, environmental issuesfrom forest preservation to biodiversity, and the interface of population, women's health and environment issues at an international policy-making level. We want to put our energy behind issues where a better conversation might have substantive social utility.
Q: About a change in the public discourse...is there a kind of natural research project that your group is doing around these issues?
A: No, we are not researching that in any formal way. We are just basically collecting data and feeding it to others. We've consulted on the Northern Forest in New York and New England. We also got a call from Vancouver on the same issue. We serve as a clearinghouse to get some of those people together. We haven't done any formal research, nor do we plan to. We hope that somebody else will. As I said last night in an informal conversation, we are the plumbers. We like being the clearinghouse, connecting people with others or saying we send you a copy of a newspaper article on a project addressing exactly what you are working on. We just ask people to let us know what they are doing, so that we can keep being a clearing house.
Other Papers By Project Members About Work Of
The Project and Work Based on the Project's Model
Chasin, L. Population and family planning in context: Steps toward a shared vision. A report on a dialogue weekend at Chappaquiddick. Unpublished.
Chasin, L., Chasin, R., Herzig, M., Roth, S. & Becker, C. (1991). The citizen clinician: the family therapist in the public forum. American Family Therapy Association Newsletter, Winter, 36-42.
Chasin, R. & M. Herzig. (1993). Creating systemic interventions for the sociopolitical arena." In B. Berger-Gould and D. H. DeMuth (Eds), The Global Family Therapist: Integrating the Personal, Professional and Political. (pp. 141-192). Needham, Mass., U.S.A.: Allyn and Bacon.
Roth, S. (1992). Speaking the unspoken: a work-group consultation to reopen dialogue. In Secrets in Families and Family Therapy. E. Imber-Black, ed. (pp. 268-291). New York: Norton.
Roth, S. Chasin, L., Chasin, R., Becker, C, and Herzig, M. (1992). From debate to dialogue: A facilitating role for family therapists in the public forum. Dulwich Centre Newsletter, No. 2, 41-48.
(2) The Public Conversations Project was the inspiration of Laura Chasin, its founder and director. Margaret Herzig, is the project's executive director. The team has been ably supported by research assistants Mary Hess (1991-1992) and Eliza Vaillant (1992-present). Written communications with the project should be sent to 2 Appleton St., Cambridge, MA 02138.
(3) Readers can learn more about this conflict and the mediation attempts by reading Morris's working paper 9414.