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Aim Higher, Dig Deeper

This article addresses why it is so difficult for our country to navigate the issue of gun violence and contains suggestions for starting a national conversation. It was written by Sarah Read and Dave Overfelt, both of The Communications Center, Inc. in Columbia, MO with funding from the University of AZ’s National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD).  After the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, NICD called for essays to address the challenges of conducting constructive conversations about gun violence in the U.S. As part of their mission, NICD seeks to promote civil discourse on issues of public interest and does not take a policy position on gun violence or gun control but is committed to encouraging a civil discussion.

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Articulation of the Question
What can we do to mitigate fear, anger, and misinformation in order to build the trust necessary to navigate dialogue on the difficult issue of gun violence?

Closing Recommendations

Facilitators often say “Go slow to go fast” and that is good advice here. We need to dig deeper and aim higher in structuring our public conversations about gun violence if we are to make progress.

– Dialogue planners can 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 proposalsxxiv. General framing like “Keeping Our Communities Safe: An Exploration of the Issue of Gun Violence” invites engagement on, and exploration of, a range of questions such as “what brought you here today?” “what is your experience with guns”? “what other interrelating factors or issues are present?” “how do these interact?” “how would we like our communities to be?” These kinds of open questions invite the sharing of a range of perspectives in a nonthreatening way.

Dialogue framed in this manner not only helps to build understanding and connection between participants, it also avoids the resentment and disengagement that can accompany efforts to focus citizens on “recommendations” or “issues” framed by those outside the group. Giving participants choices on which questions to engage with, and how to engage, also calms emotions and builds trust. There are several models of large group dialogues, including the Right Question Project’s Question Formulation TechniqueTM, World Cafe’s, Conversation Cafe’s, and Listening Circles, that help participants shape the direction and content of the dialogue.

– At its base level, “civility” means communicating in ways that reflect mutual respect, care and concern, and that support joint action and effort”. This means that participants should know from the outset that every voice counts and all are welcome. That does not mean, though, that all behaviors are equally welcome. When conversations get heated, facilitators should know how to use reflective listening skills to calm and engage participants. There are other facilitation skills, often used in transformative mediation, which provide emotional support to those in conflict so that they feel heard and are in turn able to better listen to information and ideas shared by others. Facilitators also should be familiar with the narrative patterns that align with Sternberg’s “Stories of Wisdom” and be prepared to use those both to support and reframe when inflammatory language is used.

 – Transparency regarding information development and evaluation is another key element in building trust. Although dialogue participants need access to clear, consistent, understandable and honest data, they also need to be invited to consider what makes data understandable and honest. Engagement with data, along with ongoing and collaborative information development, integration and evaluation, helps participants to integrate the different factors – information, interests, values, relationships, and systemic effects and needs – that underlie complex issues. This means providing opportunities for participants to both give and get feedback on the information that is brought into the process. Framing that provides these opportunities helps participants work through the data-wisdom continuum.

– Dialogue processes that are multi-layered and more organic than linear, not only allow participants to make choices as to how and when to engage as they proceed to work through the issue, they allow the necessary time and space for reflection. As a first layer, a diverse group of stakeholders might be asked to help plan an initial dialogue process. Participants at each dialogue might be asked for input on next steps. As you move forward, allowing for a range of dialogue structures, from in-depth small group dialogues around a particular component of the overall issue, to opportunities for on-line input through surveys and moderated blogs, to occasional large group events where both updates and additional input can be provided, allows individuals to choose their level of involvement. It also allows them to engage in their area of greatest concern – values, information, interests, etc. In addition to providing the reflective time and space needed for individuals to process new information and new ideas, this kind of approach helps to accommodate the busy schedules of modern life. Knowing both that there are or will be next steps and that they can control their level and area of involvement encourages citizens to invest their time and energy in the dialogue process.

– Starting dialogues on gun violence at the local and regional levels among groups and organizations that are non partisan and have both a diverse membership and a common bond, such as Rotary or other service clubs, faith communities, or professional groups can also help to mitigate fear and distrust and set a good foundation for expanding dialogue into the broader community. Initial dialogues can be framed around a standard or value that the group holds in common. These groups can model civil dialogue, and then informally and formally engage others within a network that spans more than one community. They can also help in training and recruiting facilitators.

 – Another powerful way of framing that builds toward wisdom and minimizes negative emotions is to engage participants in thinking about how they would like their communities to be. To be effective though, dialogue processes must be separated from the political process. This means both that the existence of dialogue should not be an excuse for delays in the political process, and that the political process should not be allowed to disrupt the dialogue process. To trust the process, participants need clear, consistent and honest information from the outset about what parts of the dialogue, if any, will be used or made available to others and by whom, what the next steps are following the dialogue, and how the process is or will be evaluatedxl.

– The types of dialogue outlined above can evolve to a “national conversation” if local and regional conversations are coherently linked through on-line tools. Processes for linking knowledge built through various dialogues, and looping that knowledge back to citizens for additional dialogue, can be used to knit together the emerging body of knowledge. These could include not only posting and organizing of various types of information, but also opportunities for participants to be involved in evaluating, refining, reporting, and inviting further input on the ideas that emergexli. Any such structure must be easy to navigate, monitored to ensure its consistency with the “wisdom” approaches outlined above, and clearly nonpartisan. If willing to work collaboratively, the nation’s education institutions might be the best “hosts” of such an on-line workspacexlii.

The above will take perseverance and focus from a wide array of civic groups and political will. Establishing a sustained dialogue between and among communities and regions can, however, not only help us find a way forward on the issue of gun violence, it can help heal some of the rifts that have eroded our national problem-solving capacity.

Resource Link: http://ncdd.org/rc/wp-content/uploads/Read_Overfelt-AimHigherDigDeeper.pdf (download)

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