Clarifying Assumptions

All conversations have a set of underlying assumptions that can either deepen or derail a meaningful exchange.  Almost always, these assumptions remain in the background, making magic or doing mischief, until someone decides it’s time to step back for a clearer perspective on the conversation itself…calling for a ‘meta-communications moment’ where we talk about how we are talking. But wait…what if we were clear about at least a few of our assumptions as we entered a conversation? Perhaps…just perhaps, we could get a little more magic and a little less mischief in conversations that matter to us the most.

In the framing of issues for NIF-style conversations, I’ve tried to identify and clarify some of the assumptions that are operating in an issue as I’m doing the research, analysis and writing. In a small-group conversation a couple days ago, we talked briefly about our recent NIF projects in California. In a couple of the brief issue guides, a basic contextual assumption was written into the introduction. In several others, however, we decided that the basic assumption wasn’t clearly written, but it should have been.

Here are a few examples. In a framing on ‘Tax Cuts’ the assumption was that some kind of tax cuts were desired by most people during the 2008 Presidential campaign. In the framing on ‘Agricultural Sustainability’ the assumption was made explicitly that agriculture should be sustained rather be allowed to die through neglect. In the Kettering Foundation framing on ‘Alcohol’ the assumption appeared to be that the abuse of alcohol caused significant enough harm to warrant a new look at alcohol-related laws and public acceptance of alcohol abuse. In the framing on ‘Immigrant Neighbors’ the assumption was also made explicit that many of our neighbors are recent immigrants so we should discuss how we interact with them in healthier and more respectful ways.

Concerning issue framing in our deliberative NIF practice, I’m thinking that a clear statement in the text of the basic assumption of the framing would help in the ultimate deliberation in forums. As moderators, we’re asked to focus the forum conversation on a topic the participants already feel is urgent and important in order to build a ‘deliberative momentum’ that doesn’t stop when the forum concludes. In my perspective, the basic assumptions of the framing give the approaches their meaning and tensions. Without clarity about these assumptions, the approaches don’t push and pull at each other to create a cohesive conversation. In the practice of issue framing, I believe one of our most important tasks is to understand and to make explicit whatever assumptions are needed to make the approaches work together effectively. If we don’t do this, we make deliberation more difficult…and it’s already quite a challenge!

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