Fieldwork II Public Conversations Project (Training)

Tue. June 26, 2007
Categories: Research

Dialectic is where “the art of questioning is the art of questioning ever further – i.e., the art of thinking. It is called dialectic because it is the art of conducting a real dialogue” (Gadamer, p.360).

Training: Public Conversations Project

I  attended a three day experience called “Fostering Dialogue Across Divides” held by the Public Conversations Project to better prepare myself. Gadamer (2006) says that dialectic includes open questions that contain both negative and positive judgments. But, he says, the dialectic is still not full knowledge (Gadamer, p. 358). A fuller knowledge is arrived at through dialogue. Dialogue pre-supposes one does not know and yet desires to. People who think they know the answer cannot ask the right questions. And opinion, by contrast, entirely suppresses questions.

The relationships that evolve through dialogue hold previously unthinkable possibilities for respectful disagreement and also for collaboration. The Public Conversations Project (PCP) has a specific approach to dialogue. Their core belief is that people whose differences have led to polarization and stereotyping can still develop better relationships with each other through effective dialogue. A shift happens.

Dialogue is any conversation animated by a search for understanding rather than for agreements or solutions, they said. Dialectic does not require argument for “the first condition of the art of conversation is ensuring that the other person is with us” (Gadamer, p.360), in other words, creating a space that allows participants to say “yes” to the direction of the conversation. There is a difference between speaking to persuade versus speaking to be understood. Speaking to be understood offers people a chance to listen and be listened to, to speak and be spoken to in a respectful manner, to develop or deepen mutual understanding and discover common concerns; and learn about perspectives that others hold while reflecting on our own views.

We were shown how the conversational process can be charted [as seen in statistical process control charts]. The upper limit is abstract thinking (or evaluation) that occurs during a conversation, and the lower limit is pure feeling (personal experiences). The conversation flows between these extremes.

Our facilitators, Meenakshi Chakraverti and Bob Stains, were attentive to power differences between participants in the conversation, and reminded people to uphold their agreements about the conversation. They followed the conversation instinctively while being reflective of their own thinking. We were transformed by the unitary nature of finding common meaning from the diverse perspectives. Bob Stains used the analogy of “linking” data points. Say that you and I are in a conflict, which appears as ‘my conflict versus your conflict.’ In conflictual situations things narrow or constrict.

If we amplify the points of our individual conflict stories through inquiry, those separate data points expand to where they overlap. Through linking data points,  the walls of the conflict, previously blocked or constricting the flow of the conversation, now relax as space is created.

After a flare up we find a way to fit the conflict into our myth. If we offered each other options right away that each could work with, we could possibly avoid the conflict. This is the time to shift into dialogue and ask some questions, as soon as you are triggered. The questions would serve the purpose of moving us to greater clarity and articulateness about each person’s own experience.

The purpose of asking questions is to move people to greater levels of complexity in the conversation, whereas before their thought or feeling was narrow.  It is also to create greater focus when their thinking and feeling has been broad and unfocused. It is about expanding our horizons and, as Gadamer says, “to reach an understanding in a dialogue is not merely a matter of putting oneself forward and successfully asserting one’s own point of view, but being transformed into a communion in which we do not remain what we were (Gadamer, 1975, p. 371).

Many questions arose for the participants at the workshop.  We asked how it is that we can look more deeply at the differences between “problem solving’ and “dialogue” and how does each hold different opportunities, limitations, and ways to connect and engage?  Other questions gathered from co-participants include:

• Am I even willing to re-member my fellow man? And be present with him/her?

• How can people with passionately held positions ever hope to reach enough of an understanding to make peace?

• How to strike a balance as a facilitator for difficult conversations – when and how do I engage, and when do I hold back?

• How can I find room for humor even in tense and conflicting situations?

• How can I keep the energy moving and not let it get stagnant?

• How to remain engaged with the power of a question?

• How can I become a better speaker, a better communicator?

• How is it that the beauty, compassion and connection of human beings, which the PCP structure catalyzes, is so rarely glimpsed in everyday life, and how can we activate its more frequent emergence?

• How do I deepen the questions and the answers in the work I will do?

• How do I develop my awareness of who I am speaking to, even though conceptually I know that identity is relational?

• How can I accept that a resolution might not be reached?

• How do I engage in the dance of being present without being overly identified with the group and the process?

• How do I expand my thinking and feeling as I frame questions in the service of the asked, whoever the “asked” may be?

One of the “take-aways” from the workshop was in regards to the Ladder of Inference. We jump up the ladder when we tacitly register some data and ignore other data, or impose our own interpretations on these data and draw conclusions from them, or lose sight of how we do this because we do not think about our thinking, and hence, our conclusions feel so obvious to us that we see no need to retrace the steps we took from the data we selected towards the conclusions we reached. Our task as facilitators is to take people down the ladder of their inferences through inquiry. Our assumptions and our values affect how we jump up the ladder. The contexts are our models of how the world works and our repertoire of actions that influence the data we select, the interpretations we make, and the conclusions we draw. Our conclusions lead us to act in ways that produce results that feed back to reinforce our contexts and assumptions. Our ability to reason well is essential but also gets us into trouble. We cannot afford to think about each inference or life would pass us by. But there is a reason each of us reaches different conclusions! If I think my conclusions are obvious and should be clear to all, I will never examine how I reached them. And when people disagree, we often throw conclusions at each other from the top of our respective ladders.

One of our exercises was to practice pausing so that people could reflect before responding. The person who had spoken would simply note, silently, what the questioner said that evoked a feeling, and try to feel where it moved him or her, noticing the effect of the question and how it was asked, and how it had moved the speaker to see their dilemma differently (if it had).

In a different exercise we were invited to ask questions in the service of the asked, that is, to expand thinking or shift perspectives, or just to elicit that which is not often spoken. For example, someone is complaining or worrying. How can I address their dreams, hopes and commitments? Someone feels helpless and powerless. How can I ask a question that elicits their strengths and capacities? Or, someone feels they have no choice or possibility for action. What choice, however small, can they make in the way he or she thinks, speaks, acts or interacts that would make a difference? How to shift someone who is decisive and action-oriented towards their feelings and meanings and the impacts of possible decisions? How to shift the perspective of someone who is obsessing on the past, or the present, or the future? How to shift someone from their own experience to how others might see the situation? Or, if she is focusing on others’ needs, how to help her see what she wants or needs? And when someone makes statements of certainty or hope to examine what underlies those feelings and to see if there are any exceptions to those feelings. Or, how to help someone articulate dreams, hopes, and visions when they are not stating them?

How do we take a simple narrative filled with “headlines” closer to complexities, distinctions and meanings that may not have otherwise been explored? When someone is telling a complicated story that is wandering, we can ask a question that gets to the heart of the matter. There is no standard set of “right” questions but here is a sample question to shift a perspective which might expand thinking:

If you could orchestrate things according to your dreams, so that the kinds of exchanges you and your colleagues would have in the future would be deeply satisfying to you in a way they are not now, what would those exchanges look like?

The types of conversations we are talking about here requires structures to support listening and reflection. It requires communication agreements that support participants in having the kind of conversation they want to have. And it involves asking questions that elicit fresh, full speaking and engenders genuine interest in the other. Participants are a part of the design of the dialogue and are consulted throughout the planning of it. Agreements are made in advance to set aside accusatory and argumentative styles that had previously impeded the conversation. Because in an affirming, exploratory, future-oriented atmosphere, people are more open to new ways of communicating, facilitators elicit their visions and wishes for the future and when people share their personal stories, their uniqueness and complexity can emerge which diminishes stereotyping and promotes caring. Personalized debate is discouraged. Sharing life experiences is encouraged. Participants were encouraged to speak openly about themselves, and facilitators express NO OPINION on the divisive issues at hand.

Our facilitators’ modeled attentive listening since people learn more and relate better when they listen carefully and attentively. More importantly, participants were asked to have an inquiring attitude instead of speaking from certainty. People are encouraged to consider various perspectives, to build on new ideas in order to dispel simplistic polarizations. We were asked what it was that we were taking away from the workshop. I said that I most appreciated the feeling of de-centered facilitation that does not encourage co-dependency or the hope that we be “rescued” when things get tough. The idea is that facilitators can have faith in the process: courage will rise within dialogue participants to speak their truth if you create the space for it. In other words, the facilitators are not the focus of attention in the room.

Here are some of the other “takeaways” from the training:

• Renewed attention to words, clarity and the gaps between intention and effect

• The importance of examining the way we ask questions when we attempt to help people in conflict

• A new perspective on working with a group in conflict, with more confidence in the resources in such a group

• A belief that it is possible to create – from seemingly nothing- a space in which people really will and can converse effectively

• Asking questions for the asked

• The power of a question and increased faith in people’s ability to heal

• An appreciation of the facilitating process

• Taking with me the “negative capability” of working with the group from a place outside the center

• Appreciation of how better to facilitate entering into another person’s experience for deeper understanding

• The power of authentic questioning and authentic answering

• Commitment to collective and reciprocal planning with participants

• Seeking ways to invite participation and to recognize that when responses to me do not seem to be an answer to my question, it may an invitation for me to listen closely again

• Trying to bring people down to the level of experience. Bring them down from their position

• A confidence that in conflict there can still be connection

One final note regarding the training: it was the most class-free consciousness that I have ever found myself blessed to be in. For three days we were free from gender, race, and class bias. There was no self-identification of position or status. I left having no idea how important the people were, or thought they were, because the conversation was structured to leave that out.

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