"Public Discourse" calls up images of large gatherings of people, town hall meetings, debates, and
talking heads on TV, among others. All these venues are worthy contexts for engaging public issues.
But sometimes, they're either not enough, or not
advisable. There are times and places where it may
not be wise or safe to say what you really think in a
public forum, when the cameras are rolling, someone is ready to tweet out every word you speak and
Internet trolls are waiting to trash you. Sometimes
— especially when sharp disagreement is in the
air — what's needed is a protected space for private
conversations about public issues.
This is what The Public Conversations Project
— now known as Essential Partners — has been providing since 1989 on issues including abortion, land
use, climate change, religion and science, gun rights,
sexual orientation and economic difference, among
many others in the United States. While we are
mostly known for our long-ago, one-evening dialogues, the vast majority of our work has been with
organizations, communities or regional groups in the
United States, and, increasingly, in other countries,
over a longer term.
In this article we reflect on the international aspect
of our work: how our methodology, which we
“Reflective Structured Dialogue,” (RSD) has been
employed in other countries to influence the ways
opponents engage each other on challenges of identity (e.g. religion, ethnicity, etc., etc.), core values and
worldviews as they bear on local "public issues." and
the shifts that participants experience As a result of
such conversations participants have shifted how
they think and act toward others with whom they
differ. RSD has been applied in small-groups, meetings, one-to-one and many other settings, resulting
in shifts in how people experience each other, communicate and find it possible to work together. It is
designed to build trust, relationships and community, in ways that preserve these, even in the face
of ongoing differences. Utilizing preparation, inquiry,
structure, communication agreements and reflection, RSD draws from the fields of family systems,
narrative therapy and appreciative inquiry.
The story of how we came to work in other coun-
tries is improbable and continues to be instructive.
After some years of reflection, and inquiry from other
organizations and people in our field, we came to the
conclusion that we ought not try to bring our dialogue
model outside the United States. After all, how could
an approach that was born of a bunch of Cambridge,
Massachusetts-based, white, middle-to-upper
class, "elite," Western-thinking people have any cur-
rency outside of its familiar, American sphere? One
day in 2006 we were about to find out.
In 2003, a man who ran a non-profit organization
in Burundi to build homes for people returning from
refugee camps in the aftermath of that country’s
genocidal civil war and took our "Power of Dialogue"
Workshop. Upon completion of the workshop he
said, "You must bring this dialogue to my country.
We have villages where members of one family
killed members of another, and took their house.
Now the survivors are returning to villages from
the camps and have to find how to live together.
We need dialogue." Bob fell back on the "received
wisdom": We have no business going to Burundi;
we don't want to re-colonize, what do we know as
white westerners? etc, etc. A potent lesson on the
perils of liberal arrogance was delivered in his stinging, from-the-heart response: "It's not up to you to
decide for us whether your method is or is not useful in our country. We can decide that for ourselves.
You have a gift, and the responsibility to share it. We
will decide how to use it." Whoa! And, yes: of course.
A year later, we partnered with a group of 25
Burundian master mediation trainers to co-create a
model for dialogue that would help rebuild relationships and trust in rural villages. Over the course of a
year, the trainers adapted the model, integrating it
with local wisdom, proverbs, and conflict-resolution
traditions. They took it out to villages and facilitated
dialogues about critical local issues that had previously been considered too inflammatory to discuss
given the state of public discourse, such as land use
and post-conflict inter-group relations. From their
learning, they designed and distributed materials
describing the process in Kirundi, the local language.
This was the beginning of our exploration of the
applicability of Reflective Structured Dialogue in
places outside the US. Since that beginning we
have seen this experience repeated many times, in
The Invisible Threads of Public Discourse:
Lessons From Other Countries
About the Authors
is Senior Associate
at Essential Partners.
He consults to the
Component of the
Harvard Project on
Negotiation. A member of the Executive
Board of The Democracy Imperative
and a Guest Scholar
and Public Engagement program, Bob
has also been Adjunct
Faculty at Pepperdine
and Hamline Universi-ties' Law Schools.
& Dave Joseph
is the Senior Associate at Essential
Partners. A founding
member of Mediators
Beyond Borders, he
serves on its Executive Committee He
has provided training
and consultation in
Dialogue in the US,
Canada, Greece and
Burundi, for more
than 10 years.