Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Lessons from 25 Years Bridging Divides at the Public Conversations Project

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the fifth post in the series detailing the experiences of Dave Joseph, who is a senior vice president for programs at the Public Conversations Project.

What is the the history of the Public Conversations Project?

Public Conversations Project is a 25-year-old, Boston-based nonprofit committed to helping people bridge divides of identity, core values and worldviews. Our approach, Reflective Structured Dialogue, has its basis in family systems therapy, narrative therapy and appreciative inquiry. Its founders began by attempting to figure out how to help people have constructive, respectful conversations about the issue of abortion.

It is designed to build trust, deepen relationships and provide the foundation for collaboration between people who see each other as opponents or enemies. We design and facilitate respectful conversations about complex and controversial subjects, so that people can speak from the heart, listen deeply and remain in community, while acknowledging their differences.

We have addressed differences of race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexual orientation; we have extensive work in intra-faith and interfaith conversations; we have designed and facilitated dialogues addressing issues of community, faith and science, child labor, the environment, sustainable development, immigration, post-conflict reconciliation and many others.

What specific programs do you work with? Briefly describe how you got to where you are.

We have worked with many organizational and community partners, collaborating to help them accomplish their goals.  We have designed dialogue guides (written and video) on a range of subjects that are available for free download from our “Resources” webpage.  We also co-sponsored the Boston Transpartisan conference recently (videos are available here).
We provide numerous workshops in Boston and other areas (detailed here).  As well, we also design and facilitate meetings and conferences that have addressed such issues as guns; domestic violence / marriage promotion / responsible fatherhood; international development.

What has worked well in the programs/events that you have been involved with? From your experience, what advice would you give others?

  • Having a clear purpose for the event is essential, so that participants understand what to expect and not to expect—and that their expectations are shared.
  • Co-creation with participants of communication agreements that support the purpose of the event helps promote participant ownership and adherence to shared commitments.
  • Structure that promotes inclusion of all voices and democratization of the opportunity to participate is helpful.
  • Designing questions for participants that invite speaking from personal experience and sharing of personal stories that promote connection, curiosity and community.
  • Engagement of participants to promote reflection and deeper understanding of their own views, as well as those of others.
  • Preparation of participants to identify their hopes, concerns, past experience and invite their advice as to how to structure successful, respectful conversations.

What have you tried in your programs/events that has NOT worked well  If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what advice would you give them as far as things to avoid doing?

  • Whenever possible, avoid activities for which proper participant preparation has not been done.
  • Avoid responding to last-minute requests to step in and facilitate events that you have not been able to play a role in designing. If you don’t know people’s agendas, concerns and past experience, you’re likely to be in for unpleasant surprises.

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Showing Examples of Positive Relationships , Reducing the Perceived Differences Between Groups, Affirming One’s Own Values to make people open to Others, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement , Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Increasing Cross-Group Personal Connections through Fun, Meals, Talking, etc..

Please expand upon your use of the above ideas. How exactly have you operationalized these ideas? Which ideas have you tried and felt worked well? Which ideas have you tried and felt worked badly?

We highly value the practice of “”mapping”" / understanding the lay of the land beforehand in order to understand whether the situation is “”ripe”" for dialogue. 80% of our work is done before people ever come together, ideally through individual, oral conversations with participants or a written questionnaire to determine their hopes, concerns, expectations, past experiences, advice and how they can prepare themselves to get the most out of the experience. We also tend to work with a small planning group of the community/organization with and we are working, as they are the local/cultural experts. We see them as co-collaborators in designing an effective intervention. This builds participant commitment and ownership of the process, so they can be more likely to accomplish their purposes.

Communication agreements and structures that promote reflection (e.g. pause before speaking and between speakers) help reduce the likelihood of reactivity and conversations deteriorating into slogans, attacks and blaming.

From the above list, what other techniques and ideas would you add? How have you used these techniques in your work?

Our approach is derived from narrative therapy, appreciative inquiry and systems theory. We have also utilized techniques from internal family systems therapy, psychodrama, organizational development, anthropology and conflict transformation.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

Read Ahead

Observations across Transpartisan Organizations from David Nevins

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the fourth post in the series detailing the experiences of David Nevins, who has been involved with numerous organizations active in the work of bringing people together across political divides, and who also has founded the Nevins Democracy Leaders program at Penn State University, which provides an education in transpartisanship leadership for promising students.

What specific programs do you work with? Briefly describe how you got to where you are.

As a businessman from Pennsylvania for almost 40 years, who never was involved in politics until 4years ago, I’ve become frustrated with the unbridled lack of civility, crippling partisanship and dysfunctional gridlock that is preventing our country from solving the serious problems we face on a daily basis.

For this reason about four years ago, I became involved with an organization called No Labels. No Labels is a bipartisan movement of 600,000 Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to the simple proposition that common sense solutions to our national challenges exist, and our government should be able to address and resolve those challenges successfully. I served on the Executive Board of No Labels for two years.

About two years ago, as a Society of Fellow at the Aspen Institute, I focused my efforts on supporting the Aspen Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership, a program designed to support political leaders committed to sustaining the vision of a political system based on thoughtful and civil bipartisan dialogue.

More recently, I became involved and support Next Generation, a program of the National Institute of Civil Discourse that works with state legislators to cultivate a culture where discourse and collaboration typify public policy development.

I am now leading an effort as a co-founder and Executive Team member of The Bridge Alliance to build a shared identity, raise visibility, strengthen and expand the numbers of organizations and individuals dedicated to collaborative civic problem solving and collaborative policy innovation in the United States.

Currently I also am the co-creator and benefactor of the Nevins Democracy Leaders program, a program within The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, based in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State University  The Nevins Democracy Leadership program that I am the benefactor of and have helped to design and create will institute the following programs with the inception of the program in the fall of 2015:

a) For one­ or ­two semesters, the Penn State students selected for the program will participate in collaborative dialogues amongst themselves (and with guest lecturers) to learn the skills of civil political discourse and critical thinking necessary for a problem solving approach to governance.

b) Every Leader will gain practical experience (for a summer, semester, or full year) working as an intern with an organization committed to improving American politics.

c) Each year, Leaders who have returned from their internships will share their experiences with the new cohort of students joining the program.

d) In the coursework and various events leading up to their internship, Nevins Leaders will analyze and discuss historical texts and contemporary commentaries on topics such as democracy and leadership. We will identify a small core of courses beyond Rhetoric and Civic Life that can help prepare Leaders for their internships, though Leaders will not be obliged to take those additional courses.

e) Prospective and future Leaders will also have the opportunity to hear from past years’ Leaders, who will give presentations and participate in discussions on their experience. An effort will also be made to bring in inspiring speakers, perhaps as part of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s ongoing speaker series, who can bring to students their practical experiences in community building, politics, and democracy.

What has worked well in the programs/events that you have been involved with? From your experience, what advice would you give others?

As to specific advise as far as things to do to replicate the successes of the programs I have been involved with,  I would suggest a high level of collaboration with the stakeholders you are working with. I believe that enhancing communications, knowledge sharing, and general collaborative techniques helps the leaders of the programs I am involved with refine and improve the programs they are leading.

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, reducing the perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), showing examples of positive relationships , showing examples of cross-group unexpected agreement or disagreement , reducing certainty of individual beliefs

Additionally, the importance of understanding the mission one has established is the key to success of any program. It is easy to get distracted by the chaos and uncertainty involved with a new project or movement, and thus the importance of defining and staying focused on one’s mission cannot be overstated as one of the most important factors for the achievement of success.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

Read Ahead

How Dialogue and Listening lead to Common Ground from Project Citizen’s Suzanne Soule

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the third post in the series detailing the experiences of Suzanne Soule, who worked as the Director of Research for the Center for Civic Education for over a decade.

What is the organization/group that you worked with? What is its history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships?

I worked as director of research for the Center for Civic Education for a little over a decade. We worked with youth in the United States and Emerging Democracies to try to get them to be engaged citizens, through programs like We the People and Project Citizen.

What specific programs/events/curriculum do you run? Briefly describe what it is you do.

Most of the students in these countries did a program called Project Citizen. Despite all the talk about uncivil discourse in the US, we are a lot further along than these emerging democracies. We at least have a forum and a conversation, whereas in a lot of these places, there is no forum and people may just walk out of the room, when confronted with conflicting opinions.  Most of the best lessons for resolving inter-group divisions could be learned from our work with post-war emerging democracies. We did research in Boznia/Herzegovina, Palestine, and other emerging democracies that had a history of totalitarianism that had issues with transparency and corruption. In these places, there is not a history of open dialogue, so there was a lot to be learned in creating such a space.

Young people would conduct research on a problem in their community that they chose and propose a solution based on their research to elected officials.  In a place like China, they may also go to the media and increase pressure on officials. We partnered with local organizations as there is a lot more autonomy at the local level for change, within emerging democracies as well as places like China.  This wouldn’t have worked without the local partners as you can’t do these things from the outside.

Students vote on which problem they should address. There would be winners and losers and some students would end up on a project that they didn’t necessarily care about. The teachers worked to give them a reasonable role in the project as there is often a difficult moment where their chosen issue has lost, but in all the years I worked on Project Citizen, I’ve never noticed a time when a student wasn’t able to eventually contribute. The contribution may end up large or small, but they all end up contributing something, even if it isn’t exactly the issue they would have chosen, which has implications for getting people to work together on collective action from different perspectives.

What has worked well in your programs/events? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what specific advice would you give them as far as things to do to replicate your successes?

What I think works well in getting a student to work towards a group goal that they didn’t initially endorse is to figure out what a students’ skills are and seeing how that relates to the problem. If they are good artists or good interviewers, how can we help them shine so that they can do really good work leveraging those skills and buy in. 

They also work together in groups, so seeing the others inspired in the group works wonders. Over time, their initial ideas about the ideal project fade and the group project gains momentum.

In conversations with adults, it also helped that the students did a lot of research, so the adults were often convinced by the students because of their empirical knowledge.  Students were trained to evaluate the status kuo and were often critical of existing policies. and able to effect change because they had lots of evidence. Public officials who would be threatened by adults making the same recommendations were far more open to a group of 12 year olds. They were much more open. They often got a lot more of what they wanted from the public officials than we thought was possible. Youth often melts the hearts of hardened people…the heart opens and there is an element of surrender.

What have you tried in your progams/events that has NOT worked well? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what advice would you give them as far as things to AVOID doing?

It doesn’t work if the problem is chosen from the outside. There needs to be some time spent on finding out what they care about themselves with a lot of listening and open dialogue. I had to stop going in with a questionnaire and just listen to what concerned them and what was really problematic. Often they would come back to the problems I listed, but there was more buy-in if they came up with it themselves. There was more discourse and willingness to do the work as they were invested rather than thinking that there were these “Americans” coming in telling them what to do.

As far as the public officials we talked to, if there was any possibility that the officials would be shamed or put on the spot, then it would close dialogue. But if there were a possibility for positive PR or an award…or to talk to their own constituents/voters, people were very open. Having people far removed from them telling what to do would also close things down.

 

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Showing Examples of Positive Relationships , Reducing the Perceived Differences Between Groups, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement , Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Increasing Cross-Group Personal Connections through Fun, Meals, Talking, etc..

I would like to emphasize listening at the outset. Careful listening that leads to finding common ground.  It gives space for people to realize that they often have the same problems in divided societies and it improves relationships for people to realize that people unlike them have the same issues. It humanizes the other side.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

http://www.civiced.org

Read Ahead

Two Evidence-Based Recommendations for Civil Disagreement

Navigating the scientific literature can be difficult as there is so much research being produced these days and so much controversy as to what findings are “real”, that it can be hard to know what evidence-based recommendations to follow.  In order to help provide clarity to the journalists, organizations, and others who get information from Civil Politics, we would like to make two main recommendations.  These recommendations are not exhaustive and there are certainly other avenues of research.  And they are broad, such that the way that they are practiced may vary depending on the situation.  But these recommendations are also broad in terms of the evidence that supports them and this same breadth also provides practitioners options as far as how to effectively practice these recommendations.

werecommend

Our recommendations:

1. Improve inter-personal relationships – There is a rich psychological literature on how positive contact between groups increases the likelihood that greater cooperation and less demonization across groups will occur.  This can occur either between individuals or at the group level, whereby individuals see that people of their group are getting along with others in the other group (known as the extended contact effect).  The psychological research on this phenomenon dates from the civil rights area, and continues to be replicated in labs across the country to this day, such that we can have confidence in it (see more research here).  Evidence for the utility of promoting positive relationships between groups is not only found in the psychological literature, but also in prominent examples of cross-group cooperation (e.g. Reagan and Tip O’Neill or more recently, Patty Murray and Paul Ryan) and in the successful practices of numerous organizations that work in the community such as A2Ethics, Living Room Conversations and The Village Square.  Intuitively, we all know that relationships matter as much as facts, and so organizations seek to build culture, doctors get to know patients, salespeople get to know clients, and diplomats work to build relationships as well.  Yet sometimes in the heat of a morally charged conflict, we may start to see the other side as personally repugnant, and it is exactly at these times when relationship building needs to occur as it is hard to find common ground with someone you find personally reprehensible.  Many inter-group conflicts actually occur between people who are actually quite alike in many ways (e.g. baseball fans, political junkies, bloods and crips, etc.) and the opportunity exists to take advantage of what people have in common to forge better relationships.  And once the intuitions and emotions are pulling us to cooperate, our views of the facts often follow.

2.  Emphasize cooperative goals vs. competitive goals – In most conflicts, the extremists on each side will seek to emphasize the enduring intractable nature of a conflict.  Consider how both militant Islam and those who are openly anti-Muslim seek to characterize the divide in the same way; as a fundamental zero-sum conflict, and the same could be said of how the far-left and far-right seek to characterize American politics as fundamental battles between good and evil.  Yet there are often goals that are shared by both groups that lead to cooperation, at least amongst those who are in the vast middle (e.g. it is only the shared goal of avoiding government default and shutdown that often leads to the passing of legislation).  There is a vast amount of psychological research that relates to how competition for limited resources leads to inter-group conflict (Realistic Conflict Theory), and researchers are constantly showing how variables that relate to this paradigm (e.g. increased threat or decreased scarcity of resources) impact inter-group relations.  As with our first recommendation, the research in this area is bolstered by the experiences that organizations have had in creating cooperative settings.  For example, the Village Square has held several successful events leveraging Jonathan Haidt’s Asteroids Club paradigm where partisans seek to recognize problems that both sides can agree are real issues and Living Room Conversations attempts to create a personal setting where people can work together on goals that everyone can agree upon: safer communities and reduced prison costs.  There are also many examples from the news where cooperation occurs when a larger goal can be identified (e.g. this recent Politico article where George Soros and Bill Koch work together on prison reform).  We all know that competition breeds animosity, even amongst those who would otherwise be friends, as evidenced in every sports rivalry across the country.  Yet just as sports fans unite to sing the national anthem, so too can those who find themselves divided seek to consciously remember the larger groups and goals that can indeed bring them together and emphasize those.

We are periodically asked by journalists, organizations, and site visitors about crossing moral divisions and are hopeful that these two simple recommendations can help cut through what can otherwise be a rather opaque literature on evidence-based methods.  Both of these recommendations are supported by dozens of articles and hundreds of studies, as well as countless hours of work and experience by practitioners.  At some level, these techniques are intuitive and are things we already know…but they are also things that we often forget in the heat of a debate, and we are hopeful that reminding people to consciously apply these techniques can make a difference.

- Ravi Iyer

Read Ahead
Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.