Robert Stains

 

Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts

Topics: safe spaces, interpersonal communication, facilitation

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003


Listen to Full Interview

Listen/Read Selected Interview Segments on the Following Topics

Q: Please give me a brief overview of your work with PCP, and others if you would like.

A: I oversee all of the dialogue and the training work that we do. So basically that means that I go out and do a lot of the dialogue work. I make decisions in conjunction with my colleagues about what kinds of work we take on. I support people as they go out and do their work, like some of our senior associates. I try to bring new people into the pipeline, and try to get them doing work and coming through the ranks. My main work is training and designing workshops, delivering workshops and going to conferences representing the Public Conversations Project.

Q: Did you happen to be at the National Conference on the Dialogue and Deliberation?

A: Yes, I was there. I gave a couple workshops and I went to some great, great workshops.

Q: Yeah, I thought that there were some really good presentations there.

A: Yeah, it was terrific to see the dialogue field coming together for the first time with some many of us that didn't know each other.

Q: Yeah, I learned quite a bit from people doing this work out there. What experience in your work has especially touched or inspired you?

A: There are two in particular that stand out. There was work that we did with the Episcopal diesis of Massachusetts back in the late 90s where we were asked to facilitate conversations around sexual orientation and human sexuality.

What was particularly inspiring about this was that people were very deeply divided and very suspicious of one another. They were frightened in many ways, as well as hopeful that they could achieve some level of understanding. To see them come together and reach deep levels of understanding, to really grapple with their believes, and then want to do more is what was really inspiring. I think that there are these situations that happen quite a bit, where people want to do more than people expect them to do, or than they signed onto. In this case they came together for a series of meetings, the end of which was to just be conversational.

At the end of the third meeting, they decided that they wanted to create a manual for all congregations in Massachusetts to have similar dialogues. So they formed a work group and created a really great study guide and manual for congregations to use and we've been able to send it all over the country, and to other countries for use in churches, which has been really exciting. So that was one thing that really touched me and inspired me.

Q: What kind of resolutions were you able to come up with? Or what did they agree to say? How did they agree to write anything on such a provocative subject?

A: Well, it's really astonishing, because they didn't just write a manual, they also wrote a statement of convergence and divergence. There were areas that they realized that they agreed in and believed together, and areas that they disagreed in. Then there were areas that they have yet to come to an understanding of where their agreements and disagreements are.

For example, one of the areas that they were surprised to find a high convergence in is that both sides had a high view of scripture. Both sides are very deeply concerned that both sides have a deep and ongoing prayer life. Both sides had similar ideas about pastoral ideas about people who are homosexual. So things like that they were able to say that they agreed upon, and other things they were able to say that they agree that they disagree about different passages in the Bible and what they had to say about homosexuality. Then there were some areas for further discussion that needed to be carried on at further time. Our Anglican group did a similar process. They identified areas of convergence, and areas of divergence, and then areas for continued conversation.

Q: This conversation led to a greater comfort of the other side, a little more knowledge, clarification of the issues, something along these lines?

A: Much deeper respect, deeper levels of understanding where people were coming from. I think that there were misconceptions and stereotypes that both sides held of one another which were washed away. So they were able to interact with each other free of all that sort of baggage and able to interact with each other on a whole level of different issues, but from a deeper respect and understanding and empathy, even though they disagreed.

Q: How do you create a space where people can truly be honest with each other and themselves about issues that are so hard?

A: I think there are a few things that we do. We put a stock in preparation before an event happens. About 80% of our work is done before an event with a series of both written and verbal communications with folks. Part of it is the prevision of information, meaning that we're totally transparent about what's going to happen in the meeting. We are very collaborative about finding out what people would and wouldn't like to have happen. So that spirit of engagement, and the sense of agency that people have, leads to a great, what Bush and Folger would say, "a sense of empowerment," of having the capacity to make choices.

As we engage with them initially we're asking them to make choices and implying that they'll be able to make choices all along. We send them written materials. We interview them, have a conversation, or sometimes a series of conversations about their hopes, their desires, and their ideas for how we should organize the meeting. We have conversations about their ideas about agreements that would help them be able to speak and be willing to listen. We actually don't use the word "safety." I guess because we don't think that anyone really guarantees safety, but we do talk about what makes it possible for you to listen deeply, speak freely, and then we play back what we hear in writing from the combined interviews that we do.

Basically we combine all the interviews that we do and say that this is what we hear, that people hope for. This is what people say they're concerned about. These are some of the agreements that people say they would like present. Do you recognize your hopes, concerns for agreements, ideas for design there? So there's that piece.

Q: Is there a certain amount of lowering expectations when you're preparing people. In a sense, you come to this process and here' s what we're not going to do is solve the issue. What I can imagine is that people hear about something like this and say, "Well there's the solution, now we can solve the problem. "We'll come to the dialogue and figure out the solution."

A: We generally don't have to deal with that, because by the time they get to us, they usually know what we do, they know were about understanding, not some other kind of action, but we make the point anyway. We try to make sure that people's desires are really inline with understanding and that they're not going to be disappointed if nothing else happens. If they want something else we would want to put them into some other process with another practioner. So we do talk about that. When people come to an event, we usually try to do some sort of human connection activity before their dialogues.

So we'll have a meal, or some way for people to interact with each other with out talking about the issue, so there is a common human connection that's made before people identify where they stand. That's actually where the position work starts to fall away. When we were doing abortion work for instance, we would do these dinners, people would talk about their vacations, or kids or whatever, and of course everyone is trying to suss out who's pro-choice and who's pro-life based on what they wore, or where they were from, and then they'd get into the dialogue room and discover that they were really wrong, and a lot of the time with people who were on the same side, which was a pretty cool thing.

In the initial meeting, we recommend a really tight structure with time limited go-around, and things like that, which really limits people's anxieties. If I know that I only have to talk for three minutes, and I know I only have to listen to my opponents for three minutes, I know I can do that whereas if its unlimited, it raises my anxiety levels on both levels.

Q: So it comes down to that amount of structure, where you're limiting the amount of time that people can speak?

A: Yeah.

Q: What other sort of structural limits are there to a session?

A: The going over of agreements. We basically play back to people what we've heard from them about how they want to limit their conversations, what agreements end up being, what are our boundaries going to be here, and having people publicly affirm that people agree with these guidelines and that they are going to authorize that we are facilitators to support them in keeping those agreements.

I think that also has a role in making people feel more safe within the discussion. We tend to use questions that are addressed to everyone in the beginning of a dialogue, so people don't have to worry right up front about addressing one another. They're all addressing a common third point. If you're thinking about a situation with two sides, they're addressing a question that is in the middle of the room. They do that in a way that is very democratic, they all get the same amount of time, no matter how many times we go around. So people wind up feeling that that is a sense of structure here, something that will contain the conversation. They don't have to worry about it getting away, or people getting out of control.

One of the big agreements that tends to lead to sense of trust is the Pass Rule. We call it the non-coercion rule, and we talk about people in it in advanced, and again at the meeting. Anyone can say pass at any time so that nobody will feel that they are going to be pressured to say something that they don't want to. That really frees people up. The funny thing is that people rarely pass, but the fact that they can is really important.

Q: You mention a few techniques such as, the structure, the preparation, and some of the agreements. Are there other techniques that you found to be very useful in accomplishing the goals of your work?

A: I don't know if you'd call it a technique, but the way that we tend to facilitate our dialogues is a lot different than many approaches to facilitation. I call it the de-eccentric facilitator. In most models of facilitation, certainly the way that I was trained as a facilitator and a therapist, I was taught that I was the hub of the wheel, and that I was in center of the room. I was making sure that the communication flowed between people, and in some ways people went through me. I think of what we do as being on the outer edge of the conversation, tending the structure that people have signed on to, and giving a little support here or there, but keeping the space between people free.

Q: Well, it sounds like instead of the conduit for the discussion that you're almost an observer. Maybe less active than the common facilitator.

A: The best compliment is when, like after we did our first Anglican facilitation, and we were evaluating it, a couple of the bishops said that the facilitation was so wonderfully effective and it was nearly invisible. So I thought that's how it should be. If we can fade into the wood-work, we are doing our job.

Q: A real dialogue. What are the most common obstacles to the success of your work?

A: The big one is money. I think to do the work that we do well, requires a lot of people time, therefore a lot of money. A lot of organizations don't have the money to invest, and that is unfortunate. The drying up of foundation funds, right now for this kind of work is very unfortunate. The shortage of senior staff people who are really seasoned within our organization, to be able to do the work who have a great range of experience and sensitivity to human issues. We're really small, and our demand is really huge. We turn a lot of people way. We just can't get people into the pipeline fast enough. When we try to refer the really senior people in other organizations are really overburdened as well. I think for the nature of the kind of work that gets sent our way they tend to be very complicated, very intractable cases that require an enormous amount of diplomacy and nuance of approach. The need for senior staff is a very important part.

The other thing that is really big, is that overall as a culture, I think, there's a great product orientation. I think that the products that are valued are the products that are observable. So being able to see, even at the dialogue conference, often when people made the delineation between dialogue and action, even there, I felt that it was the manifestation of a product oriented approach, as if shifting understanding, and shifting one's own mental framework was not action because it is not visible. We talk about invisible and visible actions. We tend to trade much more in invisible action, but our culture tends to praise visible actions. That's a really big barrier, especially to funding, where we are trying to describe the effects of what we do, and how the world is going to be a better place, and so forth.

Q: So you were saying that you have a long line of people coming to ask you to intervene. Do they understand that difference between the product and the visible and the invisible?

A: Yeah, the people that seek our services out understand us pretty well. They tend to be involved in conflicts where the cost of the conflict is so high that just getting people into the room for a conversation is a worthy enough goal, because its to that point in the conflict. In some instances we've been involved in people have spat on each other, physically pushed each other around, and that's the extent of their interaction. Just to get them to have a respectful conversation is pretty cool.

Q: After the abortion doctor's murder here in the Boston area, I'd be willing to venture that there would have been any number of organizations that would have been willing to throw money to some sort of initiative that would work to assuage the tensions at that point. I'm wondering if you think that its almost a reactive thing that people aren't willing to put money into proactive programs that don't have visible outcomes, but they're more willing to do it more after a terrible thing like violence or a murder takes place?

A: Yeah, I think that's true in a lot of areas. Before I came to PCP, I was working for National Homelessness Foundation, which was sort of a pass through for money. We found that when there was a death, like a homeless person would starve to death, or freeze to death, people were more willing to fund a project, and then it would die down. I think that we're just subject to the same sort of cycles that other public service organizations are.

Q: Do you think that cycle makes it look like these projects are less valuable because they are always done after the fact? I mean, if you could do your work and be proactive and get initiatives before a crisis erupted.

A: Right, but it is hard to find a funder. For a while, Hewlett was funding a lot of initiatives like ours. They were funding us for infrastructure development and that kind preventive work. It was really great that they were doing that work. Its tough to find a funder that will pay for something, the outcome of which you cannot describe, or even guarantee that there's going to be any change.

Q: It is certainly not something that you can say, "I prevented this conflict from arising".

A: Right, it might not have happened in the first place.

Q: What types of personal characteristics would behoove someone who does this kind of work?

A: Well, you have to have a very high tolerance for ambiguity. You have to be able to live what you teach. You really have to believe in the value of respecting people who you violently disagree with, even if they don't respect you. Particularly with the work that we're doing, like when I do mediation, I'm dealing with other people's issues and helping them work out there issues. When I'm doing public conversations work, I'm dealing with people who have ideas about issues, mostly that I care about, that I have very strong opinions about. So I'm going to be on one side or the other of many of the issues that I come into contact with. I have to be able to come into contact with these people and be able to respect them as deeply as I respect the people that I agree with. So that can be a real challenge making that human connection. Making the human connection, and not a once removed professional connection.

I think that one of the things that I see when we do training, and we have people come into our power of dialogue workshops, is when folks interview people who are paying clients, they interview them as removed professionals who are there to gather information, and not as fellow human beings. So the capacity to be real human beings with folks, with appropriate boundaries is really important. The ability to keep your mouth shut, which I'm not exhibiting right now, but when I'm working I can, is really, really important.

Also not necessarily facilitating, but being able to allow a process to go on. Being able to be really circumspect about your own language is of utmost importance, and that is all your language, your written language, what you say to people informally, online, when you're doing a dialogue. It is very important for people to be one top of those things. There are the professional capacities to lead a group and facilitate and so forth, but personally, I don't think those are as important. I think those are things are much more easily learned then sort of the heart and spirit and stance kind of qualities that are much more difficult for people to live into than the skill sets.

Q: Are you very forth coming with your opinion about a particular dialogue? In other words, if you're doing sexual orientation and the church, do you come out and say that I'm for or against, and I'll be here in background, don't mind me.

A: Never. We never speak of our opinions. Although we have had times where folks have done co-facilitation of abortion dialogues, and they've been pro-choice, pro-life facilitation teams, and its been identified that each of them represents. We say that this is a pro-choice, pro-life facilitation team. We don't say who's who. And frankly, nobody's ever asked.

Q: No one ever asks you which side you are on? How do I know that you're going to be fair?

A: People have asked me that when they are looking to hire someone for the job. They'll want to know where I stand as an individual, or where we stand as an organization, where our people stand. Of course we're human beings and we cannot pretend to be neutral, because we have our own opinions and ideas, but we're also professionals. If you would like, I can connect you up to people on both sides of the issue that you're dealing with who we've worked with, and please contact them to find out if we're able to be fair, and ask them questions to your satisfaction. We want to be judged. We want to be judged on whether we're fair. That's the issue, not our personal opinions. So that's how we deal with that.

Q: In this work, in mediation, and your other work too, there seems to be a lot of talk about transformation, transformation of attitude, of conflicts, of relationships, and what I'm wondering is if you can pick a time in your life where you went through some sort of a transformation that either led you to do this work, or allows you to do this work better?

A: Wow. That's a great question. These are actually both related to my initial encounter with PCP. I came to PCP for consultation because I was working as a training director for a National Homelessness Foundation. I was traveling around the country doing a lot of teaching and consulting. I was mostly the only white male wherever I went. So I was doing big urban shelters and city governments in Detroit and places like that. I was always coming up against racial and gender issues between myself and the participants.

Q: Because they weren't white males?

A: Right, they were mostly females of color, and I could always deal with it, but it was by the seat of my pants. So I came to PCP for consultation initially and then I was accepted into their first workshop back in 1994. I found it to be such a revolutionary approach to difference, one that I had never experienced before in all my training in diversity and all that other stuff.

I found out after my first class that I had to do my training in Louisville, Kentucky for the homelessness network there. The issue there was that the staff of the homeless shelters were mostly women of color, and the volunteers were mostly affluent white women from the suburbs and they had different ideas about each other as well. So I started doing this training. One of the goals of this group was that they wanted the people to work more effectively together. About half way through the first day, an African American woman stood up and she was very angry. She stood up and said, "You don't know shit about my life, you're a white man with privilege."

I had some choices to make there. But because I had been to this one PCP class, I decided that I was going to deal with this differently than I would have dealt with this prior. I said, "Your absolutely right. I am white. I'm a guy. I have certain level of power. I wear a tie. I live in suburbs. I drive a nice car. And I imagine that you're story has a lot to do with why you're hear. I imagine a lot of other people's stories have a lot to do with why they're here. I'm wondering if we can make a choice together as a group to hear your story, and what it is that you want people to understand about you. Would you be willing to hear the stories of others?" She said, "Yeah."

So I had everyone go around and tell the group how their personal story connected to why they were there. Everyone went around the room. Women told these incredible stories. I remember there was one white woman who told how she had been homeless for the last two years. That she had been beaten by her husband, but because they were wealthy and lived in the suburbs, he was basically able to buy off the police, and she was basically in prison because of her wealth.

Finally, when he started beating the children, she took them. She was cut off completely from his wealth and lived on the streets for two years. She had just gotten out of shelter. This tremendous bonding happened. We were all brought to tears by it. That affected me deeply. I came home and a couple days later my kids were fighting. I was always the type, and I still give into this temptation, of getting involved in the middle and trying to referee, thinking I know what's going on.

In this instance, I tried taking what is called a not knowing attitude. I suggested that each kid take five minutes to explain what's going on. I was using the what's-at-the-heart-of-the-matter-for-you approach, but in a way that was easier for them to understand because they were younger. So each kid had five minutes. Once they spoke, I realized that I certainly didn't have a clue about what their concerns were. I had a completely different idea about what they were concerned about, and they had completely different ideas about each other. They were then able to say, "Oh, so that's all you want," and then move along. Now it doesn't always happen like that, but it made a really deep impression on me.

The most important thing for me is being a father, it's the most important thing in my life, and the fact that I can do it well is my biggest accomplishment. To think that I was doing it so well, yet I was doing it so ineffectively that I could not know my own kids. I could be with them ten hours a day but still not know them because I wasn't listening to them deeply. It blew my mind. I just thought that this is the best thing since sliced bread. So those two things really catapulted me into the whole PCP mindset.

Q: So you were really struck with the real power of letting the parties speak for themselves, without being the convoy, without being the person who says, "This is what's going on."

A: Yeah, because I could have said, "This is what I hear." I try to relate it to my own experience in some way, but basically I don't know. Being asked, "Can we use your wisdom and tap the rest of the wisdom in the room and make it work for us here?" Then leaving it in their hands afterward was big. It just was not my style to do that before.

Q: So you mentioned earlier the sexual orientation handbook for the diesis. Are there other successes that you've had in your work, large or small, that you care to talk about?

A: There are a couple more things that I'd like to say. We do this workshop called the Power of Dialogue. It's a three day emersion in the kind of work that we do. We have people work with a case simulation. Five or six of the people take on roles for a day and half, and the other folks are divided into groups that design and facilitate different parts of the dialogue session. So they all work together till the last day and then they do the dialogue. I think that there are times when the design and facilitation teams do create some stuff that is such high art, that I get goose bumps watching them. I realize that I'm in the presence of masterful people, and I am deeply privileged to see the gifts that these people have.

There are times when people take on roles, and they enter into them so deeply that they faithfully carry their role, but they also connect do deeply with their hearts that they're personally moved and transformed by the experience of taking on the role. They somehow connect with something deep within themselves. Sometimes there are tears, sometimes there are not, but there are many people who say that it has been a deeply profound, transforming experience for them. We do not intend it to be. It is just supposed to be that they play the role, but people take it and use it in a very deep way. The other is our work with the Anglican community.

The Episcopal work that I referred to later led to working with 12 archbishops and bishops around the world for three week long meetings over three years. They, like the other group, decided that they wanted to do more than just talk, although they thought that was extremely valuable. They saw some systemic supports for dysfunction in the Anglican community ways of handling conflict and they wanted to name those and suggest alternative ways of dealing with conflict.

They wrote this book called The Final Report of the International Anglican Conversations on Human Sexuality. They published it and distributed it throughout the Anglican community. It bears witness to their conversations, as well as their ideas about what should change in the way that the communion around the world handles conflict. Again, I felt unworthy to be in the presence of such greatness and that these people were rising far beyond the call that they had been given to create something that was a gift to the world. Those two things really stand out as things that I've been really proud to be a part of as part of the PCP team.

Q: I read a line in the PCP website that I was struck by. It said, "Creating openings for constructive conversations in the midst of conflict". So I'd like to paint a scenario for you from conversations that you've had. I'm sure that there is a time when the disputant are saying, I say yes, you say no. I say yes, you say no yes, no, yes, no. Complete diotic dialogues arise occasionally. At that point you're on the outside of the circle and there doesn't seem to be any movement forward, a tremendous sticking point. Nobody wants to talk about anything else because it's so deeply engrained. What do you do at that point?

A: Well, we don't tend to get to that point, in part because of the work we do beforehand, in part because of the way that we structure an initial meeting. We think a lot about the structure of conversations. A lot of those conversations are stuck conversations. Stuck conversations tend to have some identifying characteristics that occur, regardless of the content where there is point, counterpoint. There is no attempt at deep understanding. There are just words that are hurtled back and forth. There is an increasing level of speed, accusation, volume, where questions are used to trap, teach, and confront rather than inquire. So we look at those qualities of conversation, and we try to change the way in which people converse with each other. So that that kind of point, counterpoint doesn't happen.

When I said that we start with go-arounds for instance, well, when people are responding to that question in the middle, they're not responding to each other. There's no responding to one another in the first couple go-arounds so that people get to speak their piece without being counter-pointed and interrupted. That sets up a whole different rhythm for conversation. It breaks the old rhythm and once the old rhythm has been broken, and something new has been laid down you find people talking with each other in really different ways that go beyond the stuff that they're used to.

In our preparatory work we've also inquired of people to find out when they have had conversations about these issues, or other issues like it that have been satisfying. We try to help them to recall their own experiences and capacity to have constructive conversations. So that when they are tempted, they know they can call on this experience that they've already had. They're not limited to this narrow repertoire of engagement around conflictual issues.

Q: What are some of those questions that you put out in the middle for them to get started on?

A: It really depends on what the issue is. Usually in the preparatory work we ask people, what three questions, if asked, might lead to a constructive conversation in your group. I can give you an example from the abortion work. The first question is usually something about personal work. So in the abortion work it was, "Could you tell us something about how your personal experience has effected your perspective, or has led to you, or has been involved in forming your perspective on abortion?"

The second question is something about where people stand on the issue at hand. With the abortion work it was, "Could you tell us what is at the heart of the matter for you?"

The third question usually a reflection on mixed feelings, or areas where one value might conflict with another. So in the abortion work it was, could you tell us, that if, in your overall perspective on abortion are there areas where one value bumps up along the other, where there might be some gray areas for you. Pro-choice people might say, "I don't believe in abortion as birth control."

Pro-life people might say, "I do believe that if the life of the mother is at stake an abortion is permissible." So the questions tend to have those intentions to bring in particularly the bringing in the personal experience, because that is often excluded, as is the gray areas or the ambiguities. We want to give people a place to say where they stand to create a place of honor for them, to be in their position, and to know that they are going to be respected and honored from the place they are coming from, they don't have to shy about saying that, "I am pro-choice," or "I am pro-life." We want them to feel good about that.

Q: You said that someone who wants to do this kind of work needs to have a high tolerance of ambiguity. Do you try to create some ambiguity for the people that are participating in the conversation? Is that somewhat the goal?

A: No. I think what we do is that we base a lot of our work on the work of the narrative therapists. One of the ideas in narrative therapy is that when we are in the presence of conflict, there are strong emotions. The stories that we have access to about the conflict tend to be very narrow.

For example, when I was yelling at my kids the story that I had in my mind about that did not include all of the wonderful and beautiful things about them. It did not include my own capacity as a father to be temperate and moderate. All I could think of is that this is bad behavior and I have to stop it now, and I have to use force. I had a very narrow conflict story, as do people who are involved in a very long, and narrow contracted conflict. So part of what we do is help people add to the story that they already have, by including elements that haven't been noticed before but are there. Usually some people have some sense of ambiguity, or gray area that they are concerned about, but its not always voiced. So it is one of those things that we try to bring back in.

Personal experience is often not voiced, we want to bring that back in. We don't encourage, or foster ambiguity, but we do try to make the story much richer and thicker from all sides before the conversation took place. People have much more of a choice about how they want to think about the conflict, about the different array of responses that they could bring into it. Rather than in the preparatory interviews people remember that, yeah, we have had constructive conversations. There was the such and such conference for three days, and we had deep understanding and I have this friend, and were able to do this and that, but for some reason when I get into my church I can't do. So you begin to pull that stuff that gets left out into this new conversation, and make it much richer and thicker. Ambiguity is just one part of the thing that we try to bring in.

Q: In terms of units of change, even if its invisible change, in the abortion dialogues were a very interesting example because you started at a grassroots, sort of your neighbor, someone you don't know, you come in and have a conversation and then you shift and it was sort of small units as I recall, four on four, right?

A: Well, it varied between four on four and three on three.

Q: And then eventually after the violence in 1994, it became three on each side, but whom were all leaders and activists. Is that the goal? Is both the goal? What levels are you hoping to activate change on? Or is it a function of what people come and ask you to do?

A: It is both, both in terms that we are interested in grassroots, and we are interested in leadership and we are responsive to what's being asked. So there are ways that we've worked with these really high-felutant leaders around the world, but we wouldn't have gotten to these leaders if we hadn't worked with people here in parishes in Massachusetts that were just lay people. We praise both.

One of the really remarkable things about this work is how the word travels. Its just extraordinary how good work travels. I shouldn't say good work. It is more when people have a deep experience. When they've been personally touched they talk about it and they remember. When another conflict comes up they want to apply the same learning to the conflict. So, we've seen it in terms of our own work, in terms of people coming to us for more work, but now were seeing it where people read something on the web and they say that they were so inspired by the leaders dialogue. We got an email from someone in Northern Ireland and she said, "It has inspired me to go out and start Catholic and Protestant dialogues." That kind of thing just blows my mind. So it is at all levels.

Q: Its called Public Conversations, but I get the idea that they're kind of hidden until the parties choose to do otherwise.

A: Yeah, its sort of a misnomer, our name in a way, we really do private conversations about public issues. That's a good point to go back to your idea about safety. The whole notion of confidentiality and we are recognized as people who can keep things quiet, and to help people to keep things quiet. The leaders dialogue went on for about 6 years before it went public. That's tremendous in terms of getting people to speak, that they will have the choice as a group to decide what will go outside the room.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is wanting to get into this kind of work?

A: I'd say focus on having the right heart and spirit. Don't be seduced by technique. At the same time, develop your excellence in technique. Don't be ruled by your heart, the two should inform each other. Have faith in the people that you're working with. Approach them as collaborator and co-creators rather than as subjects. The last thing would be to cultivate an openness to other stories in your own life. I often use the analogy of the monastery, because my tradition is Christian tradition, where we have to really be able to live as much as we can. We have to be able to live dialogue as much as do it with other people. Cultivating an openness to a wider array of stories of ourselves and others is sort of the pilgrims task. That's my advice to other people.