PUBLIC CONVERSATIONS AND STUDY CIRCLES
by Joseph de Rivera
It is frequently possible to have facilitators help groups of people with divergent values to conduct a dialogue. Deliberate dialogue refers to a carefully planned facilitated encounter between groups with different perspectives and interests. Facilitators may interview participants beforehand and attempt to create a safe space for conversations about a common problem. At the first meeting they will usually invite participants to formulate a set of rules which all agree to follow. These may include turn taking or other ways that allow equal time for speaking, an agreement to listen without interruption, and the ability to pass so that people do not feel they have to speak before they are ready. The facilitators may plan carefully crafted questions that open up a different sort of conversation about the issues that divide participants. The way these questions are formulated invites participants to speak to what is most fundamental to them and to listen for what they don’t understand. Likewise, during the dialogue facilitators may ask questions that help participants work down a ladder of inferences about the situation to the personal experiences that lie at the base of how they see the situation. [See Chakraverti’s chapter on “Deliberate dialogue” in the Handbook on Building Cultures of Peace]
In the procedure used by Study Circles, before a group begins discussing an issue, each participant is asked to share his or her personal experiences with the issue. A person’s position on an issue is often greatly affected by a personal experience and once participants learn the variety of these experiences they are much more open to the views of others and understanding of them. Such dialogue groups have been successfully conducted with participants with different positions on the legalization of abortion and other contentious issues. Participants do not usually change their own views. Indeed they often gain a deeper understanding of their personal beliefs. However, they become less rigid in their opinions and develop a respect and tolerance for the views of the other position. Although such groups have not been asked to develop legislation, one may conjecture that they could craft proposals that would be more apt to meet the needs of all concerned. This might be particularly true if the group included experts with first hand experience with the issues.