Public Dialogue Consortium

Summary of

Public Dialogue Consortium

by W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn

Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: "Public Dialogue Consortium," selection from Moral Conflict, (Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 1997) pp. 197-210.

The Public Dialogue Consortium (PDC) is made up communications teachers and practitioners who seek to institutionalize improved forms of public dialogue. Through ongoing Kaleidoscope sessions the PDC offers a forum where opponents on intractable issues can discuss their views. Kaleidoscope sessions employ a number of different formats, governed by a systems orientation. The systems orientation treats communication as an interaction between people. Communication is shaped by both its grammar and its context. Systems theorists will focus more on what people actually do in communication, rather than on attitudes or beliefs. Improving communication then requires improving the context and grammar based on a clear understanding of what people are doing in the communication setting.

Kaleidoscope sessions range from ninety minute to full-day meetings. Sessions are public. Participants include representatives from the opposing viewpoints, and an audience. Facilitators include a moderator for the representatives, a floor manager for the audience and a reflecting team. Kaleidoscope sessions have five goals. It seeks to produce recognition of the opponents' legitimate interests, respect for their beliefs and experiences, and increase the understanding of both sides' underlying beliefs and values. In addition, Kaleidoscope tries to demonstrate how disputants shape the conflict by their joint actions, and helps them to move forward as opponents abandon negative patterns of communication, replacing them with more constructive patterns.

The PDC forums employ three methods for breaking negative communication patterns and facilitating constructive communication. First, systematic questioning uses "What if..?" questions to deepen participants understanding of their respective moral perspectives, to broaden their understanding of the consequences of their views, and to imagine possible futures. Second, questions are asked in a spirit of appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry focuses on uncovering positive aspects in each party's perspectives, and on enlarging those perspectives. It focuses not on problems but on possible improvements. Third, the PDC uses reflection, which is "a type of shared hypothesizing in which an interviewer reflects possible connections, contexts, and futures bases on answers to systematic and appreciative questions."[p.203] Reflections are meant to offer fresh interpretations to the participants. The facilitator must avoid presenting their interpretation as authoritative, and must be flexible enough to present a variety of interpretations as the questioning proceeds.

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 PDC model as one way to transcend basic value differences, and facilitate fruitful moral discussion. They note that, "at the very best, the participants no longer will view opponents as crazy, ignorant, uneducated, misguided or immoral but will see one another as concerned citizens with good reasons for believing what they do."[p.206] Participants learn that together they can move away from damaging and negative interactions, and develop more productive forms of communication.