Founder and Director of the Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts
Topics: dialogue, facilitation, common ground, ground rules
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
Listen to Full Interview
- Public Conversations Project
- Designing Dialogue Groups
- The Public Impact of Dialogue
- Finding Common Ground
- Dialogue Facilitation
- Role of the Facilitator
- Collaborative Design
- Ground Rules
- Creating Safe Spaces
Q: I was wondering if you could tell me about what transformative moment inspired you to start this Public Conversations Project?
A: It was a particular moment in a video-tape. I had turned on to PBS, which I expect higher things from then other stations, and it was an hour long film about population followed by a conversation by two pro-choice and two pro-life leaders, Waddleton, Nelly Brown, Congressman Dornan and Eloise Smeel and facilitated by Martin Lagronski. I watched hoping it might really be a constructive conversation about this wonderful film and what happened was that it rapidly degenerated into name-calling and finger-pointing and screaming at each other. I think it was the moment that Lagronski slumped into his chair and muttered just barely audible "there's nothing going on there but a lot of noise", that the wires crossed in my brain. I'd been listening with my sort of concerned citizen ears and suddenly my family therapist and other therapist wire crossed in my brain. My inner voice went something like this, "Wait a minute, I wouldn't put up with this in my office." None of my colleagues would let this sort of thing go down with their clients, we know how to stop that, how to interrupt that and get a different kind of conversation going.
Then came the question, "Gee, I wonder if the kind of thing we do in our office with couples and families and chronic conflict could be applied to conversations with people who are at loggerheads about polarized issues like abortion?" And that light bulb turned on in my brain with a kind of intensity and excitement and a sense of possibility that I called up my colleagues and I ordered the film. I invited my colleagues to come to lunch and talk about it and watch it.
And everyone was very excited and that led to multiple brown-bag lunches, watching other TV shows and figuring out what we might do. The only way we could figure out if it would work would be to try it, what issue would we do, abortion, gun control? Those are the two that I remember.
We ended up picking abortion because we had access to people on both sides of the issue. And it was an issue that, like everybody else, we were sort of familiar with.
We were anxious about what would happen when we brought these two groups together, none of who knew each other. So the first two meetings were homogenous meetings with each side and then we brought them together and we began a practice in those first two meetings that we've followed ever since. That is that we would essentially make a proposal, try it, and then we would call people up afterwards and say, "What worked for you and what should we change?" We did that in those early days and also thought about who else might be interested in coming to a conversation like this? And what we learned by about the 5th round, was how to invite people and what people need to know ahead of time to make an informed choice to come to an event.
We found out the importance of hospitality at the beginning of an event. The importance of introducing themselves to one another without knowing which side they were on. Many of them reported being confronted with their own stereotypes, some of which they didn't even know they had in that process and the importance of the structure. Almost all of the ingredients, nuts and bolts of our work were evolved by feedback by those participants. For example, they told us what the questions were that brought the information into the room that they didn't have before that softened their stereotypes and aroused interest in those on the other side. They told us what order those questions needed to be in. That it was really important begin by inviting people to share a personal experience that they felt connected with their views on the issue. Then it was really important to give people a chance for them to say what was the heart of what they were passionate about. And that was the interesting thing, then, many people in the middle of saying what they were passionate about already anticipated the 3rd question which was to invite people to name any gray areas, mixed feelings, conflicts of values, hard cases, they would be willing to name that existed within their view.
Many people because of what had happened during the meal, because of the ground rules, because of the understanding of the event, were ready to share the complexity of their views with people on the other side. We didn't know that. We had the advantage of not knowing what we were doing and really being open to being taught by the people we worked with. I think it's important that PCP began with the question, "Could what we know be adapted to content and an audience that we don't know?" And I think that that questioning, that willingness to take our cues from people that we work with, over time, as we became more reflective about what we did, that worked. It became an articulated commitment to collaborative design of events, collaborative facilitation, I think that's an earmark of what we do.
I think that's the transformative moment, which is what you asked me about. It was that moment when Mark Lagronsky slumped and those wires crossed, those parts of myself crossed and the passions of both of them came together that led to a role I never could have envisioned for myself. I never knew about conflict resolution and dialogue and all that, until I made it up. And it's been quite an adventure since then.
Q: So the question you asked, "Was could the techniques that we know of, help people whom we don't know?" I'm wondering what you're purpose was, did you think that you could just help individuals talk, or were you aiming to maybe get a larger discussion between people on two sides of maybe a very difficult issue? Or did you just want to see if it worked, I mean where were you going in the beginning?
A: That's a really good question,
That seed, fell into a ground of growing passion and concern on my part that intensified as I became a grandmother and I found myself entertaining ideas about longer streches of future time, it suddenly became realer to me in terms of the lifetimes of my grandchildren.
A lot of the concerns that I had when I studied Political Science before I went to social work school, about my understandings of democracy, and the American Political process, and what it takes to make democracy really work had been fueling a growing alarm about what's going on in this country, as far as the growing decisiveness, the rise of single-issue politics, this sort of degeneration of discourse in the public square.
The evidence of voter disengagement, violent episodes of violence and so forth. I had a pre-existing concern over whether democracy - warts and all - god knows, that I have known in my lifetime, was going to be something my grandchildren were going to experience. I really thought, unless we can develop wide-spread antidotes, sort of agents of social glue, to counteract the forces that are fueled by the media in the political process that are augmenting divisiveness, isolation of groups from one another, demonization of those who are different and that kind of thing. Unless we can do it, I basically think that this country is going to go down the tubes in ways that would make me deeply sad.
I'm prone to the grandiose and the big scale and the vague, which is a good combination because I have like these big-sky fantasies and then this very micro question and not a clue about how it was important.
Essentially in the mental health professions, we have skill sets, interpersonal skill sets, convening skill sets that the larger society needed and it was like an effort. I think my founding fantasy was we'll go try it, and if we find that we have something to offer, then we would go back to the social workers and the mental health profession and say "Turn's out we all have resources, that the larger society needs, come join us, here are some ideas, we'll work with you". But what turned out was in fact that we were discovered by the conflict resolution community, before we were discovered by the therapy community.
The idea was in 1989 and the first year we ate lunch.
The second year I think we had 18 dialogues about abortion, single sessions. And the plan was that this was like an opening interview in therapy. This was just like a teeny step and the plan was we'll see if we can do that one step and then we'll get a much longer dialogue on abortion and that didn't happen for about 7 years. What did happen was that this led to the media discovering us through my involvement with the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice, which was active in Washington and across the country at the time. And when Alan Goodman and NPR did a piece on us, suddenly, this larger public discovered us and really before we were ready. We were just in my kids' bedrooms, and we weren't even an organization and we said, "Well, this is fantastic, would this work for environmental fights, or what about animal research?" And we said, "Well, we don't know, but we'll be glad to try".
This is getting ahead of your transformative questions. It's not a transformation, it's an education that this project has given me is how change happens.
I mean even to this day, we've done relatively little work.
I can count the projects we've done on two waves of two hands, but because we went about it in a certain way we were able to invest time and resources and document what we did. This allowed us to reflect on it, extract principles on what we'd learned, and trying to turn them into principles and written stories about it. That is why our work has had an infinitely huge effect. So that's changed my mind about how the connection between local initiative in this field and macro changes in this culture can happen. I was ignorant before, and ignorant in a different way then. I think it's interesting that if you do a little piece, but do it in a certain way, and through the web, which of course happened since we started, it raises all kind of questions about these times you can transform conflict and what is the connection about what happens in the wrong and what happens out in the world. Jumping ahead, the piece we did with the pro-choice and pro-life leaders, 6 women, 6 years ago, it was unclear at times whether it would ever go public. We could talk about the effects it had on them, their public appearance, and their public speaking and so forth, but because they choose to write about it, that story has gone everywhere. We've been interviewed on Australian radio. There has been 2 textbooks written. They've gotten letters from all over the world. And every year it's still going, every year around January around the time of the Roe v. Wade anniversary, this year particularly around the 30th.
Q: The publicity is still going?
A: Oh yeah, four of them were on Talk of the Nation and two of them were on The Connection. The power of stories is a teaching from this whole thing. And the new question for me is, what are the role of stories of conflict transformation and the transforming of conflict.
And those women, at the end of that article that they published in the Globe, said that the ironic thing is that we believe more strongly in our positions as ever, having been through these dialogues. We've talked to the other side for six years and become fairly intimate with them on a personal level, and we still have these very firm beliefs.
So on a very superficial perspective, one might say, "Well big deal, what did you get done? Nothing, right?" Yet everyone seems to be very interested in this. Why do you think that there is this fascination, I mean do you think that people agree with your assessment? I'm not phrasing this very well, but the way that things are falling apart in terms of society and our ability to speak to each other because everything has become single-issue politics, like you mentioned.
To me, the most important part of the article that they wrote about is what you just said. That in one of the ways what's happened in the culture and is carried out by individuals in the culture is a belief that is the habit of defining who other people are by their positions about one issue. That that's how the single issue politics and the fragmentation plus the adversarial nature comes home to roost.
So that many people are not aware, so what they're saying is actually, human beings, are more than their views on one issue. And in fact, they are 360 degrees of them and if you could get people to show up, the sort of magic of this work, is that given these assumptions, that because I think because you think this way about abortion, you are this, this kind of person and I think you are wrong and I may even hate you, since it is only one of your view on one issue, not who you are, that if you can come into a room, where 360 degreeness of those who you have been, who you don't agree with and you may have demonized and who are there, and you feel safe enough because of the setting, to actually listen to what they are saying and to put your views in a way that may be actually heard, and easily understood, it's so fast how the change is.
What I was saying about the 2nd and the 3rd question. If you were a fly on the wall, with our dialogues about abortion, not the leaders one so much, but many of our dialogues, really, they're dull. Our original fantasies were doing TV shows and dialogue on TV, but the kinds of dialogue we do, don't make good television because what happens is, and I say this because participants have said this, is that it's boring because nobody's shouting, people are not interrupting, the body language is not very lively and the drama is going on inside people. People are struggling to one, observe the ground rules which involves a fair bit of discipline on people's parts. Two, they are struggling with their own stereotypes and the assumptions they, the kind of cognitive dissonance between the kind of map of who they thought they would be seeing, and thought they were going to be hearing and what they're actually hearing and their sense of who these people really are. So the drama is internal and then in the moments where new ideas come into and so forth, but that's not drama, drama.
Q: Not made for TV drama?
A: No. I think the revelation of the leaders is that it is possible to have a relationship and care about a 360 degree human being who differs passionately with you on a set of issues and that I can be here and remain grounded in my views and you can remain there, grounded in your views. We can respect because we understand each other and care for one another. Depending on the situation, we are in and find ways that we can collaborate, while passionately continuing to disagree. There was a piece on NPR this winter, with Al Simpson and George McGovern talking about the change in Congress, exactly what's been breaking my heart. When they came on, there was this kind of collegiality and the knowledge that we may be passionately opposed on issue 'A', but we may need each other on issue 'B' and there maybe convergences on issue 'B.' The ability to see many issues together has been lost. The ability that we know in our personal life, probably most of us, is that we don't have to agree with somebody, I mean it's boring. Nicki Gamble, one of the things she got out of the meetings was realizing how like her most of the people she sees are. How like minded, and learning that the exposure to difference and engaging the difference in a way that you can both learn, that's where learning and personal growth and more effective leadership comes from. You don't want all that, but that's what you get.
Q: I absolutely did, that's great to hear for students on this kind of stuff. By, the way this project isn't really for a NPR audience or anything.
A: I know, but I want to be clear, it's pathetic, but it's a revelation. It's a sign of the trouble that this culture is in right now.
Q: I have to say that's the most articulated, concise, interpritation of why this kind of work is important in a big picture kind of way.
A: Well, that's good.
Q: Bob Stains gave me a different one yesterday, which I also found very useful. It was what I mentioned earlier, that if you don't have any relational change, then you can't have any substantive agreement because ultimately it's going to fail. That's sort of the more micro day-to-day reason of why you might want to do this kind of work. But in terms of saving our culture.
A: Now that is me, note, not PCP.
Q: But I think a lot of people who are in this field would agree with you. I think that if you don't know your neighbors, if you can't talk to the people around you, then all this new technology makes us more individual and more isolated and less able to talk to the people next to us on the bus, then we're in trouble ultimately, even cell phones, totally off the subject, but
A: No, but it's all a part of the picture. It's lack of awareness of your impact on the larger environment. My pet hypothesis is this idea of toxic speech. Fifty years ago, we didn't realize that we were all being polluted by what was in the air and then we learned how to measure the chemicals in the air and then holy moley and then... Well I think we are polluting the public square when we indulge in toxic speech. Just like when people recycle their garbage, I think people need to take responsibility for recycling and transforming their own anger so that it enters, that their speaking does not pollute the public square. We all have a part to play in that, and we're all, as I said to the animals, polarization is polarization is polarization and every time we use stereotypes, and every time we vent and do the kind of stuff we see on TV, we all use slogans, and reduce people to sound bytes. You know, we're doing our share. "Conflict transformation belongs at home," is my motto.
Q: Can you talk about what it was like to be in the room with the women who were doing the secret abortion talks that became public later. At the beginning, especially, it must've been so intense, right after the shootings?
A: Let me back into that, because in terms of the warm-up. Do you think people want to know the story that's not in the article? I mean of what's not in the article, of how we got to there, because what happened was in December in 1949, John Selby shot up two clinics that provided abortion services.
I mean in 1994, December 30th, John Selby went into two clinics in suburban Boston and killed two workers there -- two clinics that provided abortions among other things. He killed two people, wounded several other things. And in the following two weeks, cardinal law and Governor Weld called for what they called "Common Ground Talks."
If they hadn't done this, I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to make a link between the earlier work we'd done in Boston and leadership level dialogue. We did start resuming our earlier, one shot stuff with the public, that we would've started anyway, but
Q: You said you'd done that earlier, for four years?
A: But we'd stopped. We hadn't done it, we'd left the issue in 1992 and this was two years later. Frankly, our momentum was going elsewhere. Then we said, "do we have an obligation, since we did do something on the issue". We do have credibility on both sides. We've never worked with leaders, and this is sort of a dilemma. Then it was really when Susan Pabzeba, a mediator, called and we decided that we didn't know what common ground talks meant. That it would be good to have a team that allowed for it to be more dialogue or more mediation, which I personally don't have not any training in. So we decided again that we don't know, so the thing is to ask. We went around with non-attachment to doing anything. I think that's really one of the most important parts of PCP stance is that the top priority or commitment is to do no harm and the second is if we can't be reasonably sure that we will at least do no harm, then we are willing to let it go. That's as important as anything, non-attachment to outcome, at every level of our work, that's crucial.
Q: So, that means you're not pushing too hard to get in, you really want to make sure that people want to come in.
A: Right. We didn't know. It was a very tense situation here in Boston and it would have been better to do nothing, then to have done something that would have led the leaders to be more alienated. You know, like saying worse things about each other in public and so forth. It would be better not to do it. I think there was a real commitment that Susan and I and PCP shared. We were willing to be told, you know, "there's no opportunity here, no motivation, no outcome that could be worth it and certainly you're not the right people." We were willing to hear all of those things.
So we just started going around and we began with the names we'd heard of and we wrote them. They suggested more names of leaders on both sides of the issue, surrounding the governor's office, cardinal's office. That was later, the cardinal's office league of women voters, sort of peripheral, and we asked some questions. Questions like, "Do you think there is an opportunity for some kind of common ground talks at this point?" And if so, "What do you think it is?" You know, "What kind of talks do you think would be useful here, dialog, mediation, if so what do you think the goals of such talks should be in order to be useful?" "What should the criteria be used in recruiting, inviting people to participate?" I think those were the main questions. We did that twenty times and we also asked, "Who do you think should be invited to the dialog?" and "Who else should we talk to?" We did that about twenty times before we were done. And this was far and away the most high stakes PCP thing I had ever done.
We pretty much learned answers to all those things. We learned that talks would be useful; they would be more like a dialog. We learned that the goals would be, what I think of as dialogic goals, developing relationships based on mutual respect and understanding. Relationships that can contain differences about values and policies, that clarify differences, and identify shared concerns, and exchange matters of information on issues of mutual concern. Relationships that create direct channels with leaders on the other side, rather than through the media, that was big. And this was the one extra from the usual, the first two were sort of dialogue goals, but then I think the direct channels were an additional one. The third one was to de-escalate the polarization around the issue of abortion in Massachusetts at that time. To change the climate surrounding the issue and to explore joint projects and that sort of thing which didn't happen. They also told us what the ground rules should be, who should be invited and that they should have some kind of credibility on the issue and commitment to learning about perspectives on the other side, and freedom to speak as an individual. Everyone came as individuals.
Q: ...of their own accord? That wasn't your suggestion?
A: No, they taught us. These were the things that they said they recommended. Later on, when we went back to some of the people we talked to and invited them to participate, these are sort of the terms under which they would be willing to participate. They would participate if these were the goals and if everyone else invited to participate, met these criteria. It was only four meetings, that was the most we could eek out of the situation. These had to be the ground rules, and these had to be the agreements about confidentiality and taping and all that, and then it could be all written up and everyone would sign it. It was that big of a deal. When you think about a generation of conditioning and polarization, and some of these were really leaders of advocacy groups. We did not plan on having six women, we planned on having eight people instead of six. One of the guys fell through and it would have probably taken another month to build up adequate bridges to the next in line. "Everybody said, if you do something, it must happen before the first anniversary". "There's a window of opportunity here." So we decided to go. It was a judgment call, with who we had.
Another thing that's probably interesting to people is that there's no one who doesn't have views about abortion, including the 2 facilitators. Both of us made it known, in retrospect I think we actually raised it with the pro-choice people, but with the pro-life people we completely self-disclosed about our prior involvement in the issue. I actually forgot one important thing in my first round of that, and in fear and trembling, remembered there was this one involvement I had forgotten to mention. I went back, afraid it was really going to blow it, but in fact it deepened their trust in a way. So there was full disclosure, and as in all our facilitation, we don't claim to be neutral. We've never claimed to use that kind of language at all. We claim to be able to facilitate a fair and balanced kind of conversation. And because of us continuing to ask for feedback and because of the collaborative way we did things, we had relationships with each of the participants, very deep relationships and very trusting relationships, before we got in the room, and that's true in all our work.
Having done this, the actual facilitating the dialogue was less, I won't say it was, it was less demanding then I think many people might imagine. And that gets into how our dialogues go.
The beginnings are very formal, very structured. We have learned that the more anxiety people have about the first encounter, the more structured they are. You may have heard from one of my colleagues that one of our assumptions is that learning occurs, and learning can be prevented from either too much anxiety or too little and that there's sort of a middle ground. But in these issues, structure lowers anxiety for most people who come to the dialogues that we've facilitated. So the beginnings are quite ritualized really, very structured, very specific questions. Each question everyone responds to in turn, there are very clear instructions about when cross talk can happen. There are many reasons for this, one of which has to do with modulating anxiety, so that people feel safe to drop all the communication and linguistic habits that they bring, as well as safe to entertain and take in the reality of this other person. The other reason for it is for it's building capacity for listening and in speaking to the participants. A whole part of our dialogues, how they go, is they start out very, very structured, and then as the participants pick up the skill set and the attitudes and internalize the ground rules, we as facilitators back way off. So we're very central in the beginning in terms of implementing these structures, it's usually a little more to do frankly, other than remind people about them.
Q: As a facilitator you don't do much more than...
A: No, there's this ingenuity that goes in to the design. First there's this preparation and then those first four, well the first session is tightly designed from beginning to end, starting with easy. You know, it's like stepping toward the more difficult, stepping in incremental steps towards what we've learned with conversations with them. We've interviewed them about their concerns and what they are hoping won't happen and what are the signs that it's going off track and that sort of thing. So over time, you've got to be prepared to back off. Every time as a facilitator, that's why we like structure so much is because no matter how brilliant your move as a facilitator in a dialogue, the action is between the participants, not between the participants and you. Every time you interrupt with what's going on in the room, you're interfering. It is far better to drop a ball rolling, like a question in a structured sequence of speaking and let them give their responses to each other, rather than to be interacting through you.
Q: They're talking to you versus talking to each other.
I think it was in the fourth meeting, I had some brilliant idea about what they could do. One of them turned to me and said, "You know, we get it. We get it who they are. Would you just get out of the way and let us talk to each other?" That had a big impact on me, so I think part of our...
Q: Were you thrilled, or were you insulted?
A: At that moment, I didn't know what to do. I wasn't insulted. I was sort of like taken aback. And this was like the fourth dialogue we ever did. I think that was one of the things that inclined us toward looking for structure versus looking for facilitation to carry most of the ball, also because it takes less skill.
Q: That sounds like an invisible facilitation.
A: That's our goal. That's my goal as a facilitator is to become invisible.
And what happened with the leaders was that they contracted for four meetings. And in our hope it was to design them so they would get a taste of what was possible to be able to continue. That was all we had to work with and what happened was that they then contracted for another four and then I think one more round of four. Then people just need to be, they did not meet as intensively as they did in the beginning for five years. There were two or three years where they just met quarterly, just to sort of maintain the relationships. They didn't quite know where to go, but they didn't want to let go of it. Then when partial birth abortion, DNX partial birth abortion, became hot, they would then want to meet around that. Then of course at the end it was writing the article.
But what we would do, you see, is we made them work.
We designed the first session, and then we called them up and asked, "How did it go, what was hard, what was important for you. What do you think the next step is?" And then we would take their ideas and turn them into a structured sequenced agenda. We've always called it a plan for our time and they would look at it. We would say something about it and they would ok it. Then they would launch into it and then we would call them up again, so it was a dance between them and us. It was a sharing of responsibility for what happened, because we really didn't know. This felt really like pioneering work, and going in with this sort of Zen. I mean one of my favorite mantras, when I get feeling too over-responsible was I think it was Thomas Crumb, who said that the correct attitude for the dispute resolver was the attitude for the Zen warrior going into battle. The battle has already happened and you've lost. It's all over, it's another way of getting into this mindset of being receptive to the things that the people you are serving, and facilitating are telling you what they need.
And then being, because you're not trying and have a lot of pre-conceived ideas, you're able to access your spontaneity and creativity to build off their cues.
This mostly comes later when the structure lessens.
Q: So over time it does lessen?
A: Over time, oh yes, it is the same principle. It was like running a meeting. They would forget about the ground rules. The role of a facilitator in our work, it's very bounded really because of the reliance on structure, and we always forget, you know, this is not the normal way people talk to each other in this culture anymore and you'll probably all forget, and will you authorize us to remind you when you forget?
Q: As there's less structure, what becomes the role of the facilitator?
A: Well, because we continued the practice of phone calls, we would come in with a draft agenda. We would take notes. We would do stuff on news trends. We'd keep them on task. You know, you wanted to have a conversation about 'A', but it looks like you're moving in the direction of "B". What do you want to do? Do you want to change, be explicit about making a change, or go back? We sort of take the observer role. We would sometimes even write reflections to them, which we would read at the beginning. There was actually one moment where we recommended discontinuing the dialogue because it seemed to us that it had loss focus. I remember after the first meeting, which was quite astonishing, we wrote our reflection based on our knowledge about what can happen in these things, anticipating that it might be more difficult. I'd say that we become like observers and we give feedback like, "Four of you feel this way and two of you feel this way, is that right?" Or saying, "I'm not sure where you're going here, where are you going?"
Q: So it becomes more of a traditional facilitation role?
A: Yeah, because the relationships changed, it becomes very traditional.
Q: Because you can have that level of discussion at that point because the relationship is...
A: Because they've got the skills to engage around their differences in ways that promote where there's some momentum, and it's not arguing. One of our ground rules that's really hard is, no persuasion. You can want to persuade, but persuasive rhetoric and attack of the rhetoric of the others is not allowed. We are very tight about what kind of speech is used. Now with them, as it went along, they agreed to loosen some of the original ground rules
, but at the beginning...
Q: That was something that they suggested, or something that you came up with as an organization?
A: Our ground values are very behavioral, because part of it is
I don't like vague ground rules. You know, we will be respectful, because how do you tell? I want to be able to see it. I want to be clear that if someone interrupts, if someone asks a rhetorical question, someone makes an attribution, someone attacks rather than asks questions, and if I don't have the ground rules handy then how can I tell? Our standard PCP ground rules are very tight, very behavioral. It just seems easier, all the way around. The one we did have to continually renegotiate was confidentiality, because at the beginning, even the fact of the meeting was secret. They couldn't tell anybody that they were coming to the meeting. There was a lot of renegotiation of that, and gradual loosening over time.
You know there were a lot of different tactics to the work, but I would say by the fourth meeting, the relationships had profoundly changed. I think it was the second meeting one of the pro-life women said, "We're standing on holy ground." It was the sense of something transcendent, something really awesome, versus awful happening, that was bigger than all of us. I certainly felt that for that abortion issue. I've felt that for other pieces of work, it's not anything that I'm doing and it's even more than what they're doing. I suppose that the left-brain part of me would say something about a shift in the system.
I've come to think about it as an analogy to healing in the body. My husband had a very bad accident to his leg in 1985. He was injured in a boating accident. He had cuts on his leg that were about an inch wide and a broken leg. They could cast it but they couldn't suture it. So I had the experience for about a month of watching that leg heal, and all there was to do was to create a sterile field and keep bad stuff out of it. To clean it regularly and to tend to the field. My husband's a doctor and he explained to me there's this process in the skin called granulitis, in which the cells are actually reaching out on either side of the wound, seeking they're like on the other side. I saw how without anybody doing anything to the wound, how that happened and gradually there was this healing. I really frankly take from this work that there is some analogy to what happens to the body and what happens in groups.
The role of the conflict resolvers is to create that safe enough field, and to have ground rules that structure out the toxin, that which would pollute it. So the trick is to know enough about how conversation goes to figure out what are the ground rules that will keep those speech patterns and the feelings that go with them out of the room. And to know what are the structures within the room, that's where the analogy gets more complicated, but I really believe that.
My role, is a very modest role. It's an architectural role. It's about designing an environment and providing resources for that environment so that and maybe bringing new ingredients like questions that we never thought to address before, to enrich that environment
in ways through this process, which I honestly don't understand. It was like when I was a therapist, the better I got, the less I understood why it was happening. It seemed like a mystery. So I am content,
I think, to do this work. You have to be content with sort of not knowing, looking at what works. I don't know why it works really, but I do know much better now about what I need to bring to the situation, about how to set it up, so it can work
, I don't know if that's all clear.
Q: Yeah, sure, it reminds me of something a professor used to say, "We know it works, but we don't know why."
A: Yeah, I honestly don't know. I just know being with those women, and being in the room and watching them discover who one another were, which we already knew because we'd met them all. It wasn't hard, it took a certain kind of courage, really a kind of faith, I guess. This was six years after we had started and I think by then I had enough faith in the process that they'll know,
they'll tell you, if you're willing to listen and shift and not get attached to your bright ideas and always be willing to hear. Particularly when you have an issue like that, where you have your own views, always checking in. In the interviews we've always asked, "Is there anything about the facilitation that felt off to you, that you want to draw to our attention?" We always asked and would've responded.
Q: I've taken up more time then I said I would but I want to ask you just one more question if I can, and that is
when the article finally published in the Globe, do you know why they decided to publish? What was the reaction there, how did you feel about all the attention that came along with it?
A: Well, why they decided to publish it. First they decided they couldn't trust anybody, and didn't have enough energy to write a book. They didn't trust any reporter because of the bias problem with the media and so they decided that they would write an article. They approached the Globe first and they said "We want you to publish this the way it is written because it took six months of haggling over every word. We want you to publish the way it is, will you do it?" And the Globe, to their enormous credit said that they would, even though the language violates their style sheet of how you refer to pro-choice and pro-life people. They did reserve the right to pick the title, and the group insisted that was fine as long as they didn't use the word "common ground", because no matter what you say, people hear it as a compromise. It's not a good word anymore. And basically they were prepared to walk, if the Globe didn't agree. It was a deal breaker, so the Globe agreed, they gave them three full page spreads.
We thought, all right, we should have a press conference so again, it was like we began, we decided we would do it but we didn't know if anybody would come. So we got all set up, we had a party and a banner and a big space and everything. This was because by then everybody felt proud of the article, because it was a lot of work and it was like a new baby. The room was packed. Fifty people came from the media. A person on our staff, who used to do media said, "Look, the T.V. will come and they'll stay for 15 minutes max. People will just come in and out." Well, everyone stayed for an hour and you could have heard a pin drop. They all spoke, went around the table and talked about what it meant to them.
None of the questions from the press were cynical or attacking.
The quality. I was on a side view; I could watch the absolutely wrapped attention on the way out, thanking them for meeting. People were just profoundly. It's happened again. It's like we believe it can't happen. I saw the Neiman fellow, you know, middle career journalist, went to talk to the ???. It's the same thing. Just I think it's the cognitive dissonance thing, it's like,
if you go to our website, along with the letter, there are about hundred letters, including one from the publisher of the Globe, and it gives people hope. It's inspiring, it's hopeful, and I think it's something about tweaking the culture. The internalized norms of the culture in some way deep in our bones that we don't even know we've swallowed.
Q: People didn't say, "What's going to come of this, big deal, you've talked, now what?"
A: Then they will talk about how they're rhetoric has changed. I mean they can talk, or I can tell you. You listen to them talk on NPR. The quotes from the Globe, they're different from those people, they always began being different from about after a year after they began meeting. There's a ??? and they can talk about what they will do in that press conference, and about the clips that were on CNN and NBC. There was a hotline that went on. Information flowed from the pro-life side to the pro-choice side and at one point when there was someone regarded as dangerous in town, steps were taken to protect one person's cautions. In the Soviet Union, there are certain things that go on at an international level. You stop to think about it, it's crazy for people who were in Boston, they begin by saying it, we were right down the street and all we knew about each other was from the media. And I'll spare you my diatribe about how the media reported conflict, but I'm sure we ??? got to have some other people. Its nuts. So it's all about directing the power of face. To face direct communication rather than third hand, and then once you get it, it's surprising, it's been surprising to me, how rapidly shifts happen. That's our button and they happen sooner than you might expect if you do the set up and it has to happen pretty fast. Otherwise people will go away, you know what happens before, so people arrive receptive and then having the first meeting be really successful is important so people will come back.
Q: Well, thank you so much
A: You're a good interviewer. It's interesting stuff, and it's been such an adventure.
Q: I can imagine it must be such a reward to watch this going on. Be involved in that. Should we do anything else?
A: No, I don't think so.
Q: I don't have any more questions, but I'm sure you have volumes and volumes of insight.
A: I think one of the dilemmas, there's something Bob always talked about. I think I've said enough about it, but on the one hand being really committed to certain principles but not committed to outcome and it's not for everybody, and it's certainly counter-cultural. There's no way. I know the phrase I'm using more and more is the idea of the "attractive invitation," now dialog would be seen as just talk, and not attractive in many, many, many situations. I think in highly polarized situations people who will not come to any kind of outcome-oriented goal because it's so polarized that there isn't any thing one can find. It sometimes is very attractive to come to a dialogue with very low-bar goals, mutual understanding and up-dating clarifying differences.
What happens, and this happens in all our work, no matter how polarized it is, that as soon as the shifts in the relationship happen, in an environment with these low goals, they will spontaneously raise the ante and say, "Oh if this is who you are and this is what you care about and this is what you're trying to do, well! Gosh! Maybe we could..." And they're off. And in the end, the pro-choice, pro-life leaders and it's coming from them, because nobody, not the facilitator nor they could know in advance if it's happening; what goals beyond the conversation would be perceived as possible and doable. So our culture makes it very hard, because the funders want to know in advance, what you're going to get out of it and how to present what you do in a way that's attractive. I've heard many, many colleagues bemoan that, but it's not up to us to say what the outcomes are. Anyway that's just a final thought.
Q: Bob and I talked about that a little bit, about how a lot of this work seems to come after a crisis. Like after the shootings, you know, we've got to do something about this! We've got to do something about this for years! It's so close to the culture to have an environment where you don't talk to each other and it doesn't occur to anyone. So I think it's really hard to convince funders to fund efforts that are going to prevent something because you can't say look here's twelve conflicts that are prevented, because they didn't happen!
A: That's true, that's one more thing I could say, briefly. When our participants are motivated to participate, the three other situations where we've worked. One, when there is a future event that both sides feel is valuable that which the success may be ruined because of bad relationships among the parties involved and there is some shared sense of what they hope will happen in that future relationship. Two is when as in the northern forest of New England; they had the example of what happened in the northwest around the owls, there was this sense of unless we do something, that's an image of what's going to happen to us. So that turned out to be motivation, so that maybe stories of problems elsewhere could be a motive. Three is that when there's a shift in leadership, like when Tom Shaw became the bishop of the diocese of Massachusetts. He inherited a situation where there was polarization around homosexuality and actually this was happening many places in the church and he came in wanting to change that, and having some leverage, having a fresh view and some commitment to change, so those were the 3 other. Oh and then the fourth one was in Iowa, when a negative event, when something that was going to happen was perceived to jeopardize important working relationships, these would be seen as advent of Planned Parenthood to Davenport Iowa, advocates who had been working together on housing for the poor, and a lot of other things don't want to be polarized. See the potential that this could wreck everything.
Q: People who work for the same cause in this instance, but this other new environmental factor could..
A: ..Ruin their ability to pursue the goal they were working on and therefore they developed a code of conflict and public meetings and they did a lot of wonderful stuff.
Q: And that was through PCP as well?
A: That was through the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice which was a wonderful thing that now only one piece of their work is still accessible in the Search for Common Ground Website. It was wonderful, there were about fifteen groups all around the country at one point doing all kinds of deviations from the cultural norm, but they couldn't get funding, it's too bad. They had two national conferences, over hundred people came, absolute dynamite, ground rules for the whole conference, pro-life, pro-choice speakers, panels, dialogue groups, fabulous.
Q: That's really a large-scale effort.
A: It was very promising, it didn't survive. But anyways, that's all we've learned about the kind of situation where this is. There's some interesting things that aren't problems, aren't bottom line outcomes with all the other jargon.
Q: Achieve an objective type of ?
A: Right, you know exactly, those are the situation that we've learned to keep an eye out for.
Q: Wow, well thank you.