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Featured D&D Story: Class Discussion on Gun Violence

Today we’d like to feature a great example of dialogue and deliberation in action, a class discussion on gun violence from University of Missouri. This mini case study was submitted by NCDD supporting member Sarah Read of the Communications Center, Inc. via NCDD’s new Dialogue Storytelling Tool. Do you have a dialogue story that our network could learn from? Add YOUR dialogue story today! 


ShareYourStory-sidebarimageTitle of Project: Class Discussions on Gun Violence

Description

Last summer I was asked to redesign and teach the Public Policy Dispute Resolution class at the University of Missouri School of Law which I then taught in the fall semester. At the outset of the semester, the students were asked to write an essay about why they had enrolled and what they hoped to learn.

The majority of those essays reflected the students’ deep concerns, as citizens, with the partisan nature of our political discourse and their frustration at how quickly discussions on difficult issues, even with friends and family, turned into name-calling and debate. The students expressed a desire to better understand and address such things as “media-fueled divisiveness”, lack of “nuance in everyday politics”, and “polarization”. They also asked to learn about how points of view form, how policies are made, how to help opposing groups communicate, and how to “explore the area between two extreme views.”

These questions were discussed in the first part of the semester when we focused on skills such as conflict mapping, question framing, and use of non-adversarial dialogue patterns, and the use of different processes to navigate conflict. The last third of the semester focused on actually applying this learning to a difficult dialogue, and the topic chosen by the class was issues relating to gun control or violence.

The classes that followed were designed to allow the students to directly experience how the choice and sequencing of dialogue structures (here informal dialogue, through a World Cafe type forum, to a more deliberative issue forum), paired with dialogue-based phrasing, can change the usual scripts used in discussion of a politicized, highly charged issue like gun violence.

To focus the discussion students were given a real-world hypothetical of adopting a policy on who could carry guns in public schools. This hypothetical used the demographics of an identified nearby school district and a law that had been recently adopted in Kansas. Class members came into the discussions with a wide range of viewpoints (which had been reflected in their prior essays) and were loosely assigned roles as community members.

The two students who agreed to serve as (i) a school board member highly supportive of both the law and of allowing more guns in the schools, and (ii) the superintendent responsible for managing budgets, safety, personnel, and overall administration, received more detailed supporting information for their roles. They were instructed to raise or share thoughts and information as seemed natural or appropriate in the discussions.

Although starting from very different places, the students were (to their surprise), over three sessions, able to reach unanimous agreement on an interim policy that could be placed into effect immediately. Much of this progress had to do with how the dialogues were sequenced.

Which dialogue and deliberation approaches did you use or borrow heavily from?

  • National Issues Forums
  • World Cafe
  • Conversation Cafe

What was your role in the project?

Professor / Convener

What issues did the project primarily address?

  • Crime and safety
  • Education
  • Partisan divide

Lessons Learned

The sequencing of different dialogue processes, with time off between sessions, when done thoughtfully, can substantially lessen the overall in-person time needed for groups to come to agreement. Sequencing also allows for better option development, and promotes more productive deliberations at the time deliberative thinking is required. This is because successful resolution of complex issues requires integrative thinking about several different factors – information, interests, values, and rules or standards.

Integrative thinking takes time. Sequencing discussions can provide the necessary time for new ideas and options to emerge. Effective integrative thinking within a group also takes trust in the others that you are making decisions with. Without trust, information is discounted and risk to one’s personal interests is likely to take precedence over the effects on others in the community.

Simply put, building trust requires an effort to build relationships. Building relationships also takes time, and multiple contacts. By sequencing conversations so that deliberation does not occur too soon allows for better relationship development.

Where to learn more about the project:

Read full series of posts here: http://buildingdialogue.wordpress.com/2014/03/15/teaching-the-navigation-of-difficult-dialogues-intro.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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