Archive for the ‘Practical Steps Toward Dialogue’ 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.
If you’ve read this blog for any length of time…well, first of all, thank you. I am grateful that you’re willing to hang in and explore dialogue with me.
Second, you know that I periodically go missing when the demands of the book and the full-time job keep me away. The last couple of weeks—in which I’ve prepared for speaking engagements, launched a simple e-newsletter for subscribers to this blog, etc.—have become one of those “periodicallys.” I offer my apologies, even as I try to accept that this appears to be the way my life goes.
However, I did write something for the blog—indirectly—and I want to share it with you. The Public Conversations Project, which has designed and facilitated some of the most remarkable dialogues of the past 20-plus years, published my article on slowing down the rush to decision making in the wake of the Newtown shootings. In a way, it’s a complement to another article I posted here a while back: “A Place for Silence in the Face of Horror.” So please take a look at the Public Conversations Project post. I’d love to hear what you think.
Does this ever happen to you? You get involved in a new endeavor—a different line of work, an unusual hobby, a new practice in your faith tradition, whatever. You read about it, talk to people who’ve done it for years, attend conferences, email the “gurus” in the field, etc. After a while, you start hearing the same information over and over. So now you figure you’ve heard the basic parameters or, in the parlance of college-level courses, the 101.
Then you get deeper in—and you find that a lot of the 101 doesn’t work, or isn’t even accurate. You start craving 201.
I noticed this while seeking a publisher for my book. According to the 101, to get your book published you need an agent. To get an agent you need to send out queries and proposals. You will be rejected 99% of the time. But sales do happen. What you need, more than anything else—beyond the ability to write compellingly and (for nonfiction) a built-in audience—is perseverance.
I did this for quite a while and got nowhere. At some point, I reevaluated the parameters of my writing: my calling to write books, my goals in light of that calling, my age, my financial and career situation, etc., etc. Right around this time, an author who had read my Huffington Post blog offered to introduce me directly to her publisher, SkyLight Paths Publishing. The result has been a delightful author-publisher relationship that breaks many rules of the 101—but has worked very well for me.
What does this have to do with dialogue? The answer, for me, lies in the lessons I learned:
- Push beyond the 101. For a great example, consider the current controversy over gun ownership. The 101, in this case, consists of the clichés and well-worn arguments that the various “sides” reiterate whenever the issue arises. But between “there is no reason whatever to own an assault rifle” and “guns don’t shoot people, people do,” there is a vast spectrum of nuance and complexity that an authentic dialogue could reveal. To reach across divides, to arrive together at a way forward, we must explore that spectrum. In the process, we will gain a clear-eyed, deeper view of where the 101 is correct—and where it’s not.
- Talk to someone else. After getting nowhere with the 101, I talked with some authors who, I knew, had taken a dramatically different path. Their wisdom expanded my understanding of book publishing in a way I could not have imagined otherwise. To take this back to guns: how many advocates of stringent gun control have talked to residents of rural areas in which self-defense is the only viable option in the face of crime? How many gun owners have heard the stories of those whose lives have been devastated by gun violence?
- Refine the questions. Maybe, when faced with the 101, I should have asked questions like How much perseverance is enough? How much audience do you need for what kind of book? What if I want to do this some other way? Deeper dialogues, I suspect, come from deeper questions.
Have you had experiences like these—where it seemed impossible to break through the 101, but only the wisdom at the 201 level would satisfy? What did these experiences teach you? Please feel free to share here.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song on alien soil?” —Psalm 137:4
This haunting question—asked by the psalmist after the people of Israel had been swept into captivity, hundreds of miles from home—formed the theme of an address by the Bishop of Central New York, Gladstone (Skip) Adams, to the annual meeting of Albany Via Media (AVM) this past Saturday.
But it was a different question, asked immediately after the address, that revealed another potential way into dialogue across divides.
Alas, there are divides aplenty around these parts. AVM describes itself as “Episcopalians striving for a middle way of diversity and tolerance in the Episcopal Diocese of Albany.” I think of AVM as the loyal but progressive opposition in a conservative diocese. This, as you might expect, carries with it a great deal of tension and occasional rancor on every side.
On Saturday, Bishop Skip addressed the psalmist’s quote on several levels in a talk that was remarkable for its depth of thought and spirit. Then, during the Q&A, one priest noted that the “other (conservative) side” uses the exact same verse from the Psalms to mean something entirely different: how to be faithful to God in a rapidly secularizing society—of which many conservatives consider AVM to be a part.
That would seem to be a conversation stopper right there. How can we talk with one another when we can’t even agree on language?
But maybe it can be a conversation opener—if we use the language difference to probe gently for specific meanings.
Let’s say I fall into a dialogue with a conservative in the diocese, and she quotes that verse. What happens if I say something like “I love that verse, and I’m curious: when you refer to ‘alien soil,’ what are you thinking of? What does that phrase mean to you?”
I may not like what I hear in return, but the question opens an opportunity for me to understand my dialogue partner on a deeper level. Moreover, asking the question can prompt a dialogic question in return: “Why, what do you think of when you read ‘alien soil’?” This gives me the encouragement to share my thoughts in a nonthreatening way.
Several good things can happen from there. We might, for instance, discover how much common ground we share. We might also see how our respective viewpoints can inform and even change each other. For instance, I share my conservative colleagues’ concern about the secularizing of society, but I know very well that AVM members are not part of that problem. This kind of mutual questioning enables me to share that. Perhaps it helps my dialogue partner dispense with stereotypes about the “other side.”
And maybe, because we now see each other more clearly, the next conversation becomes easier, we go deeper, and our bond across divides grows stronger.
What about you? Have you noticed a word or phrase that means something different on the “other side”? What happens if you ask someone who uses it to explain its meaning?
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.
Bad moods and Facebook are generally a lousy mix. We’ve all heard warnings about that. In most cases, I can back away from the keyboard long enough to calm down.
Sunday was different. As you might expect, it left me with some lessons for dialogue.
The dustup started when a Facebook friend—someone who consistently posts intelligent comments—called my hobby “boring.” I instantly turned into a little ball of indignation, and I let her have it. No cussing, mind you, no personal remarks, but a lot of capital letters and exclamation points.
As soon as I hit Send, I felt queasy about it. Expressions of anger do not come easily to me, and I always feel the need to apologize immediately afterward. This time, though, I felt I had a point, so rather than a mea culpa, I sent another, calmer comment explaining myself.
About 15 minutes later, a third person raised the notion that I may have misinterpreted the original comment. My Facebook friend wasn’t calling my hobby boring; she was relaying a popular perception about my hobby.
Whoops. OK, now an apology makes sense.
So, what does this have to do with dialogue? Three things come to mind:
- Our raw nerves can surprise us. Yes, I love my hobby, but I had no clue it was a hot button until someone hit it. In the same way, we may set off an angry reaction from someone else when we least expect it. The lesson here for all participants, I think, is to stop, breathe, observe the reaction, and either try to discover the source or set the reaction aside for reflection later. That can help us continue the dialogue by short-circuiting any cycle of hostility that may emerge.
- Not every communication is crystal clear. Obviously. We’ve all been cautioned to choose our words carefully when emailing or posting to social media, because people can’t hear tone of voice, or read body language, or even pick up proper context in electronic media. Even when we think we’re crystal clear—and I’m sure my friend thought she was—there’s always the chance of misunderstanding. Being awake to that chance enables us to hold our words lightly and respond thoughtfulness when someone misconstrues our thinking.
- Dialogue isn’t always “nice.” Some people see dialogue as a way to dodge conflict, or avoid having convictions, or be otherwise mushy of thinking. Nonsense. In dialogue, we can express ourselves forcefully; we can channel our anger into our words. It is a powerful way to communicate to our dialogue partners that “I care deeply about this.” The trick is to frame our vehemence so our partners understand the context and intensity level from which we’re speaking. A simple introductory statement, such as “Pardon me, I may get emotional about this,” prepares the other people involved and allows them to respond from a place of understanding rather than knee-jerk hostility. Precision of language is essential here. So is the ability, on the receiving end, to stop, breathe, and hear the message behind the anger, rather than respond in kind.
What about you? What other lessons would you have drawn from this conflict? What have you learned from your own dustups with people? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Sometimes, in this U.S. election season, you have a dig through a certain amount of misleading verbiage to get a better handle on the story.
This came to mind last week when a startling tidbit appeared on Facebook: Fox News had called Paul Ryan a liar. To be sure, other media were making similar accusations shortly after the Republican vice-presidential candidate gave his acceptance speech to the national convention. But a conservative news organization slamming a conservative candidate?
I pay close attention to this sort of thing. When a person or organization goes against the party line, it sometimes reveals a penetrating insight about the truth of the matter. So if both The New York Times and Fox News (traditionally perceived as liberal and conservative, respectively) were accusing Ryan of lying, perhaps he was. That could be a serious charge.
Was it accurate?
I clicked through the Facebook link to the story. There it was in living color: “Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”
Wow. So Fox News did say that.
Not so fast. At the bottom of the article was a brief bio of the author—Sally Kohn, described as “a Fox News contributor and writer”—and a link. One click brought me to her website, another to her bio. A close reading revealed that her writing, her experience, and her activities run the gamut of the political spectrum, with an emphasis toward causes and media traditionally perceived as liberal.
So the Facebook post was inaccurate on two counts. First, Fox News didn’t write about Paul Ryan’s speech; Sally Kohn of Fox News did. Second, Sally Kohn does not appear to toe the conservative party line. Her view of Ryan’s address is less remarkable when you consider that.
What’s my point? I am not by any means impugning Sally Kohn’s writing or integrity. Nor am I making any judgment on Paul Ryan’s speech (I haven’t watched it yet). What I am emphasizing is the importance of getting the full story, ideally reading it in several sources on different points of the political spectrum. In my book (now available for pre-order), I call this the “balanced media diet”: if we get our news from, say, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, or The National Review and Mother Jones, or The Economist and the International Socialist Review—or, even better, all six—we’ll have a far broader knowledge base from which to test the veracity of any given news item.
Most likely, we’ll also be more inclined to dialogue. One (sometimes painful) effect of a balanced media diet is that we come face to face with the legitimate viewpoints of the “other side.” We can understand how its adherents might come to the assumptions they cherish and the conclusions they put forth. We begin to see that our view is not necessarily the One True View, or even one of two opposing views, but rather one among many. Our thinking gets more nuanced. When this happens, we are more open to dialogue with our adversaries—because it’s harder to think of them as adversaries any longer.
Have you found news items that aren’t what they first appear to be? Have you read a publication from the other side of an issue and found it more enlightening than infuriating? I’d love to hear your experiences along these lines.
Is it possible to engage in dialogue when you’re representing someone else’s interests?
This comes up more than you might think. A few concrete examples to get us started:
- You’re on a committee as a representative of XYZ organization. The head of XYZ has asked you to “make sure you promote what we can do.” But when you get to the first meeting, you realize “what we can do” doesn’t fit the agenda at all.
- As part of fundraising for your favorite nonprofit, you visit a potential major donor—and discover that she has substantial concerns about the way it’s run. The more you listen, the more her concerns become your concerns.
- The leaders of your faith tradition have called you to spread the word about your faith. As you talk with a close friend about his life, it becomes clear he’d be better off in another faith entirely.
- You are the head of the management team negotiating a delicate labor situation for a Fortune 500 company. At the first session, your labor counterpart makes a compelling point that runs against your position.
In my book (which—shameless plug here—is now available for pre-order), I talk a lot about the need to suspend our preconceptions and vested interests, however temporarily, to fully enter into listening and dialogue with the other person. But these situations are different. Our whole reason for being there involves the preconceptions and vested interests. It makes no sense to suspend them. Do we aim for a balance between promoting our message and listening to the other? Is it a matter of seeking common ground? Is dialogue simply the wrong model for these situations?
I suspect that I err too much on the side of dialogue. My instinct is to lay aside the interests of whatever I’m representing and simply engage the situation as it is, responding to its reality rather than seeking ways to inject my assigned message. My hope is that, by building trust and credibility in this way, my effort to be dialogic will eventually serve the interests of who or what I’m representing.
It doesn’t always turn out that way.
Lest this seem arcane to you, imagine how it might play out on a broader scale. If the dynamics of dialogue can improve communication in these contexts, how that might impact U.S.-China trade negotiations, or the give-and-take in a congressional conference committee, or the labor-management example mentioned earlier? Could suspending our vested interests connect us with our adversaries just enough to make the proceedings more effective?
What do you think? How do you handle these situations? How does that work for you? How would you like to handle them better?
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!
Hello, my friends. It’s so nice to be back with you.
A few weeks ago, I told you about an upcoming dialogue to which I’d been invited—a conversation with a dozen evangelical Christians about LGBTQ issues and the Church. As you may know, the words evangelical, LGBTQ, and dialogue do not often appear together in the public square, so this gathering promised to be extraordinary.
It was all that, and then some.
I don’t think I can describe it any better than I have in this Huffington Post piece on the dialogue. The article includes some questions that the dialogue raised in my mind: new (to me) possibilities about the way we might think about not only LGBTQ issues, but the future of the Church itself. The comments on the article, on the whole, have been more thoughtful than one sometimes sees online, so you may want to check them out—and add your response. I’d love to hear your thoughts, there or here.