Creating Safe Spaces

Robert Stains

Program Director, 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 ???).

Q: How do you create a space where people can feel comfortable and safe enough to truly be honest with each other and themselves about issues that are so hard?

A: I think there are a few things that we do. We put a stock in preparation before an event happens. About 80% of our work is done before an event with a series of both written and verbal communications with folks. Part of it is the provision of information, meaning that we're totally transparent about what's going to happen in the meeting. We are very collaborative about finding out what people would and wouldn't like to have happen. So that spirit of engagement, and the sense of agency that people have as a result of that, leads to a great, what Bush and Folger would say, "a sense of empowerment," a sense of having the capacity to make choices.

As we engage with them initially we're asking them to make choices and implying that they'll be able to make choices all along. We send them written materials. We interview them, have a conversation, or sometimes a series of conversations about their hopes, their concerns, and their ideas for how we should organize the meeting. We have conversations about their ideas about agreements that would help them be able to speak and be willing to listen. We actually don't use the word "safety." I guess because we don't think that anyone really guarantees safety, but we do talk about what makes it possible for you to listen deeply, speak freely, and then we play back what we hear in writing from the combined interviews that we do.

Basically we combine all the interviews that we do and say that this is what we hear, that people hope for. This is what people say they're concerned about. These are some of the agreements that people say they would like present. Do you recognize your hopes, concerns for agreements, ideas for design there? So there's that piece.


Q: Its called Public Conversations, but I get the idea that they're kind of hidden until the parties choose to do otherwise.

A: Yeah, its sort of a misnomer, our name in a way, we really do private conversations about public issues. That's a good point to go back to your idea about safety. The whole notion of confidentiality and the fact that we are recognized as people who can keep things quiet, and help people to keep things quiet. The leaders dialogue went on for about 6 years before it went public. That's tremendous in terms of helping people to feel free to speak, that they will have the choice as a group to decide what will go outside the room.


Q: Is there a certain amount of lowering expectations when you're preparing people? In a sense of you come to this process and here's what we're not going to do is solve the issue. What I can imagine is that people hear about something like this and say, "Well there's the solution, now we can solve the problem. We'll come to the dialogue and figure out the solution."

A: We generally don't have to deal with that, because by the time they get to us, they usually know what we do, they know we're about understanding, not some other kind of action, but we make the point anyway. We try to make sure that people's desires are really in-line with understanding and that they're not going to be disappointed if nothing else happens. If they want something else we would want to put them into some other process with another practitioner. So we do talk about that. When people come to an event, we usually try to do some sort of human connection activity before the formal dialogues.

So we'll have a meal, or some way for people to interact with each other without talking about the issue, so there is a common human connection that's made before people identify where they stand. That's actually the place where a lot of the stereotypes start to fall away. When we were doing abortion work for instance, we would do these dinners, people would talk about their vacations, or their kids or whatever, and of course everyone is trying to suss out who's pro-choice and who's pro-life based on what they said, or where they were from, and then they'd get into the dialogue room and discover that they were really wrong, and a lot of the time about the people who were on their own side, which was a pretty cool thing.

In the initial meeting, we recommend a really tight structure with time limited go-arounds, and things like that, which really reduces people's anxieties. If I know that I only have to talk for three minutes, and I know I only have to listen to my opponents for three minutes, I know I can do that, whereas if its unlimited, it raises my anxiety levels on both ends.

Q: So it comes down to that amount of structure, where you're limiting the amount of time that people can speak?



I read a line in the PCP website that I was struck by. It said, "Creating openings for constructive conversations in the midst of conflict". So I'd like to paint a scenario for you from conversations that you've had. I'm sure that there is a time when the disputant are saying, I say yes, you say no. I say yes, you say no yes, no, yes, no. Complete diotic opposites arise occasionally. At that point you're on the outside of the circle and there doesn't seem to be any movement forward, a tremendous sticking point. Nobody wants to talk about anything else because it's so deeply engrained. What do you do at that point?


A: Well, we don't tend to get to that point, in part because of the work we do beforehand, in part because of the way that we structure an initial meeting. We think a lot about the structure of conversations, how a lot of those conversations are stuck conversations. Stuck conversations tend to have some identifying characteristics that occur regardless of the content, where there is point, counterpoint. There is no attempt at deep understanding. There are just words that are hurtled back and forth. There is an increasing level of speed, accusation, volume, where questions are used to trap, teach, and confront rather than to inquire. So we look at those qualities of conversation, and we try to change the way in which people converse with each other. So that that kind of point, counterpoint doesn't happen.

When I said that we start with go-arounds for instance, well, when people are responding to that question in the middle, they're not responding to each other. There's no responding to one another in the first couple go-arounds so that people get to speak their piece without being counter-pointed and interrupted. That sets up a whole different rhythm for conversation. It breaks the old rhythm and once the old rhythm has been broken, and something new has been laid down you find people talking with each other in really different ways that go beyond the stuff that they're used to.

In our preparatory work we've also inquired of people to find out when they have had conversations about these issues, or other issues like it that have been satisfying. We try to help them to recall their own experiences and capacity to have constructive conversations. So that when they are tempted, they know they can call on this experience that they've already had. They're not limited to this narrow repertoire of engagement around conflictual issues.

Q: What are some of those questions that you put out in the middle for them to get started on?

A: It really depends on who we are working with and what the issue is. Usually in the preparatory work we ask people, what three questions, if asked, might lead to a constructive conversation in your group. I can give you an example from the abortion work. The first question is usually something about personal experience. So in the abortion work it was, "Could you tell us something about how your personal experience has effected your perspective, or has led to you, or has been involved in forming your perspective on abortion?" The second question is something about where people stand on the issue at hand. With the abortion work it was, "Could you tell us what is at the heart of the matter for you?" The third question usually asks for a reflection on mixed feelings, or areas where one value might conflict with another. So in the abortion work it was, could you tell us that if in your overall perspective on abortion are there areas where one value bumps up along the other, where there might be some gray areas for you? Pro-choice people might say, "I don't believe in abortion as birth control." Pro-life people might say, "I do believe that if the life of the mother is at stake an abortion is permissible." So the questions tend to have intentions to bring in the personal experience, because that is often excluded, as is the gray areas or the ambiguities. We want to give people a chance to say where they stand to create a place of honor for them, to be in their position, and to know that they are going to be respected and honored from the place they are coming from, they don't have to be shy about saying that, "I am pro-choice," or "I am pro-life." We want them to feel good about that.

Q: What other sort of structural limits are there to a session?

A: The going over of agreements. We basically play back to people what we've heard from them about how they want to limit their conversations, what agreements end up being, what are our boundaries going to be here, and having people publicly affirm that people agree with these guidelines and that they are going to authorize that we are facilitators to support them in keeping those agreements.

I think that also has a role in making people feel more safe within the discussion. We tend to use questions that are addressed to everyone in the beginning of a dialogue, so people don't have to worry right up front about addressing one another. They're all addressing a common third point. If you're thinking about a situation with two sides, they're addressing a question that is in the middle of the room. They do that in a way that is very democratic, they all get the same amount of time, no matter how many times we go around. So people wind up feeling that that is a sense of structure here, something that will contain the conversation. They don't have to worry about it getting away, or people getting out of control.

One of the big agreements that tends to lead to sense of trust is the Pass Rule. We call it the non-coercion rule, and we talk about people in it in advanced, and again at the meeting. Anyone can say pass at any time so that nobody will feel that they are going to be pressured to say something that they don't want to. That really frees people up. The funny thing is that people rarely pass, but the fact that they can is really important.