Civity and dialogue – thinking out loud
by Gina Bartlett, Senior Mediator, Consensus Building Institute
A number of years ago, a colleague called to say that a client of mine wanted to start a conversation with stakeholders. The intent of the conversation was to build trust and improve relationships. That was it. I was surprised, needless to say. No outcomes, no negotiation, just dialogue.
Stakeholders were surprised and suspicious. As stakeholders, they had a long history of conflict with one another and with the federal agency that was my client.
As a mediator and facilitator, I did my homework on dialogue methodology and organized a steering committee made up of diverse stakeholders who didn’t often agree with each other or with the agency. After about a year of the steering committee thinking and talking about what a dialogue might mean, do, and be, the dialogues started and continued. Held quarterly, nearly 140 people came to the dialogues from throughout California, consistently contributing and engaging with one another. Although participants struggled with the concept of the dialogue, thirsting for action items and discrete outcomes, they came back again and again.
I found the dialogue transformative.
It broke down stereotypes.
After a session focused on values and interests, a long-time adversary approached his “enemy” to essentially say, “I never would have thought that you believed that. I feel similarly.” They began a conversation that continued beyond that day and managed to work together on other endeavors a little more amicably. They no longer made as many assumptions about what the other person might think or want. They listened when each other spoke.
It helped participants moderate their language to be more respectful and ensure that they were heard.
Individuals who professed minority viewpoints with a great deal of certainty began to struggle in front of the group trying to shift their language to speak from their own point of view and express their ideas in a respectful fashion. It became easier over time. Maybe never perfect, but the attempts clearly demonstrated awareness.
It supported creative thinking.
The dialogues sought input and discussion on ideas, but it was not a problem-solving forum. Although participants often lamented, what are we doing here? What is the purpose of us coming here? -- the absence of a particular problem or need to generate a specific solution created an environment where participants could think more broadly about issues and explore ideas with less at stake. This broader dialogue, focusing on the whole region rather than a singular problem, helped to inform the specifics elsewhere. People could use what they had heard and talked about on the larger scale of the dialogue to help them problem solve in their focused negotiations and collaborative efforts.
It brought people together.
This seems so simple: the dialogue gave people an opportunity to meet and think in person. We provided long breaks and lunch so people could network and connect on a range of issues. Since this was a statewide initiative, this provided a great deal of benefit.
Insights came from people talking to one another.
Time and again at the dialogue, participants preferred the time that they were able to speak in small groups versus large group discussion or panels. Thinking out loud is what really served participants and helped achieve the goals of the dialogue – building trust, improving relationships and preparing people to problem solve, listen, and collaborate on initiatives critical to this federal agency and its stakeholders.