Richard Chasin, Margaret Herzig, Sallyann Roth, Laura Chasin, Carol Becker, and Robert Stains, Jr., "From Diatribe to Dialogue on Divisive Public Issues: Approaches Drawn from Family Therapy,"

Mediation Quarterly 13:4 (Summer 1996) pp. 323-344.

Summary by Tanya Glaser.

Copyright 1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium


The authors are members of the Public Conversations Project, which applies insights gained from family therapy to long-standing public conflicts. The Project attempts to "enable [conflicting parties] to understand more fully the beliefs, meanings, values, and fears held not only by their opponents, but also by themselves."[p. 324] While the dialogues facilitated by the Project to date have been private, and even confidential, the authors hope that insights gained from such private conversations may come to influence the broader public conversations.

The authors have declined to situate their approach within the field of mediation, observing that they lack sufficient familiarity with the mediation literature to do so. However, they do acknowledge certain similarities with the transformative approach.

Fostering Dialogue

The authors' approach seeks to promote dialogue between conflicting parties, rather than merely destructive debate. Debate "becomes destructive when it is repetitive, entrenched, and rhetorical."[p. 325] The facilitator's task is to help the parties break out of such destructive conversation patterns, and assume a more respectful and open relational style.

In a dialogue, participants speak merely as individuals, not as representatives of groups or positions. The participants speak directly to one another. Facilitators strive to create a safe atmosphere for such personal discussions, and to promote respectful exchanges. In the authors' work, "Participants are encouraged to question the dominant public discourse, that is, to express fundamental needs that may or may not be reflected in the discourse and to explore various options for problem definition and resolution."[p. 326] Dialogue should not only explore the differences between the conflicting sides, but also reveal differences between individuals on the same side.

There are three basic elements to the authors' approach to fostering dialogue. First, the facilitators seek to collaborate with the participants. Facilitators decline to take an expert stance toward the parties or the issues, acknowledging that the parties are the best experts when it comes to their own experiences and wishes. The authors' practice includes extensive preliminary work before the actual session begins, in order to establish ground rules for conversation, and explore the parties' interests and fears regarding the upcoming conversation. Such preliminary work is usually done with the participants individually.

Second, the facilitators seek to prevent reenactment of old patterns of interaction. Often the facilitator will need to research and identify the old patterns. She must then work with the participants to set ground rules for conducting the sessions. Common ground rules include rules allowing participants to decline to answer a question without explanation, to use respectful language, forbidding attempts to persuade, forbidding merely rhetorical questions, or requiring confidentiality for the proceedings. The authors' employ highly structured sessions to help break old patterns of behavior. Opening the session with "can't fail" questions "sets an empowering norm"[p. 333], and reassures participants that they can communicate. Also, structure helps to relieve the anxiety of the situation, and helps to create a safe space for exploring difficult issues.

Third, the facilitators foster new, more open, and respectful ways of communicating among the participants. The authors observe that anything that blocks the old fosters the new, so the distinction here is made merely for explanatory purposes. The authors describe the hoped-for new dialogue as "a conversation in which delicate matters can be revealed in response to respectful, sincere inquiry, and when revealed, are heard by oneself and others with open minds and hearts."[p. 334] In fostering the new, the task of the facilitator is to "be present fully, presume little, judge not, and inquire earnestly"[p. 334]

From their own practice the authors suggest four tactics which tend to foster new patterns of communication. The parties should present themselves as individuals, rather than as representatives of their position. Parties should be encouraged to explore ideas and experiences that are usually dismissed or ignored by the mainstream discussion. Participants should seek to "discover new differences through inquiry," by asking sincere questions on unclear points.[p. 336] Finally, de-stereotyping exercises can be very helpful in breaking down polarization.

Comparing Dialogue to Transformative Mediation

The authors find both similarities and differences between their approach and the transformative approach of Folger and Bush. Three notable differences emerge. First, the authors are uneasy with the nearly unrestricted self-expression encouraged by transformative practice. In their approach the expression of emotion and review of past grievances must occur within the bounds set by agreed-upon communication ground rules, -- ground rules which require respect for all participants.

Second, the authors' approach emphasizes "planful, structured prevention" while the transformative approach stresses "spontaneous, skillful intervention."[p. 338] This degree of structure allows any competent third party to pursue the authors' approach. The lack of structure in the transformative approach requires proportionately greater skill and sensitivity on the part of the mediator.

Finally, the authors are less optimistic than Folger and Bush about the usefulness or need for transformation. The authors report being "struck by how much the work of family therapy involves family members' efforts to apply abilities they mostly have shown elsewhere to the family relationships they wish to improve."[p. 339] The authors suggest that it is less a lack of character, than an unfamiliar context which underlies poor communication.

Notwithstanding these differences, the authors find the two approaches to be fundamentally in agreement. Both place priority on improving relationships between individuals, and on generally enhancing the parties' relational skills. Both agree that this priority requires the mediator or facilitator to be non-judgmental, to refrain from creating solutions for the parties, to focus on the quality of the process, and to detach themselves from the goal of settlement.