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Bob Stains: Rehumanizing Difference Through Dialogue
Transcript for Call with Bob Stains 5/2/15
Deven: Welcome and thank you for joining us.
Our Guest today is Bob stains, somebody who embodies today's theme of "Re humanizing difference through dialogue ". Bob , thank you for joining us today
Bob: You are welcome. I am really privileged to be here.
Deven: Preeta, when I think of the theme, I go back to a book by Stephen Covey that i read 15 years ago- "Seven habits of highly effective people.” The fifth habit in the book is , seek first to understand and then to be understood. in the book he explains so well the value of empathy. Preeta, when I try to use that in my conversation, what I found most challenging is to put myself in the frame of reference of the other person. It made me so vulnerable. It felt like the ground under my feet disappeared. With time I have learnt to do that. It works sometimes and it doesn't so many times. I always say that, any time that I am actually able to do that, listen with empathy, that has made conversations so much easier. Preeta would you like to share your thoughts on the theme- "Re humanizing the difference through dialogue"
Preeta: Thanks Deven. I am really excited about this conversation today. i find, as some body who trained as a lawyer, so much of the use of words and language is often about making a point and trying to communicate ones own point of view. To be able to step back and realize that so much you can offer the world is just deep listening. And in some ways the way you empower people is not by what you say but by giving them full space and completely hearing what they have to say. You transform not only them but yourself. Trying to transform communication and trying to go into this deep listening mode, I call this de-schooling myself. Because the ways in which we have been schooled, we use language differently. So I am really excited to hear about Bob's journey. I will give you a little bit of background about him. He has for the past 25 years created constructive conversations. He is involved with an organization called "Public Conversations Project " in the greater Boston area. They focus on really repairing communities and helping to repair communities dealing with divisive issues. Issues such as sexual orientation religion, abortion, gender, social class, race and other divisive issues. Bob is kind of trainer of trainers. He has developed methods and propagated them through training. He trains other senior practitioners in practice we are going to talk about "Reflective structured dialogue", that draws upon family therapy model. He provides consultation to academic, civic and religious leaders. A lot of his work focuses extensively on communities of faith, and working to transform conflicts locally within congregation among different faith groups. Nationally within Episcopal Church House of Bishops and internationally with Anglican Communion. Prior to his time with public conversation, I find it fascinating that Bob's background is actually in therapy. He received his masters of education in therapy. He has been a private practitioner in family therapy for more than 20 years before his time in "public conversation". He has trained therapists, clergy and "natural helpers”, for 15 years. He served as the Administrative supervisor of clinical pastoral education program and he worked for 7 years as clinical consultant to Advanced Pastoral Counseling Practicum. He also has an interesting personal background. In addition to his prior career as a therapist during which he worked in the Massachusetts department of mental health and other institutions. He also trained at, what grew eventually into ministry training program and turned away from that, and decided to pursue his healing work in other domain. As part of that in between high school and college he helped found and lived on a commune. So, kind of fascinating set of experiences which I am looking forward to getting into with him. So welcome Bob and thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.
Bob: Oh! You are welcome.
Preeta: I thought we could just start with the current work you do around communities and public dialogue. The work you do in repairing communities through a dialogue and then we can work backwards and talk a little bit about journey and how you got there. So may be you can talk a little bit about repairing communities through dialogue.
Bob: We get involved in situations where there is a group of people that have experienced some kind of division around things like race, gender, sexual orientation, Israeli-Palestinian issues, guns, science and faith. The list gores on. That division has started to separate people into camps, who find it increasingly difficult to engage with one another in constructive ways, not just about the issue but perhaps about the life of the community as a whole. And once those sides form and solidify, and start to create their own patterns of language, they start to determine in that community what can be spoken and what can't be spoken. What stories are told and retold. Unfortunately the stories that are told and retold usually serve to deepen the divide. And at the end of the process, whatever bonds of affiliation held people together often unravel and folks hit a dead end. So we get called in, in situations like that and our overriding purpose is to help people to come to better levels of understanding, respect, empathy and ability to communicate with one another. And typically the way we go about affecting that is to work with the sub group of people from that community to map the territory. To map the sense of what everybody's idea is about the history and the current challenges, the problem story. One of the great Quotes of Tich Naht Hanh is- " what's not broken?" We really want to learn what characterized the healthy functioning of this community so that we can help them remember that and draw on that. So we work with these folks to understand the situation, to create he best plans for their engagement, to help them prepare to communicate differently than they did before. And then we together facilitate one or more meetings, anywhere from one evening session or one day session to multiple years of work. And of course we want to evaluate how things went and figure out if there are going to be next steps.
Preeta: So, may be to make this a little more concrete, may we can jump to you describing a current community you are working with and just an example of how that works happens and who brings you in and how you proceed.
Bob: Sure. I am going to speak about what I know best, which is a particular project that I have been involved in. I encourage people to check out our web site, www.publicconversations.org, for much more in-depth information about projects that our other colleagues have been involved in, which are, I think more impressive than the works that I have done, but I will talk about my work.
I think this is a good example, a small example, but a powerful example. We have a college here in North-east Massachusetts, Gordon College, which has been having very public and deep struggles and controversy around conservative Christian faith and homosexuality. It has really divided the campus and created a lot of animosity. So we were brought in first to actually talk in secret with the couple of planning team members to see if it might be possible to have a constructive conversation. We worked with them to create a retreat, to which nine faculty in administration came from the different ends of theological spectrum and perspectives on homosexuality. We invited them to take about themselves in a way that they had not before. To help each other understand how their faith journey and personal experiences have woven together to lead to their perspective on their faith and the issue of human sexuality. At the end of that retreat, the deal was that it was all confidential and there was no expectation that anything else would come of this other than better communication, better understanding, better empathy etc. But at the end of it, I usually say to people, "You signed on for nothing other than what you have done. Is there anything else that you want to do, now that you have this experience?" And in this case they said, "We want to tell the campus about what's happened here because it is so powerful. We understand things about each other, that even though we have been together in some cases 30 years, we never knew before. And that shapes how we relate to each other. So we want to talk about that." So had their own faculty training session where they brought other faculty members in and each person talked about their experience and they let other faculty members in a mini dialogue. So that's an example of starting very small and very quiet, and moving through a process of helping people in a very structured and safe way to engage each other and having the end result be that these small group of people want to go on and influence the larger community. I think sometimes if we had tried to make that end result happen, it would sort of guarantee that it wouldn't. But often times people are so transformed by even a small experience of being in dialogue that they want to bring it into their world.
Preeta: This would be good time to talk about- What is that structured dialogue approach, the substance of how you encourage and lead people or kind of spur that, to be able to converse with one another in a way that they might not have otherwise?
Bob: Sure. We called our approach- "Reflective Structured Dialogue." And I will say a little bit about the ides we have about how things get stuck and what shapes these conflicts and keep them going and talk about the components of reflection structure and engagement. People often ask, " Why bother to focus on conversation when there are so many other big things going on?" For us we understand that, in order for people to be in community they need to be in relationship with one another. That's kind of obvious. But that relationship can't happen unless people are talking to each other. They have to be in conversation. So the power, the quality of that conversation, is going to drive the quality of relationship and the quality of the community. So we choose to focus on conversation and how that happens. We all understand the power of language, as you were mentioning earlier, the power of language particularly to shape the story of conflict or more importantly the shape of the story that's told about the other. And then that starts to drive how the "other" is seen. So we find that people separate into these camps, but conversations get stuck, stories get stuck and rigid and relationships suffer. Once those patterns are laid down they are very difficult to break. We are based on family therapy and our experience as family therapists, although we are influenced by lot of other things. I would like to say when people ask me about this- "How does this translate into regular life? " I don't know about you folks, but I can go back home to a meal with folks that I may only see once a year and if somebody brings up a certain subject at the dinner table, it's almost predictable that if switches have been flipped, I can tell you how the conversation is going to go from that point on. Most of us have these patterns that have a tenderness that starts the process of conversation that can be very difficult to undo. So, we want to make sure that we don't start those patterns of conversation in our work. We want to help folks understand and prevent the patterns that have really encircled them or carried them and prevented them from responding to intention rather than being carried along by some automatic responses to other people. So what we invite people into is a process that will help them listen in new ways, become curious about the other, to speak, think, feel in expanded ways resulting in expanded stories.
So boiling it all down, I talk about the 6 p's as hallmarks of our work when we get involved in a community. Purpose, people, prevent, promote, plan, prepare. First thing we want to do is help people clarify and articulate the overarching purposes of their community, and the purposes of the process they want to be involved in, that then will guide everything else that's done. Once the purpose is clear we want to get a sense of what people should be there in order to accomplish that purpose. What voices need to be heard, what voices have been kept outside that may need to be brought in. And then also try to understand what other behaviors and patterns that should be prevented that have continued to perpetuate the division. And on the other hand, what in the past has worked well that we want to promote or what new listening, speaking behaviors that we want to invite into the room. Once we have a sense of that, we can work with folks to plan a process which includes, talking together about behavioral agreements or covenants that will govern how they speak with each other in order to affect the kind of purposes that they want to. And probably the biggest distinguishing factor that I think of our approach from other approaches is the last "p", which is prepare. For us that means, obviously we need to prepare the meeting designs and things like that, but we really invest in helping people prepare themselves for different kind of engagement. And we do that by inviting people into reflective experiences, whether that's through the questions we ask them in a interview in advance of a meeting, or questions we have sent them through a email that are just for their reflective purposes, questions that we encourage people to ask one another. All these come together to help people prepare for a different way of engaging the other, when they come into the room.
Preeta: So you do the background preparatory work where you give people questions to think about, reflect and kind of connect with their own story a bit. What is the structured part of the conversation?
Bob: If we are doing a single session dialogue, multiple sessions have these components too, but I’ll walk you through the single session. We want to have people greeting and engaging each other before they have the dialogic conversation that's oriented around food if it is at all possible. So we hope to have people eat together, whether it's a full meal or some kind of refreshments so that they can talk together about things with interest that are not related to the issue at hand. One might think of it as sort of breaking of the ice but it's also way of connecting.
Preeta: Is that kind of like a cocktail party type of setting where there are talking one on one or as a group where they are sitting together and having one conversation?
Bob: If the group has the resources to have a meal, it's great to have everybody sitting together to have a conversation. And sometimes that conversation would be guided. In the case that I mentioned earlier of Gordon College, I asked people to talk about how their faith training intersects with their commitment to be involved with the college and to talk a bit about their journey and their teaching or administrative responsibilities over a meal. So preferably as a group, but if we only have an opportunity to have light refreshments people move around and talk to each other and encourage people to talk to folks that they know less in a situation alike that. Typically no, not a cocktail party. We discourage alcohol.
Preeta: Yeah, I meant the setting.. Sorry .. Ok , So you break bread together...
Bob: It would be common, for people to start out in our world with some wine, but we don't do that. And then we shift gears. In perfect world we have people actually go in different room that's already set up with chairs in a circle and we seat people if we can, pro, con, pro, con or on a opposite sides of an issue, if there are opposite sides. This is part of where the structured thinking comes into play. The physical structure maintains the flow of conversation. If you look at the way things are often set up on television, they are set up to fight. They are on one side or the other. That physically reinforces the polarization. We want to break that down by the way we arrange the room so that people of one perspective are not all sitting together. So folks come in and take their seats. We make sure that everybody is onboard with the stated purposes that they have all down in advance. And if they need to be edited we work to do that. We describe what's going to happen during the evening, so there is no mystery. Then we talk together about the agreements and covenant that have been made, which everybody would have seen in advance and work to edit those if need be. Typically, we start with things like, we will not interrupt each other, we will allow each other to finish speaking, we will not use judgemental language, we will refrain from attempts to persuade, will stick by time limits and things like that.
And then we move into the most highly structured part of a dialogue, which are series of often three questions, which we call "opening questions". Questions which are designed to open new conversations by putting fresh information into the room. And those questions are preceded by a time of reflection. People will have a time limited speaking so that it democratizes the exchange and time is either kept by the facilitator or by passing the watch or some other time keeping instrument. So we will put out a first question and it might be something like, " Can you tell us how your personal experience led to your perspective on abortion? " People pause, think and take some notes for themselves, where they are clear about there own speaking and then respond in a go round fashion with a pause between each person before the other begins. A facilitator will not be involved in drawing people out or anything like that. It's just, going around the circle.
And then we shift into question 2, which is often something on the order of, "Can you tell us what's at the heart of the matter for you, and obviously relevant to the issues at hand?"
Again, the time limit, the go around and pauses between people and reflection before hand. As people are going around the circle, we encourage people who are listening to be taking notes of key words, things that they want to check out later with the person who is speaking, areas of curiosity, or assumptions that they feel are coming up that they are aware of, that they want to check out.
And then the third round of enquiry which is something on the order of, "Within your overall commitment to your perspective, are there areas where one thing you care about bumps up against another, one value rubs up against another, areas of more complexity or grey areas that you would be willing to share?" Or we may at that point just go with their legs and facilitator keeps time.
So people are listening, taking notes, taking the key words while they are listening and they are preparing for a less formal and structured exchange in the next session which we call "Questions of genuine interest", where we invite people to ask questions of each other that invite people to say more about what they have already spoken about. And we do a little coaching about that. No questions to unmask, to defame, to expose, to teach. Only questions that are really of genuine interest and curiosity.
And this for me is one of the key points of our process. I am a slogan guy. I like slogans and catchy phrases probably because of early experience. In this case I talk about the power of certainty. People when they get involved in these conflicts, they become often certain about who the other is and what they think. And when certainty comes in the door, curiosity goes out the window. It becomes really difficult to ask a question of an opponent that goes deep into that opponent’s experience and perspective. So in this section we invite people to do that. To ask one another questions and respond to those questions in an open and honest way.
And then we shift into a close, which has as a purpose, an opportunity for people to recognize what they have contributed to the evening, what the effect of the evening has been on them. I am saying evening because we often do a lot of our work in the evening. And to say anything that they needed to say in order to bring the time to a meaningful close. And then check in with them again about the agreements and confidentiality. This is the point where I will ask, if we had a tight confidentiality agreement, " Do you want to keep that, or do you want to say something about this to the outside world?"
If we are moving forward and doing more work with the community, which is typically what we will do, we will maintain some kind of structure as we go forward, but also have more open exchange as people move on down in their experience with each other. I did a project once, a three year project with group of international Archbishop Anglican communion. After the first couple of days of the first retreat I thought, "Oh! They probably want to let go of all the structure." In fact they said, "No, we want as part of every meeting to have the structured process." And they did, for the next two and half years, and then we went to shift into less formal exchange. But we feel the structure invites us all to get our voices on the table before we start to exchange.
Preeta: Great. I think you mentioned to me before that some of the engagement you have done are obviously multi year engagements, often times abroad. You talk about the work that your organization does, I think among the faith communities in Nigeria and elsewhere.
Bob: Yeah. One of the most exciting projects that's ever been done at public conversations, has been done with our colleague Dave Joseph, who we have been lucky enough to have with us for some years. Dave comes with a rich background in mental health and also in mediation and works very closely with "Mediators Beyond Borders" as a senior member of that group and he is one of our senior practitioners. Dave has been working with the Interfaith Mediation Center in Kaduna, Nigeria. This was set up by Christian pastor and Muslin Imam, who were combatants in the battles that have been going on between Christian, Muslim factions in that country for many years. They were combatants that decided to lay down their arms and work for peace through their faith traditions and set up this center. Dave has been working with staff there and actually one of our former staff is on site in Nigeria, supporting the work of dialogue there. David has been training practitioners to go into communities and facilitate conversations between Christians and Muslims to work for peace and avoid violence. There are some really terrific stories about the effect that the training has had on folks that they have been able to reach in Nigeria. That's I think one of our most exciting pieces of work, but there are many.
Preeta: There is so much to talk about and so much about the public conversation work that's fascinating. It reminds me in some ways of the actual circle practice that you see in the restorative justice circle and in the native communities. Let's talk a little bit of your journey. You had a long career as a therapist and a mental health counselor. What drew you personally to this kind of dialogue work after that period of time?
Bob: While I was doing work as a therapist, I also had a lot of other responsibilities. Earlier in my career I was an out reach worker as a mental health counselor. I was one of the first mobile psychiatric early intervention and prevention teams in the country. In that work I was in neighborhoods and work places in projects. I saw how the social structure around people could support them or contribute to their challenges. So we started to work with natural helping systems, sort of, who are the people in the project. For instance somebody went to for help who are the helpers in the community. For example, barbers, hairstylists and bar tenders that people told their problems to. It was in that experience that I started to discover that professional helping was great and I was making money on it .... But that, really the communities that surrounded people could work for good or ill. I got very very interested in the notion of healing community. And my career started to morph into training. Being a trainer and training director, and my position that I had before I came to Public Conversations is training director for foundation that helps homeless families. With direct connection with Public Conversations, I was working mostly in communities of color around the country and in urban environments training staff of family shelters, homeless shelters. I got a lot of training in models of diversity and gender sensitivities, sexual harassment etc,. I functioned well, I have to say, but there was something missing. The approaches that I was learning at that time, this is back in the 80's, were often prefaced on the starting point of making somebody wrong and re-educating them. And that has value, but it did not change relationships in my opinion. So it really wasn't working that way for me.
Preeta: It's interesting to note the relationship between the self, the group and the community. One of the reflections that Radha submitted before the call, talked about - "In order to have a genuine dialogue with someone else, I have to first be aware of the dialogue that I am having with myself. Am I operating from a space of scarcity or abundance and what am I bringing to each of my interaction with the other." So it is interesting that in your career you focussed initially on individuals and helping them in some sense to their own healing journeys and that led you to the view of the embedded self and the role of the community. I would be curious to know your reaction to that reflection about the extent to which at the end of the day the dialogue does come down to how people are feeling in their own journey and where they are in their own self awareness?
Bob: I think it is a reciprocal process. We reflect on our own journey and inner process to prepare for dialogue. As we engage the other, we discover more about ourselves. We discover more about our journey, things that we may be didn't think that were connected. We discover more about the range of possibilities that we have for feeling for the other and for how things are connected to the ways to engage the other. So, I do think that the dialogue with yourself is an important piece, but I also think it's is one that begins internally perhaps and is quickly modified by the engagement we have with the other people in the dialogue.
Preeta: That's fascinating! Going back even further in your journey ..
Bob: Before we go further I want to say one more thing.
When I took the first course that PCP offered in the first session, I was floored by people being asked to speak from their identity and not being criticized for it. And essentially what I thought was having a place of honor created for who people were. And it just blew all my circuits. I have never seen anything like it before and I never experienced anything like it before and I got religion, I suppose, the religion of dialogue and went out and tried it out in the field after the first session and I found it deeply transformative and powerful. So I was hooked.
I felt that I found something that is unique and powerful and different that was going to benefit people who are trying to relate to each other across divides.
Preeta: Great! So going into further back before you began as a therapist and mental health counselor, what drew you personally to the healing work and repairing people and communities?
Bob: I grew up with a single dad in the 50's and the 60's. And at that time it was so uncommon that I was stigmatized. So our family was stigmatized. I was on the outside looking in, on a lot of things in the community and school and community life. So I think I had sensitivity to other people who might have been hurting. Couple of key things happened to me. I was helped by healing community. The little tiny church that took me aside when I was a teenager and fed me and gave me clothes and just loved me. And I experienced the power of healing community and then had the opportunity through that to be involved with city mission. My first mentor, who started to teach me about what it meant to minister to people and to care for peoples physical, mental and spiritual needs. And I was young. I was fourteen. I had the experience of doing that and then met another pivotal person, Tom Skinner, who was an Evangelist, African American and former gang member who started to teach me about race and engaging people from other races and asking questions first. He said, "You are not scratching where we itch in your suburban American churches. Because you don't ask what really is needed.” That's first introduction to starting first with enquiry. I am still working on it. And then the last thing that I'll say about the early times is that, all of that early experience led to creating a Christian Commune, this is back in the Jesus movement era, when a lot of us had long hair and beard. So we created this group of folks who did a lot of social justice work as well as social service work with runaway kids, kids on bad trips, people who are poor and need of food and clothing and place to stay in addition to ministering to their spiritual needs. Through that I discovered the need for some professional help that a lot of folks we were working with needed a lot more than what we could give them. That led me to go on to be a helper myself and get educated.
Preeta: Great! So you talked about how when you first were exposed to public conversation. How you got religion, I think is the phrase you used about dialogue. I would love to hear, given your own healing journey and your work with healing others, how has your work with communities on dialogue transform you, in terms of your own personal communication style, may be your own views about the "other" and how you engage with them?
Bob: I think there is combination of couple things here. One of which I haven't mentioned in terms of my personal journey, but figures in. I married a Jewish woman and raised our children as Jews. I am not. I am a Christian. My children are Jewish. As a result of combination of being involved in public conversations and having Jewish children, I became much more sensitive to how divisions are perpetuated in small as well as large ways, through conversations, through structures and prophecies in schools and things like that. So the two things coming together led me to become much more vocal in the schools of my children about practices that I thought are actually discriminatory. It also led me to be much more involved vocally in my local community around those issues. Internally at home, I like to say, dialogue is like a spiritual path. We are on it and never at the end of it. I am certainly not at the end of it. I am walking along, stumbling as I go and getting up and taking a few more steps and I think that dialogic practices of public conversations project have enabled me to be more curious than I otherwise would be. Particularly when I get stuck in a loop or have a concern. I think I am more willing to listen than I was previously to experiences of people and my family and perspectives of people and my family and accord them the respect that they deserve. And I brought dialogic practice into the communities that I have been involved, particularly to the communities of faith. We have brought dialogic practices into governance and into leadership orientation and training and things like that.
Deven: I love the thought, Bob, that "dialogue is like a spiritual path. You are on it but never at the end of it." How thoughtful and how insightful! We have a couple of questions over the email.
Steven: Bob, in the very beginning when you were trying to help folks understand the patterns of conversation, that is understand and appreciate "Reflective Structured Dialogue", are you then even at that early point using “RSD” in talking with them about having a good talk with others?
Bob: I think I am hearing the question as, "Do we embody the practice of Reflective Structured Dialogue while engaging with folks before the dialogue actually happens?" Would that be correct?
Deven: Yes, that is what I understand as well.
Bob: I would say that the stance that we take as facilitators, is a collaborative and curious stance. So in that way, yes. We are trying to embody the principles and the orientation that we hope people would have towards each other when they go into the dialogue room. In terms of actual practice, we certainly don't ask people to respond with time limits and have agreements before they talk with us. But it's more of a spirit of engagement and the stance of a practitioner both to the person in advance and into the room when we do dialogue.
Deven: We have one more comment from a caller calling from St. Louis, Missouri.
"Thanks Bob for the great information. The process you describe sounds like it requires a lot of commitment to the process. That is sometimes easier for groups that are acclimatized to that process. It reminds me of a presentation by former Amway health director gave our college of public health about the difference between class and socio-economic status. She mentioned that as people entered the room they clearly knew it was their job to sit down and greet each other and wait for the program to start. But that isn't the norm or understanding of all groups. Could you address what you and your group do with your socially diverse groups where norms of how to work together may differ?
Bob: Sure. Great question. I think talking with people in advance help all of us get those differences out on the table and talk together about how to honor them when we create actually the meeting structure and process. I have to say over the years, I found that the differences are much less salient than I had expected them to be. I will talk to you about this in particular with regards to doing international work. We stayed away from doing international work for many years because we had this idea that because we are western, North East United States, white generally, at the time we were all white, that our practices would not translate to other indigenous cultures. And I remember, I was confronted by a guy from Burundi, who wanted to come and take one of our trainings and we had arranged to do some fundraising for him to come. At the end of the training he said, "You have to be in my country. We have a real problem with people coming back from refugee camps after a genocide and we need you to come and teach us."
I said, " But we are culturally we are so different."
He said, "That's not for you to decide. That's for us to decide. You come and teach us and we will work with you to integrate the best of your approach with the best of ours."
And I learned a lot in that moment. So that's really how we work now. We meet with people at the local level and say. "What are your ways? How does this map onto your ways? What's different and how do you want to work with them?"
Deven: That reminds me of that Indian talking stick principle that I read in Stephen Covey's book- "Unless and until I completely understand you, I am going to listen to you and you hold on to the stick."
Kozo: Bob, thank you so much for the work you do to resolve these deep seated conflicts in our society and in our world. From elementary Psychology I hear that 70% of communication is nonverbal. So I really love how you weave the participants together in the space by going pro, con, pro, con. And I am wondering if there are any other ways that you use or encourage non verbal communication, whether that be body language or posture or touch. I can imagine just getting some of these opposite factions to touch each other on the elbow or something can make a profound change. I am wondering if you guys have looked into that or work anywhere in that manner.
Bob: Great question. Before I answer, I just want to do a little shout out. You are in Cupertino, and you may be familiar with the Public Dialogue Consortium, which is based in Cupertino, who does really fantastic work. They have been around for about as long as we have been. I highly recommend you investigating them if you don't know about them already. They are wonderful colleagues.
In terms of touch, a couple things. If you have people that are really at odds with each other and in some instances, feel that the other is destroying the world by their perspective, they really are not interested in touching each other. But the reason that we sat people pro, con, pro, con, is that when we did our early work on abortion, and we interviewed everybody after every session, one of the things we heard from people was don't sit us on sides. Sit us pro, con, pro, con. Close enough that if we wanted to touch each other that we could. We don't want to, but close enough that we could. So that’s what we do.
And in terms of the non verbals, my colleague John Sarrouf, who is also doing terrific work in science and faith and some other areas. He is an actor, who used to have a professional career as an actor and a director, and has a lot of theatre thinking that he weaves into his work, which I am not capable of even grasping myself, much less doing. But the closest that I come in my work to directly working with nonverbal is inviting people to do walking meditation. And that can take different forms. One form it can take is to give people a reflective task and have them walk in mixed pairs together for abut 20 minutes across whatever landscape we happen to be located in. In one case I was working with people from State department of Mental health in a State building. Unfortunately there was only the state building to walk through. But we send people off in pairs to walk in silence for 20 minutes and just notice what they saw that was relevant to the reflective task that they had been given. And then after the 20 minutes, find a place to sit together and talk together about what they noticed and come back to the group and talk with all of us. That being in rhythm together, that walking together starts to shift how people engage each other. I know that there are very sophisticated theories about this, having just had lunch with somebody earlier in the week that was trying to explain why it works and he lost me after about second sentence. It does seem to have a very powerful effect. The other thing about non verbals is that it's another thing that we want to talk with people in advance in terms of how they know that people are dissing them or not paying attention to them and how they know they are and see if we can incorporate some of that knowledge into the agreements and the framing of the conversation. I hope that's an answer t your question.
Kozo: Great. Thank you for that. I love that idea of walking in silence in unison. That's non verbal communication. That's non verbal dialogue actually. It's beautiful!
Pallavi: Thank you. There are so many openings in this conversation. I have possibly, a difficult and controversial question for you. I understand what you are saying about dialogue with the other opens us up to new perspectives. There are many stories of.. somebody has killed someone and there is violence and a family member came to a place of forgiving. I don't know if this is deeper or it might even trigger some of you on the call. In India for instance, right now, there is a rape crisis on hand. There was a very brutal rape a couple of years ago and the person died from it. And the consciousness of the country roared in protest. A documentary was released few months ago and again there is this whole movement happening. In situations like that, I have a sense that just dialogue isn't enough. It probably goes deeper into a community's sexual psyche. Now in situation like that how would you approach, where there are deep rooted triggers. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Bob: Thank you for that question and that observation. First thing I would say in terms of going at depth and dealing with trauma, definitely dialogue is not indicated for all controversies and difficulties. In some instances, it is absolutely not indicated at all. I can speak from experience as a therapist that there are plenty of instances where the dialogue with the opponent would not be the right thing. Because it would do much more damage than would be constructive. So we have actually turned down work that we think would be more damaging to the folks to bring them together, just because ethically we wouldn't want to be part of that process and I am thinking in particular here in the Boston area, the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, started with revealing abuse that happened here in our region. And we were invited early on to broker conversation between perpetrators and the victims. We did not feel that it could be done in any way that would be constructive, so we decided not to get involved. Having said that, there are people who do that work, who bring perpetrators and victims together and do it with great effect. Even they would say that not all of those situations are amenable to that process. We talk about ripeness. Whether a situation is right for dialogue or another process is indicated. So we have so many other terrific processes for engaging he opponent and we have other process for demanding justice and social justice. We honor that. When there is situation like these that are happening in India, or when the situations that are happening in Unites States, there rare times when we need to raise our voices and demand change. Certainly we want to do it in a way that we are going to be heard. But I would say a dialogue in the face of what's happening in India may not be the best match for the social change process there.
Pallavi: One follow up thought on this. Something you said in the beginning of the call really shook me. You said "the stories get retold. " In situation like this if trauma is not addressed it possibly carries forward generation.
Bob: The question is what's the best way to address that? What's the most effective way to complexify the stories that are told about people. Dialogue is not the only means to that. "Search for Common Ground" an organization that is based in Washington but works world wide, did some terrific pioneering work in South Africa to confront apartheid. The way they did that was, they worked with song writers to create popular music, they worked with movie producers, they worked with media and they worked in a lot of different ways. Basically they worked with the story tellers to be able to tell different stories. So I think we need to be looking at dialogue as one means but we all need to be looking at what are the stories that are out there. And to stand up and bear witness when stories are false or partial or used to oppress, imprison and kill other people.
Preeta: I was going to follow up a little bit on that question. It is an interesting example. When you are talking about a situation like that where you have maybe members of a community that are subject to violence, apart from an individual rape case, which may not be appropriate for dialogue, but in terms of a community awareness of a practice that may be hurting a particular members of a community, is that also you think not necessarily ripe for dialogue? The fact that after a celebrated instance of violence, or the fact that some people may be saying, "Oh well! Women who dress a certain way are asking for it." Is there an educative function that can be played or healing function that could be played in a community dialogue not tied to a particular case?
Bob: I think so. Now that I have said what I have said about dialogue not being matched, I am going to give you a couple of examples where dialogue was used and is being used effectively in deeply, deeply traumatized communities. It gets at the observation you have offered and the question you asked.
I told you earlier about getting involved in Burundi. And in Burundi the situation was that people are coming back from refugee camps, to return to their hometowns to find that in some instances people who had killed their families had taken their houses. Basically they had to all figure out how to live together and how they are going to address the history of trauma that they had experienced. And dialogue, the creation of their own independent model of dialogue that incorporated their traditions as well as enable people to tell their stories was very effective way of bringing people together. To tell their stories, to witness one another and then to decide how to move forward.
Another example that I would like to share is, I'll again talk about the work of Dave Joseph, this time in Liberia. Liberia as you all know had horrible war, using a lot of child soldiers, who were forced to do horrible things. Once the war was over, those former child soldiers started to come back from the refugee camps, were stigmatized to the extent that they did not want to let people know that they had been child soldiers. And Dave and Mediators Beyond Borders created a dialogue process for these returning folks to integrate them. Of course they are not children anymore, they are in their 20's or so, to help them integrate back into their communities and finding full employment. And on of the participants who had decided not to speak about his back ground as a child soldier, at the end of the dialogue process did speak about that and said, " If we had dialogue we may not have had to have civil war." So I think it can serve as a community education function as well as an individual function and community shaping function. But we don't set out to have that as our objective. There are other forms of dialogue that are really great that have a social education function built into them. I am thinking particularly of intergroup dialogue which is based at University of Michigan, Sustained dialogue in DC, and has an education as well as engagement function. It's not the case for our particular orientation and model for dialogue. But it does happen.
Alissa: Basically my question is that, when people go through this process, which is a phenomenal process. In this process there is deep listening and there is curiosity and there are places of learning and growing that happen to the individual. Have you perceived that there was a change among how these people proceed afterwards?
Bob: Answer to that question is anecdotal than based on solid longitudinal research. if there are any funders out there that would like to bank roll us to do longitudinal research we would gladly accept your money. Anecdotally, I would say very resounding yes. One of the things that people get so excited about when they participate is that they found new ways to communicate and connect with each other. and they want to do more of it So they bring to into their staff meeting of instance. They bring to into the way they engage each other in a hall way. Sometimes they spread it out throughout their whole organizations. When we worked with this group of bishops and archbishops, they had no commitment to do anything at the end. They wrote a letter, which ultimately was sent to entire Anglican community in the world, which said, "We should be using dialogue as a way to engage conflict and not do it the way we do it." And folks who participated in that, brought that process back to their home countries and in many instances changed the way that their church engaged difficulty and divisions. And one of the most common things we hear, when people participate in a dialogue is how things change at home. "I went home last night and I spoke with my husband in a way that I never have before."
This is what happened to me actually. After the first Pubic conversations project session, I came home that night and my wife was waiting for me with my two children who were 5yrs and 3yrs of age at that time. They were arguing. I used this simple thing that I learned about giving each a time limit to speak and only speaking about what they wanted. And they resolved their conflict and I was struck with the power of that. So one way of saying, yes.
Alissa: That is what I wanted to hear. Thank you.
Bob: Let me ask you a question. In your knock of the woods there used to be a terrific program that had to do with King Salmon. It was organized by a terrific practitioner, Sherly Solomon that involved "kitchen table dialogues". Have you been involved at all?
Alissa: I have not. But I will look it up
Bob: Yeah, check it out. I am not sure if it still exists but I know they were doing some terrific work.
Deven: Thank you for great questions! This is so insightful for me as well Bob. Communication is such a big part of what I do. One thing that I have experienced myself is whenever there is candid openness in the room, where people feel that they are understood and conversation is about the topic on the table and not about any other preoccupation, suddenly the spontaneity comes into the conversation and it just opens up and the problem that could not be solved for months reaches an "aha' moment. I would just love to see if you have any stories to share from your experience?
Bob: Our work with homosexuality and Christian faith started in the Episcopal diathesis of Massachusetts in 1997. In the process of early work, there were two people at the far ends of the theological spectrum on this issue. They represented different identities in terms of the sexual orientation. After a couple of meetings, one person turned to theater and said, " You know I really have a hard time with how you think. But I love you." That moment was previously unimaginable. And then went on to drive the work that the group did which grew from meeting together for few sessions to creating a guide for congregations that want to engage this issue. I think that was a key point where at least those two folks had an awakening toward each other that started to shape the process.
Sarah: Could you share an example of how you redirect or correct when someone does not follow the rules of dialogue?
Bob: There are two core approaches that I use. One of them is borrowed from my colleague Dave Joseph. I often think of one of my favorite movies of all times, "The fiddler on the roof." To those of you that are familiar with that movie, you know that one of the main characters is Tevye. There is a part where Tevye is doing, on the one hand and on the other hand. I think of Tevye when a dilemma comes up on the dialogue where people ha departed from the ground rules. I'll say, "On the one hand you have committed to this agreement for this particular purpose. On the other hand, what I am observing right now really doesn't square with that commitment. So, lets talk about how either you can reform your behavior in the moment to live into that commitment or whether we need to change your agreement about that." So that’s one way of dealing with it. Dave I think has much better way to help people and also to teach facilitators of how to do this. It's "SPA". Where you notice that there has been a slip from the agreement, you talk about the purpose of that agreement has, and then talk together about what alternative response person might make in order to observe that purpose for that agreement.
Deven : P is for the purpose and A is for the alternative options ?
Bob: And S is for the slip. I love that because trainees get that right away. Even when we work with high school students, freshman high school students with whom we have just been doing some work with, they get that right away and they can do it. So it's another way of engaging that.
Preeta: Thanks a lot Bob. Amazing conversation. I am really, really excited about the work you do. Really extraordinary work in terms of being down there with community helping them talk to one another. You have another project, which I also find fascinating, which is a "Family dinner project." As we close this off, because I think it connects in part with your work with communities, I would love to hear a little bit about it and how it connects to the broader sense of how you can help communities.
Bob: Sure. I say about the connectedness thing first, because if you go back o what I said about conversation and community, and if we think of family as a community, and that conversation drives the relationships that family members are able to have with one another. Focusing on the kinds of conversations that people have, is really important. One place where people reliably have conversations in families is around the meal table. So we focus on that as a place where a lot of learning, change and growth can happen within a family. We are very fortunate to be sought out by Shelly London, the founder, who is a retired corporate executive, with several other groups and people to just brainstorm. How can we make family dinner more productive experience for people across the country and around the world. And we started experimenting with bringing people together in community dinners and talking with them about their meals and what they would like to improve and ideas that they had for other people, how to meet challenges and doing a lot of research. We are fortunate to have Dr. Ann Fishel on our team who has just written a terrific book about family dinners based on her research and research that the people have done that shows the power that family dinners have, particularly to improve the lives of young people. So we created this fledgling project in 2010 and it's now grown to quite a vital project that has other institutional partners that are bringing more constructive family dinners to their constituents and helping us get the word out.
Preeta: Great! That’s fantastic!
Bob: I also want to let people know the title of Dr. Anne Fishel's book,"Home for Dinner."Mixing Food, Fun and conversation for aHappier family and healthier Kids. And one more quick thing, Our nuts and bolts guide, "Fostering Dialogue Across Divides" is available for free on our website. Go to our website and look under resources and guides. You will know everything you wanted to know and more about organizing and facilitating a dialogue using our approach.
Deven: Bob, on behalf of all Servicespace volunteers, I would like to ask, how can we help you? What can we do for you?
Bob: Making people aware of the possibility of constructive conversation through dialogue is the most important thing. Getting the message out there that there are other ways of connecting are possible. and making people aware of the resources that are available though us. Obviously people can hire us to do work, but more importantly there are so many resources on our website, that people can use to their own dialogues in their communities. So making your constituents aware of those resources an having them spread the word would really be a gift to us.
Deven: Thank you Bob for the insightful share.
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