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3 Questions for Navigating Conflict in Dialogue from PCP

We thought our members would resonate with this piece from the blog of our friends with NCDD organizational member the Public Conversations Project that offers key questions you can ask as you seek to address conflict. The post came from a discussion on the NCDD discussion listserv, and we encourage you to read it below or find the original by clicking here.


At Public Conversations Project, we work with groups torn by deep divisions over issues related to different identities, beliefs and values – divisions that tear apart communities and block progress toward shared goals. One of the most important preparatory measures we take as dialogue practitioners is crafting opening questions that promote understanding and reduce stereotyping.

We’ve found that asking questions that promote reflection and elicit personal speaking is especially critical if some of the participants have come to see each other in unidimesional ways, perhaps even as the cause of, or sustaining force behind, the “problem.”

Here are three questions we’ve developed that cultivate a sense of curiosity and encourage participants to view each other – and even themselves – in a richer and more nuanced manner:

1. “How has this conflict had an impact on you and your life?”

We begin by inviting participants to share a story from their life experience. We typically invite a “story from your life experience that might help others understand how you have come to the perspectives you hold on the issue at hand.” The effect of this question is quite powerful; it de-stereotypes individuals in each other’s eyes and allows people to be seen in their living, breathing complexity (rather than as bearers of slogans). We sometimes precede that question with another. For example, we sometimes ask participants to share a story that might help others understand the impact of the conflict in their lives.

By locating the fears associated with the conflict in real lives, the question supports better understanding of the views of the other, even if those views conflict with one’s own. Another option for a preceding question is to elicit stories about the values or motivation that brought participants into the room, or a way in which the community or organization has had significant meaning in their lives. Responses to these questions underscore their shared commitment to the group, and highlights the worth of what is at stake for each person if the community remains blocked.

2. “What is at the heart of the matter for you?”

The middle question that we often use allows people, with this expanded sense of connection as a backdrop, to speak briefly about what most deeply matters to them in relation to the issue. This question elicits a more heartfelt presentation of core concerns, visions and values than questions about positions.

3. “Within your thinking about the issue, do you have some gray areas or uncertainties, or are there times when some of your values related to this issue bump up against other values you hold?”

This is a very powerful antidote to views of “the other” as simple-minded, and allows each person to “own,” for others and themselves, the views and values normally set aside or suppressed in the polarized battle. These questions offer a solid foundation for fostering a constructive conversation on a divisive issue, but they’re not a recipe for all situations. The most crucial question we ask ourselves as dialogue practitioners is: “What questions will best serve the shared purposes of this group, at this time, and in this setting?”

This blog is adapted from a listserv entry that Founding Associate Maggie Herzig wrote on the listserv of the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation. Want more tips from Public Conversations Project? Check out our resource library or upcoming open enrollment workshops.

To find the original version of this piece, please visit www.publicconversations.org/blog/3-questions-open-constructive-conversation#sthash.MppNwawE.dpuf.

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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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