Archive for the ‘Other people’s good ideas’ Category
One great joy of writing a book, from my perspective, is speaking about it at various venues and hearing the wisdom of the people who attend. In the five months since Why Can’t We Talk? was published, I have run into some very intelligent people who have thrown me some very hard questions. Sometimes the topic was something dear to my heart, and I had a ready answer. Other times I had nothing.
So let’s try something new here—a real live book giveaway.
Every now and then, I’ll feature one of these hard questions here. You post your answers in the Comments section below (or on my Facebook page). Then, the next time I post, I’ll share how I answered the question—and give away a free copy of Why Can’t We Talk? to someone chosen at random who:
- Provides a comment on the question below (something more than “I agree”), and
- Subscribes to my e-newsletter (via the “Get dialogue news by email” box to the left).
Please subscribe and make your comments by next Tuesday (March 19) at 8:00 a.m. ET.
OK. Ready? Here’s the first question:
I am a leader in my worship community who deals with many volunteers. Occasionally I run into someone who says, “If we go in this direction, I’ll have no choice but to leave.” How can I deal with this situation? Is there a dialogic way to do so?
Program note: If you are in or around Boston this weekend—specifically, somewhere near Taunton, Massachusetts—please feel free to come see me on the Great Taunton Mini-Book Tour. I would love to see you there! Schedule:
- 9:00 a.m. on the radio (WVBF 1530AM)
- 2:00 p.m. at Readmore Bookstore
- 7:00 p.m. at the First Parish Church in Taunton (UU)
Visit the Facebook page for the church event here.
Do we have to run our politics with daggers drawn? Is confrontation simply part of the game?
Based on the past few years, it’s hard to think otherwise. In the U.S., the climate of hostility, polarization, and refusal to compromise has dominated Washington. Powerful forces conspire to reinforce this climate: the demands of party loyalty, the gerrymandering of congressional districts, the loud fringe groups from left and right, the fear among elected officials of losing their jobs to someone ideologically “purer.” Even those who want to work with the other side find frustrations at every turn—while those who equate dialogue with “selling out” rise to power.
It is tempting to dismiss the whole political arena as hopelessly confrontational—and the notion of dialogue in the halls of power as a pipe dream.
But then there is Nguyen Ngoc Huy, and others like him.
Professor Huy has been called “the Gandhi of Vietnam.” From the waning of French colonial rule through the tumultuous war in the 1960s and well beyond, he devoted his life to promoting democracy, human rights, and the rule of law with a distinctly Vietnamese character. With his law degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the Sorbonne, he taught, conducted research, wrote numerous treatises, spoke frequently, and campaigned tirelessly for his ideas and the welfare of his country. Far from giving up after the Communist takeover of 1975, he spent the last 15 years of his life traveling the globe to draw attention to Vietnam and continue the struggle for his homeland’s freedom.
He also had a penetrating insight into how not to conduct politics.
“He had to deal with all sorts of attacks for his policy,” noted Tran Minh Xuan of the Nguyen Ngoc Huy Foundation in the documentary Nguyen Ngoc Huy: A Fighter for Democracy in Vietnam. “Some people, who could not take it any longer, once encouraged me to attack back. But then Professor Huy said to me, ‘Do not do it. There is no benefit in it.… In the future, there will be times when we will need them, or they will need us. But if we have attacked one another, how then will we be able to sit down together to discuss matters? In this huge struggle, one cannot do it alone. We need many people working together.’”
The professor’s words call to mind another arena that involves both power and confrontation: the Anglican Communion and its U.S. version, The Episcopal Church. Over the past few decades, the Communion has seen more than its share of angry words over such issues as human sexuality and the historic truths of the faith. At one point, it threatened to break the Communion apart.
During that time, as I wrote in my book, “Dialogue does not always resolve differences; some are simply irreconcilable. Yet even when they are, authentic dialogue can help us develop respect for one another while still (amicably) disagreeing. In the process, the connections we foster enable us to continue our work together as our institutions fracture.” To paraphrase Professor Huy, if we keep the dialogue going—if we refrain from attacking one another—we might still be able to work together.
If Professor Huy—who sat across the table from his enemies at the Paris Peace Talks, who promoted bold ideas and continually engaged in the rough and tumble of Vietnam’s political arena—could uphold the value of reaching across divides, why can’t our elected officials, and our church leaders, do the same?
One of my hobbies revolves around friendly competition. Several times a year, we gather at shows in which judges evaluate our latest exhibits, place them in order of quality, and give out awards like Best in Show. Inevitably, the exhibitors compare notes about judges too.
This kind of talk is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, good judges help exhibitors get better at their hobby, so it’s important to know whose judging to take with utmost seriousness and whose to, well, take with a grain of salt. On the other hand, as with any small group of human beings, the conversation often turns negative and personal—evaluation as bitch session. “I don’t like the way she handles the exhibits” can degenerate into “she’s a terrible judge” and, in some cases, “I don’t like her.”
In the last couple of days, a thread on this very topic has popped up on Facebook. It is remarkable for its civil, constructive tone—and for that I credit the person who started the topic and how she framed it:
While at the show [last weekend], there was a discussion on judges. Who we liked to show under and who we didn’t and WHY. I personally have judges I will never show under again, and others I will travel way far to be judged by. … So, what I am asking is for everyone to take a moment and share what draws and what repulses you from judges. I am not asking for names, just qualities you are looking for. Perhaps we can all learn from this. And judges, please weigh in with your comments as well!
Dialogue experts talk a lot about framing: how we use language to present a concept so that people can discuss it without feeling threatened. I see several sterling examples of framing here:
- “I am not asking for names, just qualities.” Two words here signal that the conversation will not be about people. By itself, “I am not asking for names” could possibly have led to comments like “Not naming names here, but there’s one left-handed brown-haired judge from a certain part of New York who….” By asking for just qualities, our poster guided future comments into a discussion that any judge could use—without putting this or that judge on the spot.
- “Take a moment and share.” Contrast this with the headline I’ve seen in local newspaper columns that print call-in comments: Sound Off! The poster’s language indicates the tone desired in the comments to come—reflective, offered as one personal perspective among many, no authoritative pronouncements or pointless complaining.
- “Perhaps we can all learn from this.” The point is not to find fault, but to learn and thereby improve the hobby we all love. The word learn itself reflects a virtue I believe is essential for dialogue: humility—the ability, in this case, to recognize that we do not have all the answers.
- “Judges, please weigh in with your comments.” The invitation extends to both sides of the table. Judges can learn from exhibitors here (and, as a recently licensed judge, I learned a ton) and vice versa.
Good framing often yields good results, and that was certainly the case here. The conversation was long and fruitful, and I’ll bet it results in a better hobby all the way round.
Where have you seen examples of good framing like the one above? Please share your experiences here.
Odds and ends for a Monday morning…
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Whenever Tom Atlee publishes an article, people who value dialogue should pay attention. Most recently, on the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) blog, Tom posted a compelling piece about three categories of “sensibility” in our public square—one of which should get way more attention than it does.
As we all know, pollsters and pundits excel at reading public opinion. It can change like the wind. On a deeper level, public judgment consists of considered insights and positions that have resulted from weighing pros and cons, hearing from people of diverse viewpoints, etc. It is often the happy outcome of dialogue and deliberation efforts.
Tom posits that in addition to these, we desperately need public wisdom: “an expansion of public judgment to include more of what needs to be taken into account for broad, long-term benefit.” It includes moving beyond current collective interests to moral and ethical quandaries, consideration for future generations, an appreciation for ambiguity and mystery, etc.
Absorbing the concepts in this article will require sustained attention, but the payoff is worth the effort. So grab an extra cup of coffee, put your feet up, and start reading. Oh, and do feel free to comment on the NCDD blog!
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I think of electrifying as applying to events that have already happened. Still, the more I read about NCDD’s 2012 conference in Seattle, the more I believe it will richly deserve that adjective. (Full disclosure: I’m an NCDD board member and a member of the planning committee.)
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, NCDD has devoted the conference to a single question: How can we build a more robust civic infrastructure for our practice, our communities, and our country? In our highly polarized culture, this kind of civic infrastructure (which I define as grassroots structures and systems that would bring way more dialogue and way less shouting to our public square) can ensure that we have the capacity to make better decisions and solve problems effectively. A few elements of the conference, according to a flier on the topic:
- Speakers of distinction. New York Times Notable Book author Eric Liu, AmericaSpeaks founder Carolyn Lukensmeyer, Everyday Democracy executive director Martha McCoy, and others from the top echelon of the field. If you don’t know much about the people in dialogue and deliberation, trust me, this is an extremely impressive lineup.
- Participatory workshops. Opportunities to network with colleagues, learn about the latest innovations, exchange ideas with leaders in the field, experience innovative group methods, and work together to explore key challenges.
- An active role for you. Because every participant has expertise to share, we invite you to contribute your insights toward shaping our civic infrastructure and its key elements: participatory processes for institutions to use, great places and online spaces where citizens can gather, a cadre of trained facilitators, strong networks that can mobilize to solve problems.
In short: this conference just might be an essential milestone in the field. By attending, you could have the opportunity to shape something important, and hear from the leaders in the field, and hang out in Seattle.
I don’t know if I can make it this year—the costs involved in traveling from the East Coast are a challenge—but if you’ll be anywhere near Seattle in October, do consider attending. Visit www.ncdd.org/events for more.
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Book update: Things are progressing very well for the book. Currently it’s slated for release to the world in mid-November, but you can pre-order the book now. Perhaps the biggest news is that there’s been a slight change in title: it now reads Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart. The good marketing people at SkyLight Paths Publishing felt that, since the book is written primarily for Christians (for one reason only: it’s the faith tradition I know and can most credibly speak to), it ought to have the word Christian in the title. On the other hand, we agreed on the more inviting word wisdom—instead of words like tradition or religion or, God forbid, doctrine—because we truly want this book, as much as possible within my limitations as a writer, to be for everyone. Just in case you wondered…
Sometimes people inspire the hell out of me. That includes some of you over the past three weeks.
In my last post—shortly after the horrific shootings in Aurora, Colorado—I posed a few questions for people on both sides of the ongoing debate over gun ownership. The public square was abuzz with many of the typical catchphrases and hostilities that typically pervade this debate. I was hoping that maybe these questions could spark a dialogue.
Boy, did they ever.
A small but dedicated group of people responded with the most thoughtful comments I’ve seen on the topic. One or two of them are involved in the field of dialogue and deliberation; the rest are people I know from other parts of my life. Most people restated their long-held positions, but at a level of detail and consideration that provided plenty of insight for me—and, I hope, anyone reading these comments.
Just in case you weren’t privy to these conversations, I want to share them with you. Take a look at the comments below. Then go to my Facebook page (the Timeline version) and scroll down or search the word questions or gun. Let me know if you can’t find it, and I’ll try to direct you to where it is. (Facebook technology sometimes eludes me.)
Thank you to those who have contributed. And believe me, it’s not too late. Please jump in.
We don’t talk a lot about process in this blog. I am more of an inner transformation guy, someone who focuses on what happens before dialogue ever takes place. The book does have a chapter or two on “practical” dialogue tips, to be sure. But the field of dialogue and deliberation has many process experts, and they can tell you more about Conversation Cafés and Open Space and Dynamic Facilitation than I ever could.
Once you dive into the nitty-gritty of doing dialogue, however, real-world information about those processes may come in handy. Toward that end, I’m passing along a write-up about the resource center at www.ncdd.org, which contains a remarkable number of guides, articles, links, and whatnot. (Full disclosure: I’m a board member of NCDD.) Here’s the write-up:
The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) has been cataloguing resources about and for dialogue and deliberation since 2002. At www.ncdd.org/rc, you can access more than 2,600 discussion guides, assessment tools, case studies, public engagement programs and organizations, articles, books, videos, and more.
Dialogue and deliberation are innovative processes that bring people together across divides to discuss, decide, and collaborate on today’s toughest issues. NCDD’s Resource Center was designed to connect you with the information, guidance, theory, and examples you need to engage people effectively.
You can use the search field, categories and tags, or additional sidebar navigation options to home in. We especially recommend you use the “I’m Looking For…” sidebar box that lets you cross-search categories and tags. Use the site map at http://ncdd.org/rc/contents to see a full list of all the categories and tags, or just look over the most recently added resources at http://ncdd.org/rc/resources. Know of a great resource on dialogue, deliberation, or public engagement that should be added to NCDD’s Resource Center? Use the form at www.ncdd.org/rc/add to submit your favorites!
few days ago, I received a response to last week’s post from my good friend Kim. Kim is both a deeply committed Christian and a remarkable thinker, so it came as no surprise that her response took the whole conversation in a new and deeper direction—away from a critique of today’s cynicism and toward a reflection on cynics themselves and how they might move from cynicism to hope. Here (lightly edited and condensed to fit the space here) is an excerpt:
First off, I totally one hundred percent agree with your critique of the cynical mindset…. I also agree that critiques of culture, institutions, or individual circumstances need a “To” direction. Getting rid of the negative or undesirable factors, without also having a positive outcome towards which you are aiming, tends not to get anywhere….
Having said that, I think the article falls short in that it…doesn’t exactly address the larger issue. In my experience with cynics, and I encounter many…there is no motivation on the part of cynics to change. They are not seeking a positive “To” direction, because they do not believe that change is indeed possible. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die” is a fair summation of the cynic’s philosophy, mindset, worldview. Everything that could be tried has been tried, and found wanting. In short, the cynic’s view is undergirded by a general sense of hopelessness. If they did not feel that the situation (whatever situation that might be) was not hopeless, they would not be cynics. If they could envision a “To” direction, they would go in it. But their negative mindset clouds their vision.
Vision is the ability to “call those things that are not as though they are.” In short, vision is faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. The visionary is able to see things that are not, and walk towards them. They realize their vision by seeing that which does not exist, and summoning it forth into existence by faith. Martin Luther King envisioned a world where people were not judged by the color of their skin. Mandela envisioned a South Africa post-apartheid. Bobby Kennedy said, “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I see things as they could be and ask ‘Why Not?’”
Cynics lack this basic capacity; in short, they lack faith. Not necessarily faith in a particular God or view of God, but basic faith that things can ever be better—better in their personal circumstances, better in our political system, better in our communities and institutions.
How does one get from Point A (cynicism) to Point B (hope)—that is the question….
I think…often the cynic is changed by the unfailing love he or she receives from a believer. I have been watching the movie The Way this week, and it has a similar story line. A father loses his son, he is angry and bitter, and in the course of completing the pilgrimage across the northern Spanish coast—which his son was undertaking when he died—the father is changed. He is changed not by anyone telling him he needed an attitude adjustment, but by the human encounters he experiences along the way. Our hard attitudes are most often changed, not by lectures, but by the unselfish love and mercy we receive from others. We are changed by patient love that wears down our defenses over time.
Recently I spent two days in meetings with an emerging coalition of partners who want to facilitate change in the way communities function. Many of the participants expressed a deep passion for substantial, structural transformation; words like movement, culture change, and manifesto buzzed around the room. It got me thinking about the way this energy might be received by the communities themselves, by the media, and in the world at large.
That, in turn, got me thinking about cynicism.
Cynicism is, in many respects, the default mindset of our age. Distrust of government is dangerously high. The 2008 financial meltdown turned many people against once-respected institutions. Big [Name of Industry Here] is the epithet we use to refer to faceless businesses that, from most appearances, are out to screw us.
It’s hard to argue with this response to power. Many of our current systems and institutions richly deserve our cynicism (or at least our outrage). But after so many disenfranchising experiences with them, we often use cynicism as a starting point for any discussion.
That presents a problem. Today’s cynicism is very good at grumbling against, but it has nothing to point to. With no alternative vision in mind, and a first response that seeks out the evil motives or rapacious self-interest behind any lofty idea—or simply proclaims that “it’ll never work in the real world”—this type of cynicism offers no avenue for change.
The word cynic, of course, comes from the Cynics of ancient Greece and their system of ethics. From what I read (note particularly this interesting article from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), it is easy to see the connection: the Greek Cynics scathingly criticized, even mocked, the societal conventions and systems of privilege of their time. But they also touted a framework of thought through which, they believed, people could achieve freedom: living in accord with nature, practicing self-sufficiency, being frank and free with one’s speech.
In the language of The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc. (a consultancy with which I’m affiliated), the Cynics had a FROMàTO vision. They clearly saw the insufficient state of affairs they were moving FROM—and the purpose of life they were moving TO.
In so many cases, today’s cynicism has no TO.
That is a corrosive stance in such a vastly imperfect world as ours, in which so many of our systems and problems desperately need a TO. It’s not enough to complain about the current polarization in Congress, or business self-interest run amok, or the corruption that keeps much of the world in extreme poverty—although these things deserve serious attention and, often, loud condemnation. It is not enough to respond to every new idea with “get real” or “that’ll never work.” These cynical responses shut down dialogue on big, potentially useful ideas before they have a chance to be heard (and therefore to develop).
I’m a big fan of realism. As we dream about the ideal, realists keep the dialogue grounded in the possible. But today’s pervasive cynicism doesn’t even have the benefit of being real: it dismisses the possibility of change even where change could actually occur.
It’s so difficult not to be cynical sometimes. But cynicism as a worldview—without the TO—gets us nowhere. Outrage, protest, dialogue, deliberation: all these things can move us ahead. We owe it to ourselves to prefer those strategies over the powerless cynicism of our age.
For more information on The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc., please visit www.kjcg.com.
Maybe it was a conversation that healed a friendship…or a comment over lunch that helped you see a hot-button issue in a new way…or an email exchange that softened your heart and maybe even changed your mind…or a sit-down with your partner to sort out a family issue.
Whatever the specifics of your story, I invite you to share it here.
In writing this blog, I’m painfully aware that I am bringing exactly one perspective to the topic of dialogue. One perspective is good, but many are better. The more stories we hear, and the more viewpoints we hear from, the richer and more effective our own dialogues can become.
Confidentiality, of course, must be honored, and I wouldn’t expect you to share sensitive stories. But if you have an experience you can share, feel free to do so—either in the Comments section below or through my Contact form. Thank you, as always, for visiting here and caring about dialogue.
Recently, on the main listserv and Facebook page for NCDD (the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, of which I’m a board member), we discussed signs of disaffection with the federal government.
There certainly seem to be a lot of them these days.
Part of the discussion centered on Americans Elect. In case you haven’t heard, this group aims to nominate a presidential candidate in a nonpartisan fashion through an online convention in which any registered voter can participate. The successful candidate (with a vice presidential candidate from the other established party) will represent the views of millions as expressed through their participation in an online survey. The goal appears to be a mobilization of the grass roots through the technology that has given everyone a voice.
Americans Elect isn’t the first group to emerge along these lines. No Labels “supports reforms, leaders and legislation that will help fix America’s broken government and break the stranglehold that the extremes currently have on our political process.” The Coffee Party USA is “a grassroots, non-partisan movement that aims to restore the principles and spirit of democracy in America.” (Quotes come from the respective websites.) And in terms of mobilized disaffection, we barely need mention the Occupy movement and the Tea Party.
I see all this as a hopeful sign. Not everyone does, however.
Amid our listserv discussion, someone posted a scathing article on this topic by the distinguished Mark Schmitt in Democracy. He writes that third-party movements and similar organizations are essentially fantasies meant to redirect our anger away from the hard work of reforming the system. The problems with these movements, according to Schmitt, are threefold: they are started not at the grass roots, but by consummate Washington insiders; they promise to break the duopoly of American politics when that duopoly is enshrined in the very structure of our government; and their policies are vague.
Schmitt’s points raise questions that should be asked of these organizations. The duopoly argument, especially, deserves serious consideration. But I wish he had given one other factor its due: the groundswell of public sentiment behind these movements, regardless of their origins. This sentiment is particularly in evidence in the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. Reforming the system, as he mentions, is important—but so is building and channeling sentiment against the inertia and despair into which government gridlock so easily casts us. It may be that these movements are a necessary first step to mobilizing a critical mass for change: the kind of critical mass that is powerful enough to inspire serious reform.
Or perhaps Schmitt is wrong and they’ll spark serious reform by themselves. Think Tahrir Square (though a direct import of that model to the U.S. seems logistically difficult at best).
What do you think of third parties and reform movements? Are they a waste of time, a distraction from real reform, “people’s movements” with real possibilities, or something else?