In the next few years, community conversations on public issues will become more and more important. This won’t happen out of a renewal of community awareness…or a revival of public responsibility…or a sense of patriotism. It will happen, because there will simply be no other way available to solve our most pressing political and economic dilemmas. Our public problems are becoming more complex and confusing…our national political leaders are either incapable or unwilling to work with each other to find solutions…our local community budgets are being cut severely…and our 24/7 news media continues to over-simplify our critical issues. As things get worse and worse in local communities, people will seek the tools they need to solve their own problems…at the top of the list of the tools they’ll need is a user-friendly skill set in holding effective, meaningful and respect-filled conversations.
Some of these conversations will be sponsored by deliberative efforts like National Issues Forums (NIF), World Café, Everyday Democracy, Public Agenda, etc. Each of these efforts have methods for meaningful conversations that incorporate the Core Principles for Public Engagement…described fully in the document in the link below, created and published by the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD). While each methodology shares in these Core Principles, each also provides its own unique view of our most troublesome and emotion-filled dilemmas. Together, they provide an incredibly powerful tool chest for public problem-solving.
In practice, moderators in each of these deliberative efforts…like in all facilitated gatherings…make it clear at the outset how participants are expected to interact during their community conversations. Sometimes these are called ‘ground rules’…or ‘meeting agreements’…or ‘discussion guidelines.’ Participants are asked to agree to these basic standards of conversation to help create a safe environment for everyone…where a complex and emotional issue can be discussed in-depth to discover some of the foundational values on which acceptable and sustainable public policy can be formed.
In small group, face-to-face conversations, these guidelines have been helpful for our work with NIF gatherings:
- Everyone is encouraged to participate—we’ll respect all voices equally.
- No one or two individuals will dominate—we’ll speak one person at a time and then listen.
- No side conversations—we’ll pay attention to the person who is speaking.
- Keep focused on the business of the group—we’ll stay on the subject at hand.
- Cooperate in the schedule and agenda—we’ll work together and end on time.
People, however, have many more conversations about public problems than these organized community gatherings…in face-to-face conversation and in digital formats like Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms, blogs, etc. For our work in Second Life and in informal conversations anywhere, we’ve adapted these guidelines slightly:
- Be fully engaged in the conversation to make a positive contribution…decide to limit distractions
- Respect the context and value of the opinions of others at all times…in person and in digital formats
- Don’t dominate or opt out of the conversation…try for balance in sharing and listening
- Speak and chat clearly and concisely…then listen with interest
- Focus on possible solutions, deeper understanding, new insights
- Stay with the conversation long enough to recognize some ‘next steps’ and some new people to include next time
Effective, meaningful and respect-filled conversations will be increasingly important in our communities in the years to come. By customizing, learning and practicing these kinds of guidelines in everyday conversations, each of us can lead by example with our neighbors and friends. Do you want to be respected? You have to show respect for others! It’s just that simple. Do you want to be heard? You have to be willing to listen! Do you want to contribute? You have to discuss the contributions of others as well. Our complex public policies are important and urgent…we all need to be prepared to do our best in creating healthy conversations so we can all participate in solutions everyone can live with.
Here’s another really important thing to remember in having effective, respect-filled conversations…we always learn best by doing! To be comfortable in these chats, it takes practice. And…like it is with any things that requires practice…we have to be disciplined in making the time on a regular basis to have meaningful and respect-filled conversations. The more we practice…the comfortable we are in how we lead the conversation…and the more comfortable others are as active participants in public problem-solving. Remember the famous Woody Allen quote… “80 percent of success is showing up.” If we feel respect-filled conversations are necessary, we have to be willing to ‘show up’ to bring important topics into our neighborhoods and communities…and into our social networks and chat rooms.