Finding Common Ground

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 ???).

A: What happened was that in 1994, December 30th, John Selby went into two clinics in suburban Boston and killed two workers there -- two clinics that provided abortions among other things. He killed two people, wounded several other things. And in the following two weeks, Cardinal Law and Governor Weld called for what they called "Common Ground Talks."


So we just started going around and we began with the names we'd heard of and we wrote them. They suggested more names of leaders on both sides of the issue, surrounding the governor's office, cardinal's office. That was later, the cardinal's off, League of Women Voters, sort of peripheral, and we asked some questions. Questions like, "Do you think there is an opportunity for some kind of common ground talks at this point?" And if so, "What do you think it is?" You know,ue, mediation, if so what do you think the goals of such talks should be in order to be useful?" "What should the criteria be used in recruiting, inviting people to participate?" I think those were the main questions. We did that twenty times and we also asked, "Who do you think should be invited to the dialogue?" and "Who else should we talk to?" We did that about twenty times before we were done. And this was far and away the most high stakes PCP thing I had ever done.

We pretty much learned answers to all those things. We learned that talks would be useful; they would be more like a dialogue. We learned that the goals would be, what I think of as dialogic goals, developing relationships based on mutual respect and understanding. Relationships that can contain differences about values and policies, that clarify differences, and identify shared concerns, and exchange matters of information on issues of mutual concern. Relationships that create direct channels with leaders on the other side, rather than through the media, that was big. And this was the one extra from the usual, the first two were sort of dialogue goals, but then I think the direct channels were an additional one. The third one was to de-escalate the polarization around the issue of abortion in Massachusetts at that time. To change the climate surrounding the issue and to explore joint projects and that sort of thing which didn't happen. They also told us what the ground rules should be, who should be invited and that they should have some kind of credibility on the issue and commitment to learning about perspectives on the other side, and freedom to speak as an individual. Everyone came as individuals.

Q: Of their own accord? That wasn't your suggestion?

A: No, they taught us. These were the things that they said they recommended. Later on, when we went back to some of the people we talked to and invited them to participate, these are sort of the terms under which they would be willing to participate. They would participate if these were the goals and if everyone else invited to participate, met these criteria. It was only four meetings, that was the most we could eek out of the situation. These had to be the ground rules, and these had to be the agreements about confidentiality and taping and all that, and then it could be all written up and everyone would sign it. It was that big of a deal. When you think about a generation of conditioning and polarization, and some of these were really leaders of advocacy groups. We did not plan on having six women, we planned on having eight people instead of six. One of the guys fell through and it would have probably taken another month to build up adequate bridges to the next in line. "Everybody said, if you do something, it must happen before the first anniversary". "There's a window of opportunity here." So we decided to go. It was a judgment call, with who we had.

Another thing that's probably interesting to people is that there's no one who doesn't have views about abortion, including the two facilitators. Both of us made it known, in retrospect I think ,we actually raised it with the pro-choice people, but with the pro-life people we completely self-disclosed about our prior involvement in the issue. I actually forgot one important thing in my first round of that, and in fear and trembling, remembered there was this one involvement I had forgotten to mention. I went back, afraid it was really going to blow it, but in fact it deepened their trust in a way. So there was full disclosure, and as in all our facilitation, we don't claim to be neutral. We've never claimed to use that kind of language at all. We claim to be able to facilitate a fair and balanced kind of conversation. And because of us continuing to ask for feedback and because of the collaborative way we did things, we had relationships with each of the participants, very deep relationships and very trusting relationships, before we got in the room, and that's true in all our work.


A: No. I think it was in the fourth meeting, I had some brilliant idea about what they could do. One of them turned to me and said, "You know, we get it. We get it who they are. Would you just get out of the way and let us talk to each other?" That had a big impact on me, so I think part of our...

Q: Were you thrilled, or were you insulted?

A: At that moment, I didn't know what to do. I wasn't insulted. I was sort of like taken aback. And this was like the fourth dialogue we ever did. I think that was one of the things that inclined us toward looking for structure versus looking for facilitation to carry most of the ball, also because it takes less skill.

Q: That sounds like an invisible facilitation.

A: That's our goal. That's my goal as a facilitator is to become invisible.And what happened with the leaders was that they contracted for four meetings. And in our hope it was to design them so they would get a taste of what was possible to be able to continue. That was all we had to work with and what happened was that they then contracted for another four and then I think one more round of four. Then people just need to be, they did not meet as intensively as they did in the beginning for five years. There were two or three years where they just met quarterly, just to sort of maintain the relationships. They didn't quite know where to go, but they didn't want to let go of it. Then when partial birth abortion, DNX partial birth abortion, became hot, they would then want to meet around that. Then of course at the end it was writing the article.


Q:When the article finally published in the Globe, do you know why they decided to publish? What was the reaction there, how did you feel about all the attention that came along with it?

A: Well, why they decided to publish it. First they decided they couldn't trust anybody, and didn't have enough energy to write a book. They didn't trust any reporter because of the bias problem with the media and so they decided that they would write an article. They approached the Globe first and they said "We want you to publish this the way it is written because it took six months of haggling over every word. We want you to publish the way it is, will you do it?" And the Globe, to their enormous credit said that they would, even though the language violates their style sheet of how you refer to pro-choice and pro-life people. They did reserve the right to pick the title, and the group insisted that was fine as long as they didn't use the word "common ground", because no matter what you say, people hear it as a compromise. It's not a good word anymore. And basically they were prepared to walk, if the Globe didn't agree. It was a deal breaker, so the Globe agreed, they gave them three full page spreads.

We thought, all right, we should have a press conference so again, it was like we began, we decided we would do it but we didn't know if anybody would come. So we got all set up, we had a party and a banner and a big space and everything. This was because by then everybody felt proud of the article, because it was a lot of work and it was like a new baby. The room was packed. Fifty people came from the media. A person on our staff, who used to do media said, "Look, the T.V. will come and they'll stay for 15 minutes max. People will just come in and out." Well, everyone stayed for an hour and you could have heard a pin drop. They all spoke, went around the table and talked about what it meant to them.

None of the questions from the press were cynical or attacking.


If you go to our website, along with the letter, there are about hundred letters, including one from the publisher of the Globe, and it gives people hope. It's inspiring, it's hopeful, and I think it's something about tweaking the culture. The internalized norms of the culture in some way deep in our bones that we don't even know we've swallowed.

Q: People didn't say, "What's going to come of this, big deal, you've talked, now what?"

A: Then they will talk about how they're rhetoric has changed. I mean they can talk, or I can tell you. You listen to them talk on NPR. The quotes from the Globe, they're different from those people, they always began being different from about after a year after they began meeting. There's a ??? and they can talk about what they will do in that press conference, and about the clips that were on CNN and NBC. There was a hotline that went on. Information flowed from the pro-life side to the pro-choice side and at one point when there was someone regarded as dangerous in town, steps were taken to protect one person's cautions. In the Soviet Union, there are certain things that go on at an international level. You stop to think about it, it's crazy for people who were in Boston, they begin by saying it, we were right down the street and all we knew about each other was from the media. And I'll spare you my diatribe about how the media reported conflict, but I'm sure we ??? got to have some other people. Its nuts. So it's all about directing the power of face. To face direct communication rather than third hand, and then once you get it, it's surprising, it's been surprising to me, how rapidly shifts happen. That's our button and they happen sooner than you might expect if you do the set up and it has to happen pretty fast. Otherwise people will go away, you know what happens before, so people arrive receptive and then having the first meeting be really successful is important so people will come back.


Q: And those women, at the end of that article that they published in the Globe, said that the ironic thing is that we believe more strongly in our positions as ever, having been through these dialogues. We've talked to the other side for six years and become fairly intimate with them on a personal level, and we still have these very firm beliefs.


A: To me, the most important part of the article that they wrote about is what you just said. That in one of the ways what's happened in the culture and is carried out by individuals in the culture is a belief that is the habit of defining who other people are by their positions about one issue. That that's how the single issue politics and the fragmentation plus the adversarial nature comes home to roost. So that many people are not aware, so what they're saying is actually, human beings, are more than their views on one issue. And in fact, they are 360 degrees of them and if you could get people to show up, the sort of magic of this work, is that given these assumptions, that because I think because you think this way about abortion, you are this, this kind of person and I think you are wrong and I may even hate you, since it is only one of your view on one issue, not who you are, that if you can come into a room, where 360 degreeness of those who you have been, who you don't agree with and you may have demonized and who are there, and you feel safe enough because of the setting, to actually listen to what they are saying and to put your views in a way that may be actually heard, and easily understood, it's so fast how the change is.