Posts Tagged ‘NCDD’

Are These Dark Times for Dialogue?


Right after the U.S. presidential election, the dialogue field seemed to launch itself into activity. A November 14 post on the blog of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation proclaimed that “dialogue & deliberation is more critical than ever” and invited professionals to share their post-election activities. Based on the 34 responses in the Comments field—a huge number for most blogs these days—there’s a lot going on.

I’m sure some of this activity, even most of it, will prove fruitful in some way. Yet I cannot shake the gut feeling that we, as a field, are missing a very, very big point.

Specifically, I wonder if our prospects for authentic dialogue—at least on the national, global, policy, big-issue levels—have turned very dark indeed. I wonder whether the obstacles to further dialogue have become insurmountable, at least in the short term.

Here’s why I’m wondering this:

  1. It’s unclear to me that Trump supporters want to dialogue at all. Several disparate observations lead me to this.
    • Over several months, on my own social media feed, I put out several calls for Trump supporters to share the thinking behind their support. I received thoughtful, in-depth answers from precisely two people. Everyone else, even when approached directly, gave me evasions at best.
    • Separate from this effort, I’ve noticed that social media comments and posts from Trump supporters are nearly free of original content. (Before you think I’m jumping to the conclusion that Trump supporters are stupid, see point 2 below.)
    • In mainstream media, buckets of ink have been spilled reporting (and in some cases publishing research) on why Mr. Trump has attracted so much enthusiasm. There are many reasons why “the media” may have missed the whys and wherefores of this support. But could one of them be that many Trump supporters simply do not want to talk about it?
    • In NCDD (where I just finished two terms as a board member), we have long bemoaned the dearth of conservative voices among our membership. Some have pondered whether dialogue is a “liberal thing.” At the recent biannual conference, I don’t recall talking with anyone who supported Mr. Trump.
  2. No one who feels disrespected wants to dialogue with their disrespecters—and we all feel disrespected. I’ve noticed this within myself since November 8: amid all the talk of “reaching out to Trump supporters” to try understanding them, I want someone to reach out to me. Do Trump supporters feel the same way? Have they felt the same way for a long time? A corollary of this is “explanation fatigue”: people in marginalized groups often find themselves having to explain who they are and why they are, so putting the onus on them to explain themselves again in dialogue just adds to their sense of otherness and disrespect.
  3. The fissures are so much deeper, and more ancient, than we thought. I’ve been reading an in-depth history of the U.S. between 1788 and 1800, when factions and partisanship first became part of the political landscape. Some aspects of that history are so very familiar: a divide between city and country (link to brilliant and profane article on this topic here), between centralized government and small government advocates, between slave owners and abolitionists. I have no doubt that you could trace these divides much further back as well. Yes, the rise of Mr. Trump may be about immigration or economic opportunity in 2016—and these issues are important—but they do not begin to explain the divides of centuries. I don’t see our current attempts at dialogue even beginning to address this.
  4. In a post-truth society, we have nothing to dialogue with. The very nature of dialogue implies a search for truth of some kind: the truth of the other person’s experience, at least, if not some kind of transpersonal truth (e.g., gravity exists, slavery is universally wrong). We dialogue because there are truths we don’t know, either about the other or about the world. Mr. Trump’s campaign seems to have ushered in an era where one can say anything, claim anything, without regard for the accuracy or truth value of that statement. What then forms the content of our conversation? It can be anything, it can go anywhere, without regard for reality. This is not dialogue. It is not even conversation.

I dearly hope someone will read this and explain precisely why I’m wrong. I would love to think that dialogue efforts can proceed as they did before November 8—the same tools, the same techniques, the same spirit and attitude—just accelerated. But I don’t see it. What do you see?

Public Wisdom, an Electrifying Conference, and a New Title

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 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…

But How Do You Do Dialogue?

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, 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, 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 to see a full list of all the categories and tags, or just look over the most recently added resources at  Know of a great resource on dialogue, deliberation, or public engagement that should be added to NCDD’s Resource Center?  Use the form at to submit your favorites!

Cynics, Third Parties, and Maybe a Smidgen of Hope

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?

A Teachable Moment for Dialogue?

Is this a teachable moment for dialogue?

A discussion on this topic recently lit up the main listserv of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (where I’m a board member). The inspiration for the thread came from a New York Times article about the downgrade of U.S. debt in the wake of congressional gridlock. From the article:

In its announcement Friday night, S.& P. cited the political gridlock in Washington during the debt limit debate as a main reason for its decision. ‘The gulf between the political parties,’ S.& P. said, had reduced its confidence in the government’s ability to manage its finances.

Let’s summarize:

  • Congress faces a momentous vote on the federal debt.
  • Rather than dialogue, the two parties dig in their heels and refuse to compromise.
  • This shakes the world’s confidence in the government’s willingness (not its ability) to make debt payments.
  • Finance people hate uncertainty. So…
  • Standard & Poor’s downgrades the credit rating, the markets plunge, and millions of people watch their retirement savings shrink.

Granted, the debt downgrade was not the only driver of the markets over the past week. But that doesn’t detract from the larger lesson here: the refusal to dialogue has consequences. At the highest levels of government, it has big consequences.

I’m not advocating that our elected officials adopt a specific dialogue process to solve this particular issue (though they could choose from a wide range of excellent options if they wanted to). Before any discussion of process, I would suggest, is the need to adopt a dialogue mindset: a deliberate turning toward openness, toward setting aside preconceptions long enough to hear others, toward seeking out common ground, toward seeing the humanness in our adversaries, toward speaking from the heart and listening from the heart.

I know this flies in the face of the Washington culture—and, in some places, even aspects of the system. We elect people, after all, partly to represent our interests. Powerful forces exert their power quite effectively, thank you, without any talk of dialogue, and they perhaps are perfectly happy with the system the way it is.

But on a fundamental level, our elected officials are called to get things done.  Refusal to dialogue makes fulfilling this call extremely difficult. In contrast, authentic dialogue can empower them not just to hear one another, but to build on one another’s ideas—so that the solutions they develop may well be far better than the initial positions of the respective sides.

What would it take for Congress to adopt a mindset of dialogue? What do you think?

Keeping Dialogue Dialogue

We had set up the parameters for a robust dialogue. Jane would lay out her view of the issue (the George W. Bush presidency; she was pro). Then I would share my (con) perspective. Neither of us could interrupt the other. There would be plenty of time for thoughtful questions later. We grabbed the Cheez-It® crackers, settled into comfy chairs, and got started.

It went well for a while. I was learning things about the conservative perspective I had never appreciated before. I could see Jane’s point (though I still disagreed with her assessment). This was progress.

Then other people joined us. And the dialogue became something else.

These folks did nothing wrong. They simply weren’t privy to what we were trying to do. So rather than listen in silence, they did what people often do: inject opinions, argue points, present counterarguments. Our dialogue became conversation, in which (according to Robert Apatow) “people express different views on a range of subjects without concern for where the conversation goes.”

So what? Here’s so what: We have deeply ingrained patterns that drive the way we discuss sensitive issues, especially politics. We know how to react with anger, defensiveness, and generalizations about the “other side.” So reacting in another way—especially an “opposite” way that tries to hear and connect with others—requires great care, deliberate planning, and attentive execution. Dialogue facilitators, like those who belong to NCDD, have spent careers doing just that.

In other words: Dialogue must be intentional.

Jane, bless her, was all about being intentional. Soon after the first people drifted in, she explained exactly what we were about and, in the process, invited others into the dialogue. We got back on track. But if she hadn’t intervened, we would have lost the ensuing dialogue and all the lessons held therein.

There’s nothing wrong with conversation. It’s one of life’s great treasures. But it is not dialogue. And we need dialogue in the continuing effort to reach across divides.

Your Government Wants to Hear from You…Really

What would happen if you could express your opinions directly to federal government agencies—before they make the decisions that affect your life? What if they paid attention?

That’s what the White House is aiming for. Earlier this week, the Obama administration released its Open Government Directive—an initiative to connect federal government agencies more closely with the public they serve. Much of the directive deals with transparency: publishing more data more promptly, creating open-government pages for each agency website, and so forth.

But transparency is only one-third of the equation. The directive also requires the agencies to integrate public participation into their decision making and use multiparty collaboration—with other agencies, nonprofits, even individuals—to pursue their core missions.

According to a White House press release on the website for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (of which I’m honored to be a member), “The directive stems largely from the unprecedented Open Government Initiative…in which the Administration reached out directly to the American people for specific policy recommendations.  Thousands of citizens participated in the online forums and offered ideas on how to transform the government into a more transparent, accountable, participatory operation.”

Several nuggets in that last sentence. First, this just might work. Clearly the government modeled public participation in creating the whole Open Government Directive, and thousands of citizens responded. Second, online technology facilitates participation on a level unheard of in previous generations. Third, although agencies have long provided opportunity for public comment on pending regulation, this directive aims at institutionalizing the whole notion of open government—spreading it into every aspect of agency culture.

This is still embryonic, of course, and a ton of questions remain. The directive doesn’t mandate specific steps—simply that agencies create plans for open government. Changing bureaucracies, by its very nature, is arduous and takes time. Some dialogue professionals are underwhelmed with this effort, seeing it as focusing too much on transparency and not enough on participation or collaboration.

But the thought that our government might actually want to dialogue with us is a refreshing change from business as usual. Stay tuned.