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Public Conversations Project’s Approach

PCP’s mission is to foster a more inclusive, empathic and collaborative society by promoting constructive conversations and relationships among those who have differing values, world views, and positions about divisive public issues. Since 1990, PCP has convened, designed, and facilitated numerous dialogues on a variety of controversial public issues, including abortion, the environment, population and development, sexual orientation and religion, and economic difference.

PCP has two core beliefs:  shifts happen and shifts matter.

Shifts Happen
People whose differences have led to polarization, stereotyping and marginalization can and do develop better relationships with each other when they participate in an effective dialogue.

Shifts Matter
The relationships that evolve through dialogue hold possibilities for collaboration and for respectful disagreement that previously may have been unthinkable.

– PCP’s Central Objectives –

We design and facilitate conversations in which people who have become destructively divided by their differences can:

  • PCP Logodeliberately avoid repeating their habitual, unproductive ways of relating and, instead
  • develop new modes of communicating that lead to mutual understanding, respect and trust.

Why? So that…

  • their differences can be stated constructively and truly heard by people of other perspectives, perhaps for the first time;
  • their own reflection on the issue can be enriched by other perspectives, aspects of which they may find surprisinglyresonant with their own experiences and values;
  • their common concerns can be discovered, appreciated, and-if the participants wish-used as a basis for collaboration and problem-solving; and
  • the toll of the conflict-on resources, on individuals, organizations, and society-can be decreased.

Characteristic Features of Our Work

  • careful preparation of facilitators and participants
  • collaboration between facilitators and clients on planning and design
  • clearly stated, collaboratively defined objectives
  • informed, voluntary decisions to participate
  • appreciation of participant’s skills, resources, values, and visions
  • group agreements and meeting structures carefully designed to support meeting goals
  • attentiveness to power differences and other safety issues
  • encouragement of speaking that is personal rather than positional or constituency-oriented
  • questions that are carefully composed to generate and ever-widening scope of perspectives
  • facilitators that are fair, compassionate, uphold group agreements, and are open about the rationale for their methods
  • promotion of post-meeting reflection and learning

– Typical Steps in the Process

Matching What We Do to What Potential Participants Want
Early on in our conversations with potential participants and/or convenors, we seek to determine whether our general approach is well-suited to their goals or if what they want is better achieved through work with another type of practitioner (e.g., a mediator). Sometimes our style and approach is attractive to potential convenors but their timeline or other significant constraints do not permit us to carefully and collaboratively prepare for the dialogue, in which case we decline involvement.

Learning About the Old Conversation and Exceptions to it
We talk with potential participants and others who are familiar with the issue to learn about the ‘old’ stuck conversation – what is said repeatedly, where the dead ends are, who typically participates, who cares about the issue but remains silent, etc. We also inquire about times when something other than the old conversation happened, how they understand this exception, and what skills, resources, and values already exist in the community that might support future excursions out of the old and into the new.

These interviews constitute only a first pass at ‘mapping’ the old conversation and discovering under-appreciated resources and new possibilities. As we collaborate with participants in planning meetings – and even as we facilitate meetings – we continuously enrich our understanding of old stuck places and new possibilities.

Collaborative Decision Making About the Basics
We talk with a range of potential participants (and potential conveners if the convening role is yet to be defined), to learn: Is there motivation to come together? If so, for what purpose? With what general time frame? Who should convene the event? Who should be there? Why should they be there? Whose involvement would be especially helpful in the process of convening the meeting or designing the meeting? Whose participation might be especially beneficial in spreading positive ripples beyond the bounds of the initial dialogue group? Who should be there in part because they usually side-line themselves or feel side-lined by others, despite the valuable skills and fresh perspectives they might offer?

Further Planning and Issuing of Invitations
At this point, a decision has been made about who will convene the event. The convenor may be PCP as a third party; it may be a planning group consisting of a diverse subset of the participants, whom we serve as design consultants and facilitators; or it may be some variant, for example, PCP may issue invitations on behalf of a small group representing different viewpoints. The next step is to work with these people to make whatever further decisions are necessary to issue an invitation that enables potential participants to make an informed decision about whether to attend and that lets them know who to contact if they have questions or concerns. The invitation always includes;

  • a statement of objective;
  • an indication of what participants can expect of us, and
  • an indication of what the convenors and facilitators will expect of the participants.

For example, the invitation is likely to include a request that people only attend if they can commit to participating for the full duration of the meeting, and it will include a list of proposed group agreements.

Pre-Meeting Exchanges with Participants and/or Convenors
The extent and form of communication that occurs before the meeting depends on the size of the group and the roles that we and others play in convening the meeting. In many cases a phone call is made to those who agree to attend. This phone call addresses questions the participants may have about the process and provides an opportunity for us to begin to build a relationship with participants with whom we have not previously spoken.

Whether pre-meeting contact is by phone or letter, we are particularly interested in hearing from participants about what they hope for, what they are concerned about, what they would like us to know about them, and what they think of the proposed group agreements. If they have strong reservations about their ability or willingness to abide by agreements of this sort, we encourage them to be fully candid with us and to consider declining the invitation. If they indicate that the agreements will require a stretch – a stretch they are willing to try to make – we ask them how th ey think we can best support them in making the stretch.

The Final Phase of Meeting Design
Using what we learned through our pre-meeting contacts with participants, and any last minute ‘weather reports’ we may receive about the shifts in relevant personal or political situations, we transform the general outline of the meeting, as it was presented in the invitation, into a more detailed plan.

This plan covers: informal aspects of greeting and gathering people in the room; opening comments to be made by conveners and/or facilitators; plans for reviewing (and possibly revising) the proposed agreements; procedures by which participants will be invited to introduce themselves to each other and ‘enter the space’ of the dialogue; opening questions and exercises; and roles that each team member will play.

Meeting designs for more than one session include much more detail for the opening session (e.g. the first evening of a 2 1/2 day meeting) than for later sessions. We resist ‘getting ahead of the group’ in our planning because we are committed to evolving designs that are maximally responsive to the interests and needs expressed by the group over the course of the meeting.

Team Building
Although a collaborative spirit has shaped each interaction in the planning phase, it is important to set aside time for team building during the final planning session so that all who will be working together can support each other in doing their best work.

– General Structure –

The opening phase of a meeting typically includes: introductions, group agreements, role clarification, and an overview of the plans for the meeting.

The middle section of the meeting usually begins with an opening exercise or set of questions; less structured conversation generally follows a structured opening. During this phase, participants may be encouraged to ask each other questions to test out old assumptions and to expand upon their new understandings.

At the end of the meeting, we may facilitate a conversation among the participants about possible next steps. In addition, we typically pose closing questions that invite acknowledgement of contributions made, promote reflection on the experience, and encourage participants to consider both opportunities for and barriers to maintaining and sharing – outside of the room – what was of most value during the dialogue. Confidentiality agreements are generally re-visited.

Emergent Design
During extended meetings the ‘team’ (which may consist of some combination of PCP facilitators and the planning or convening group) meets during meals and other breaks to design subsequent sessions in a manner that is maximally responsive to the needs, concerns and interests in the room.

The same questions that guided the team in developing the plan for the opening session of the meeting also guide them as they engage in ’emergent design’ – questions related to the motivation and interests of the participants, questions about how the old or feared conversation can be avoided and the new and desired conversation can be invited, and questions about how the resources in the room can best be activated to achieve the goals that most energize the participants.

Our facilitation style is characterized by transparency (openness about the thinking behind what we do or propose to do), compassion, legitimacy (derived from group agreements) and group decision-making procedures that promote participants’ ownership of their conversation. When we work with groups over time, we may offer them a set of ‘self-help’ guidelines for constructively addressing difficult moments. We generated these self-help guidelines through interviews with previous participants.

Follow-Up and Evaluation
After the meeting we seek feedback through written evaluations and/or follow-up phone conversations to promote further reflection, learn how we can be most helpful in next steps with this particular group (if there are next steps), and learn lessons that help us improve our practice.

Who We Serve

  • activists in adversarial relationships who are interested in talking with each other directly, rather than through the media, in ways that reduce stereotyping and defensiveness
  • groups and networks who seek to more effectively collaborate despite differences of identity or perspective
  • civic leaders, political officials, and educators who seek to build community and enhance democracy
  • religious leaders seeking to foster dialogue on divisive issues within and across communities of faith
  • citizens interested in communicating across deeply rooted differences of perspective, identity or world view
  • mediators and other third-party practitioners interested in learning new approaches to the design and facilitation of dialogue
  • scholars in the fields of alternative dispute resolution, communication, and community building
  • the public

Resource Link: www.publicconversations.org

This text was excerpted from the Public Conversations Project’s website.

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