Public Conversations Project
by W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn
Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: "Public Conversations Project," selection from Moral Conflict, (Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 1997) pp. 181-197.
The Public Conversations Projects (PCP) was founded by a group of family therapists who thought that family therapy methods might be useful in creating more productive moral discussions. The PCP approach seeks to avoid old, unproductive patterns of interaction. It facilitates dialogue rather than debate, by encouraging the sharing of personal experiences, listening to others, sincere curiosity, and admitting doubts. Dialogue seeks to explore shared values among opponents and differences among those who share a view. Where debate aims to persuade, dialogue aims to understand. PCP conversations generally occur in one session with a half dozen participants.
PCP employs three methods to sustain dialogue. First it takes preventative measures to insure that the conversation does not fall into debate. Participants are contacted in advance of the conversation. They are asked to adhere to a set of conversational ground rules. During the discussion facilitators take steps to avoid confrontational arrangements. Second, PCP uses a variety of facilitative processes. Facilitators keep the conversation on track, ask questions, set the tone of interaction and enforce the conversation ground rules. Ground rules are designed to create a safe, confidential environment which encourages personal sharing and respect. Third, PCP uses collaborative methods to give participants a role in shaping the overall process. Participants work together to develop their ground rules. Facilitators solicit feedback from participants on their particular conversation, and on the process itself.
Pearce and Littlejohn argue that moral conflicts often rest on incommensurate views of reality and differing basic values. Because the conflicting parties do not share a common paradigm, normal ways of dealing with disagreements can simply exacerbate moral conflicts. The authors see the PCP model as one way to transcend basic value differences, and facilitate fruitful moral discussion. Participants are encouraged to see themselves as embarked together on a new journey. PCP stresses creating a safe environment based on shared conversational guidelines, so that "there will be no surprises in the process, although, like any other adventure, there will probably be some surprises in the content."[p. 182] Facilitators take active steps to prevent old, dysfunctional types of interaction from recurring, and to support the co-creation of a new conversation.