Designing Dialogue Groups

Laura Chasin

Director of the Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

We were anxious about what would happen when we brought these two groups together, none of who knew each other. So the first two meetings were homogenous meetings with each side and then we brought them together and we began a practice in those first three meetings that we've followed ever since. That is that we would essentially make a proposal, try it, and then we would call people up afterwards and say, "What worked for you and what should we change?" We did that in those early days and also thought about who else might be interested in coming to a conversation like this? And what we learned by about the 5th round, was how to invite people and what people need to know ahead of time to make an informed choice to come to an event.

We found out the importance of hospitality at the beginning of an event. The importance of introducing themselves to one another without knowing which side they were on. Many of them reported being confronted with their own stereotypes, some of which they didn't even know they had in that process and the importance of the structure. Almost all of the ingredients, nuts and bolts of our work were evolved by feedback by those participants. For example, they told us what the questions were that brought the information into the room that they didn't have before that softened their stereotypes and aroused interest in those on the other side. They told us what order those questions needed to be in. That it was really important begin by inviting people to share a personal experience that they felt connected with their views on the issue. Then it was really important to give people a chance for them to say what was the heart of what they were passionate about. And that was the interesting thing, then, many people in the middle of saying what they were passionate about already anticipated the 3rd question which was to invite people to name any gray areas, mixed feelings, conflicts of values, hard cases, they would be willing to name that existed within their view.

Many people because of what had happened during the meal, because of the ground rules, because of the understanding of the event, were ready to share the complexity of their views with people on the other side. We didn't know that. We had the advantage of not knowing what we were doing and really being open to being taught by the people we worked with. I think it's important that PCP began with the question, "Could what we know be adapted to content and an audience that we don't know?" And I think that that questioning, that willingness to take our cues from people that we work with, over time, as we became more reflective about what we did, that worked. It became an articulated commitment to collaborative design of events, collaborative facilitation, I think that's an earmark of what we do.


They'll tell you, if you're willing to listen and shift and not get attached to your bright ideas and always be willing to hear. Particularly when you have an issue like that, where you have your own views, always checking in. In the interviews we've always asked, "Is there anything about the facilitation that felt off to you, that you want to draw to our attention?" We always asked and would've responded.