People will always commit the time, energy and resources needed to make an impact they feel is essential to their personal interest. There are a lot of variables in this opening statement…sufficient variables to immediately create some significant skepticism. So…it’s important to add upfront that all of these variables need to be pushed to their natural, upper limits to get enough people to commit enough time, energy and resources to make enough of an impact to create any change.
Regardless of the odds against meaningful change…this is exactly how small groups have transformed their communities and our world throughout history. We need to always remember the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Impactful conversations at critical times have made change inevitable in the past…and they will continue to do so. Our calling in the dialogue and deliberation community is to refine and adapt current practices to include more people in small group conversations…so they can be thoughtful together, and then can create the greatest impact possible with their time, energy and resources.
The adaptations I’m proposing of some of our current understandings and methods come from three foundational insights: first…the quote of Margaret Mead and the practical reflection on this quote in the opening statement; second…an observation that small groups sessions work best when they have a balance of highly-interactive engagement and methodical deliberation; and, third…a philosophical framework that offers a systemic perspective for a deliberative practice, moving from personal interest to public impact. Some expanded thoughts are available on this third insight in the link below:
Personal Interest to Public Impact blog post
Room Set-up & Materials
These interactive methods will require some unique planning…so the activities flow well, and the cumulative information is displayed in a helpful way.
· Wall space for posting newsprint sheets and working documents; best to have two adjacent walls so the corner makes a V-shape
· Seating for everyone, making sure everyone can see the others…can be at small tables arranged in a U-shape
· Easel with newsprint; marker pens; tape…for moderator and recorder
· Large 4×6 post-its; pens…for participants
· Distinctive signs to post: ‘Strongly Agree’ – ‘Agree’ – ‘Disagree’ – ‘Strongly Disagree’
· One-page summary of issue options with space for annotation…a longer issue guide can be available for reference, but the specific wording of the summary will drive the conversation
· Poker chips…three colors with enough for each participant to have 5 chips of each color
· Small table for ‘Investment Choices’ exercise…best to be a card table that can be moved easily into the center of the room for easy access and then reference during Outcome Conversation and reflections
· An ‘Investment Choices’ matrix on a newsprint sheet…see the diagram below for details.
Introduction and Agreements
Participants need to know basically what to expect in the conversation…and that they’ll be respected and safe. A newsprint agenda of activities or pictogram of the activity flow should be posted…and explained briefly with time for clarification questions. Another newsprint sheet should be posted with the ‘Group Agreements,’ known at times as ‘ground rules’…these agreements set the stage for respect-filled conversation. Participants generally want to know who is sponsoring the conversation, and how their responses and conversation data will be used. A very brief introduction to the conversation topic can familiarize participants with the one-page summary sheet, and provide them with the opportunity to ask clarifying questions about how the conversations will move through the options. And, of course, it’s important to take care of basic hospitality…including restrooms and refreshments. These introductory components need to be concise and brief…it’s important to get into the exercises as soon as possible.
Here’s an opportunity to take care of personal introductions while setting the stage for whole conversation. If it’s ‘personal interest’ that brings people to the point where they deeply want to make an ‘impact’ on a dilemma, then it’s the group’s sense of their own ‘personal interest’ that should drive the conversation about managing or solving the problem. This isn’t just nice-to-know information…it is an essential benchmark to keep in sight during the deliberation, so the ‘impacts’ at the end of the conversation are relevant and effective directions to resolve the dilemma at hand.
Exercise: Our favorite question these days is this: “What is your personal interest in solving this public problem?” Distribute large post-its and marker pens…ask participants to print or draw a summary of their response with 1-5 words or with a simple symbol or image on the post-it. Give them a minute or so to think, and to prepare…then ask them one-by-one to post their response on the wall around the agenda and agreements, sharing just their first name and a brief answer to the ‘personal interest’ question, and to connect their answer with the post-it response. This short exercise breaks the ice…and does it in a way that provides some initial understanding of the diverse opinions and frustrations of the group. When all have shared…revisit the wall for the group to make some brief observations about common themes or ideas. Before moving on…encourage participants to add ‘personal interest’ post-its during the conversation as well, if they have another really important reason for making an ‘impact.’
Time is precious in deliberative conversations. If we’re trying to avidly learn about how our differing opinions interact and blend and combine and conflict, we’ll spend more time talking about the options in the issue guide where we differ rather than agree. But…many deliberative conversations end up spending a lot of time discussing areas of near consensus. The exercise proposed here opens the conversation on the options AND helps to identify which options might produce a steeper learning-curve than others.
This activity requires a bit more preparation than our issue guides normally provide in direct language. In our deliberative conversations, we weigh the ideas and values of a topic against one another, discovering which we hold most dear for ourselves, our communities and our nation. But…at the heart of each deliberative option, a unique and positive strategy can be identified with a direction and force. In this exercise, we use a concise summary statement of each option’s function in achieving the deliberative impact of the conversation to get an initial sense of the group’s feelings about the topic.
In order to provide some example statements, the issue approaches in the ‘Racial and Ethnic Tensions’ guide will be used. Several years ago, we in the California NIF Network experimented with some of the existing National Issues Forums (NIF) issue guides, identifying the tensions and strategies of the approaches in a standardized matrix. While this method had some strengths and weaknesses, these matrices provided a glimpse of how each option functioned in the deliberation as a whole. These matrices will be available soon on our website.
Exercise: “At This Moment” is an activity that provides a low-key and sometimes fun entry-point for a deliberative conversation. In preparation, put up the signs…‘Strongly Agree’ – ‘Agree’ – ‘Disagree’ – ‘Strongly Disagree’…on a wall or in a corner of the room in the order shown here, so there is at least 6-8 feet between them. Then ask participants to respond to each of the option statements by moving to the position along this spectrum that most represents their feelings. Stress with participants that their response is meant to be a snapshot of the group’s feelings on a difficult topic…“at this moment.”
· Option One: “At this moment…it’s most important to focus on what unites us, not on what divides us…we should increase equality through a positive focus on common ground.”
· Option Two: “At this moment…it’s most important to acknowledge and accept racial and ethnic differences…we should increase equality through education and awareness.”
· Option Three: “At this moment…it’s most important to finish the job of integration…we should increase equality through total commitment to civil rights integration.”
After participants find their most comfortable place on the spectrum, have them check out the diversity of responses…some groups will be tightly grouped on some options while being widely spread on others. Take just a short time to ask participants why they chose to locate themselves where they did. Before they move to the next option’s response, ask them to look at the distribution of feelings expressed…then move on. After all of the options have been assessed, ask participants to prioritize the options by the distribution of feelings…widest diversity to narrowest diversity.
“Deliberative Investment” Conversation
‘Impactful conversations’ basically focus on what needs to be done to change an existing structure that is flawed, or to sustain an existing structure that is endangered, or rarely to create a new structure that responds to a new, emerging challenge…and that means they ALWAYS need focus on what would make actions happen. This is why our focus here is on ‘investment’…because an investment actively applies resources in some kind of venture to gain an expected return. In order to achieve a public impact, enough resources must be applied in a coordinated and effective way by enough people. In moderating ‘deliberative investment’ conversations, this should be a guiding principle.
The goal of our deliberation is a set of ‘Investment Choices’ for the issue at hand. With this goal in mind, a deliberative conversation can illuminate these choices for each participant…and the conversation can stay focused, because each participant will have the opportunity and responsibility to make some tough choices as a part of the exercise. Because a set of choices will be a group outcome, it’s important to discuss each ‘investment option’ with a willingness to share and to listen.
Exercise Preparation: Set up the ‘Investment Choices’ table in a visible and accessible location in the room, showing participants the newsprint sheet with the choice matrix. Explain briefly how the exercise will proceed after they have had an opportunity to deliberate on each of the options. Distribute a packet of ‘investment chips’ to each participant, and show them how they will be able to invest (or not) in what they believe will be the best course of action. (Note…each ziplock packet will contain 5 white poker chips, 5 red poker chips and 5 blue poker chips…representing an investment of time, personal resources and public resources, respectively.) Here is a diagram of the choice matrix:
Exercise: The conversation starts with 30 minutes of deliberation on the option that exhibited the widest diversity of opinions in the “At This Moment” exercise…then 20 minutes for the next option…and 10 minutes on the option that showed the narrowest diversity of opinion. This time structure allows for greater learning among participants on the sub-topics where the group has already recognized the greatest differences in their initial preferences.
The moderation of this unique manner of deliberation needs to be more task-focused than in typical NIF-style conversations…after all, the purpose of our deliberation here is to prepare participants to make actual choices within the time constraints of the exercise. Deliberation here is informed significantly by the AmericaSpeaks model…blending decisions with shared learning while pressing forward to consider as many impacts, consequences and trade-offs as possible.
In this exercise, each option can be analyzed through the investment lenses of the participants…seeing the benefits, impacts and trade-offs of actions along a short-term through long-term spectrum. How effective would these actions be in solving this critical, public problem? How could the investment of time be used effectively in this option? What kinds of personal resources could make a difference? How would public resources be applied in the most effective ways? What can be done immediately and locally? How can long-term investments be sustained long enough to make a difference? These kinds of questions not only address the task of the exercise…but they also concentrate on the kinds of actions that would be needed to really make an impact on the issue.
‘Investment Choices’ and Outcome Conversation
At the conclusion of this focused conversation, it’s time to make some choices, and to draw some conclusions. Small groups work best with a clear roadmap that leads somewhere…and that gives each participant the sense of being part of something meaningful and ultimately impactful. This concluding exercise doesn’t take much time…and most groups can actually have some fun in this kind of decision format. Plus…it gives some instant gratification as more people make their ‘investments’ on the matrix.
Exercise: Give participants these simple instructions:
· White chips represent ‘time’ like community organizing, volunteering, civic organizations, etc.; red chips represent ‘personal resources’ like money, property, financial investments, social networking, etc.; blue chips represent ‘public resources’ like tax dollars, physical infrastructure, public lands, the environment, etc.
· Chips can be concentrated by each participant on just one part of the matrix…or distributed widely across the options and timeframes.
· It is also a valid choice to NOT invest some of chips.
When all participants have made their ‘investments,’ stack the chips by color so they can be easily counted, and visually understood with and among the cells of the matrix. A digital photo can be effective in recording this data pool…in addition to an actual, recorded count with a marker pen in each block.
Briefly ask participants to reflect on what their investment portfolio means in real terms. What kinds of actions in the short-term and long-term are preferred? How diversified are these investments? How should community time be best allocated? What private resources are needed…and available? How can public resources be used most wisely…and how does this need translate into politics?
Personal Interest to Public Impact
‘Impactful conversations’ in this interactive model yield some insightful and scalable data…making it relatively easy to pool with other groups and communities, AND making it possible to interpret the outcomes to the public. During each session, several types of data can be recorded for local interpretation, and for incorporation through online networking to create an aggregate view of the issue with a wider pool of participants.
· Reporting the outcome of the ‘At This Moment’ exercise…showing the diversity of opinions on various options prior to the deliberative conversations for groups to see how they participate in an aggregate view of the topic…how they are unique, and how they share common concerns.
· Reporting the outcome of the ‘Investment Choices’ exercise…showing the action preferences of the group after their deliberative conversations. This part of the reporting has the greatest promise in aggregating deliberative data for local, state and national use. When issue guides are written specifically for this style of deliberation, the potential for timely and meaningful deliberation and impact will increase.
As the session winds to a close, the most important thing to do is to revisit the ‘personal interest’ statement people posted on the wall…asking what effects the impacts in the ‘Investment Choices’ might have on those expressions of urgent, personal concern. If these personal interests are addressed, participants will leave the session with a direction, some energy and a sense of connection with others who are concerned about the issue…and this can lead to the transformations in Margaret Mead’s quote.