Episode 009- Bob Stains

The Dialogue Approach Of The Public Conversations Project

Episode Summary

In the current political climate in the United States, there is a heightened interest in bringing people who don’t agree together for dialogue. One of the first to do this work was the Public Conversations Project (PCP)* out of Boston over the hugely contentious issue of abortion.

In the 1980’s and early 90’s, the abortion conflict got to such a feverish pitch — allegations of “baby killers”, “woman haters” — and resulted in the murders of two women outside an abortion clinic. In response, Laura Chasin, the founder of PCP, became the co-facilitator of a multi-year, clandestine dialogue between Boston area “pro-life” and “pro-choice” leaders, aka “The Leaders Dialogue”. In the years that followed, Laura and others applied this method, which combines aspects of family therapy, neuroscience and mediation, to a wide variety of communities and issues including same-sex marriage, immigration, gun rights, gender issues, peacebuilding, and many others.

Over the last 22 years, Bob Stains has helped build the PCP. He is a pioneer of the modern dialogue movement, a seasoned facilitator of challenging conversations about identity, religion and values and has trained over 20,000 professionals in the PCP dialogue approach known as “Reflective Structured Dialogue”.

In this episode, Bob describes the process in detail with some examples of an application in the setting of a polarized church congregation, as well as the “Family Dinner Project” and some other initiatives.

Bob shares that a “seed planted in him” to do this work was being raised by a single father which marked him as different; His teachers treated him differently, friends were not allowed to come over to his house because there was no woman present. His father did everything, the ironing the dishes which left Bob often feeling ostracized. The experience shaped his ideas about what it means to be a man and not conform to stereotypes

Bob always engaged in difference but did so more “by the seat of his pants” until he encountered the PCP. In his first PCP dialogue, an exchange with someone with polar opposite views on abortion left him amazingly uplifted and connected even though they deeply disagreed.

Bob tells the story of a church congregation that was deciding whether or not to be welcoming to openly LGBTQ people. Many people had left the congregation because of the issue but came back for the dialogue process. As a result, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to be openly accepting of LGBTQ people. The people who left re-joined because, as Bob says, they felt heard.

Bob explains, some conflicts can’t be resolved but you can have good conversations if you create the right “container.” He has come to realize that what’s most important is the relationship and how people come together, not whether the issue is resolved, especially in highly contentious issues where people are not likely to ultimately see eye to eye.

As evidence of the profound nature of the PCP work, the members of the Leaders Dialogue continue to speak in pro-life, pro-choice pairs to tell people the value of talking across the divide. Interestingly, all of them will say that their perspectives not only did not change as a result of the dialogue, but rather were enhanced. But they will also say that they have grown to deeply respect each other through the process and have developed love for each other that has kept them together.

Please tune in and get some great insights into some of the best practices to bridge the divide.

*PCP is now known as Essential Partners.

Show Notes

Susan’s introduction:

* Heightened political context of the US, there is a desire to bring people who may not agree together to have good conversation and exchange ideas

* First group to do this kind of work was The Public Conversations Project is out of Boston, USA

* This model might be the best model at getting people to the center of what matters most in conversation * The Public Conversations Project (PCP) (now Essential Partners) http://www.whatisessential.org

* Made their mark in the 1980s over the abortion issue in the USA

* Following the death of two women outside an abortion clinic, Laura Chasin began facilitating conversations bringing both sides of the abortion debate together (pro-life and pro-choice leaders, this is what these positions are called in the USA)
* More about the shooting: http://www.nytimes.com/1994/12/31/us/anti-abortion-killings-overview-gunman-kills-2-abortion-clinics-boston-suburb.html
* See more about PCP’s late founder, Click Here

* See a report co-written by Laura on “Fostering Dialogue Across Divides”

Bob Stains’ Bio:

* Bob Stains is Senior Associate at Essential Partners, after serving as Senior Director of Training. For the past 23, years Bob has created constructive conversations on sexual orientation, religion, race, abortion, social class, gender, firearms and other divisive issues within and between local, national and international organizations. He trains other senior practitioners in Essential Partners’ Reflective Structured Dialogue approach, is a frequent conference and university speaker and provides consultation to academic, civic and religious leaders in the US and abroad. Bob is a co-founder of The Family Dinner Project, consults to the Interpersonal Skills Component of the Harvard Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School, serves on the Executive Board of The Democracy Imperative and as a Guest Scholar-Practitioner for Kansas State University’s Dialogue, Deliberation and Public Engagement program. He has also recently been Adjunct Faculty at the Dispute Resolution Institutes of both Pepperdine and Hamline Universities’ Schools of Law and was one of the original mediator trainers for the USPS REDRESS mediation program. In addition to his work with Essential Partners, Bob maintains a private conflict transformation practice in Danvers, MA.

* (See this information and more at http://www.whatisessential.org/practitioner/robert-r-stains-jr-med)

* Family Dinner Project

* Harvard Negotiation Project

* Bob Stains and Associates

* PCP’s approach is called “Reflective, Structured Dialogue”

* Signature components on the personal experience of the participants

* Bob started this traveling around to homeless shelters teaching people how to best service homeless women and their children

* Always the only male/often the only white person

* Attended his first PCP event to structure this advising

* Prior to him getting involved in the PCP, Laura (founder) held an event at a church in Cambridge, MA

* She spoke about an “AIRPLANE”

* A different land where we can talk about the issues that are usually crowded with conflict

* Turned to another participant to tell a personal story that would help him/her understand Bob’s perspective on abortion (the entire group of people did this, but everyone was talking to someone who had a different opinion)

* He had strong opinions but had never had a conversation about this topic that had not resulted in an argument

* After 5 minutes, both him and participant he exchanged with felt very much connected even though they deeply disagreed

* “Magic Dust”

* Wanted to learn more about this style of facilitation

*Krista Tippett, https://onbeing.org

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krista_Tippett,
https://www.ted.com/speakers/krista_tippett

* What planted the seeds to get to this work?

* 3 things

* Raised by a single father in the 1950-60s

* Marked him as different from his peers

* Friends could not come to his home sometimes

* Taught him what society expects from men

* His father did everything to run the home– did not conform to the expectations of men

* Had a feeling of himself on the outside

* Very religious teenager- started a commune in the era of the “Jesus Movement”

* Left wing politically marching against war and racism

* Conservative theologically

* Had professionals and priests bring people to this commune that needed help: runaways, those struggling with addiction, of all races and social classes, etc.

* These people came to his living room

* Familiarity with diversity and working at all levels of power

* Launched him into being a therapist (bringing people together despite conflicting opinions)

* Learned early that some conflicts will not be resolved, but we can change how people engage with each other

* Some people are going to be limited to how much they can agree because of their personal experiences; there are some things people simply can’t agree on, and this is the way life is

* Susan says one of her mentors, John Carter from Gestalt OSD, http://www.gestaltosd.org/, calls these “dilemmas to be managed”

* Developed the idea that focusing on people’s relationships with each other and how they engage in their difference is just as important as the resolution of this conflict- particularly when people are simply not going to agree

* People create “containers”– what is the container that will create good constructive conversation and dialogue? What works for people?

* Barnett Pearce

* Social Constructionist

* Coordinated Management of Meaning

* For more info: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvME-Y5A3Og

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coordinated_management_of_meaning

* “Making Social Worlds”

* We construct the relational environment in our “containers” and outside of this is the social world; this is seen very much in the most recent US election

* The worlds we create are so homogeneous

* Work on “Deinstitutionalization”– getting people care and support as they transition from being in mental hospitals back into the normal world

* When a new group home is set up, create opportunities for neighbors to meet each other

* We create stories about each other in the absence of each other

* People would make assumptions that their new communities wouldn’t accept them and the community assumed they were in “danger” because of the new, crazy mentally ill people that were moving in

* Creating spaces to engage fights these false stigmas

* “Re-authoring” the stories that are told about you

* He changed his own story because he could engage with people who are “across the aisle”

* Susan- life is so much projecting, we make up stories even when we might know people.

* Susan- History of the “Leader Dialogues” (this is what PCP was called while it was still being brainstormed)

* Does family therapy ideas and practices have something to offer these difficult conversations?

* Phases of work on abortion- this became the test case because it was so contentious

* 18 months of dialogue was used to test various approaches until a model was created (went on until 1992-3)

* Translated this work to the environment, and then the shootings outside abortion clinic

* Laura had pro-life and pro-choice leaders commit to four meetings even though they had never met before

* This turns into 5 years of conversations in secret

* Constituents would not be happy with this conversation

* TV cameras would create a different conversation- intentionally private for more constructive conversation

* Needed to tell their story- Boston Globe released op-ed in 2001

* These women continue to speak in “Pro-Life/Pro-Choice” pairs

* Tell people the value of talking across the divide

* Perspective is enhanced by this engagement; you don’t need to change your opinion; love has held them together

* About the Pro-Life/Pro-Choice “tags”

* Need a conversation about language because it also enforced polarization– call each other what the other wants them to be called

* “Flavor” of the PCP Dialogue Process

* Underlying Principles

* Bring in stories and personal experience

* People who do this are family therapists– understand poor dialogue patterns and identify them in order to prevent these patterns. What should we

* 6 P’s

* Purpose of coming together- shared understanding

* People- Who needs to be here? Specific focus on outliers

* Deepening understand of the other; communicate constructively

* Not to find an agreement, but to deepen understand

* Listen to understand, rather than to win

* Susan- Why do people care?

* When people are together in groups, they need to have a sense of community to do the things they want to do. Need collaboration. Cannot have community without relationship. No relationship without conversation. Without focusing on quality of relationship and conversation, you are shortchanging what they community can do

* Prevent (bad former patterns)

* Maybe one person dominates conversation?

* Promote (focus on this instead)

* Equal contributions

* Plan

* How do we make all this happen?

* Preparation

* Helping participants prepare themselves for a different conversation

* In depth interview with participants (beforehand)

* What do they want out of this meeting? Rehearsing how to engage constructively with an “opponent”

* If you do the job of preparation, you won’t have many problems in the dialogue

* Susan- get people out of their instinct brain

* David Rock- 5 social domains

* What should I approach or avoid?

* Prevent people from going to that “avoid” responds– this happens in a fraction of a second

* Need to understand how to avoid this in order for people to have a strong beginning

* Susan- What does this look like in practice?

* The way the process starts is talking with a planning committee and planning participants

* Agreements and ground rules for a better conversation?

* Usually have a meal (sometimes bringing foods from their identity)

* Have conversation that is not related to the topic at hand

* What brought you here? Very low-key conversation to get people to know each other

* Move people into a different room (crossing of thresholds)

* Geography of the room to support the conversation

* Circle

* Sit pro/con/pro/con so they are sitting next to someone thinking differently

* Review purpose of goals and agreements– what people have already personally committed to

* Opening Questions:

* Open new material to cultivate curiosity

* 3 Questions: (Creation of the container: 2-3 minutes with pauses in between, uninterrupted, people takes notes on questions they have for people)

* Personal Experience

* Heart of the Matter for You

* Question that allows people to think about their complexities– individual grey areas

* Questions of Genuine Interest

* Questions or Assumptions that enable people to go more deeply into what that thing

* “Questions in Service of the Asked”

* These allow people to go more deeply into their thoughts instead of trapping/tricking them

* Distinguishing a Debate from Dialogue: a Table http://www.whatisessential.org/sites/default/files/DebateDialogue.pdf

* More general conversation to tease out themes

* Move into Closing

* What has everyone contributed?

* Cultivate a sense of ownership of the conversation

* “Agentic”- they were essential, intentional engagement

* (See table above)

* Is this enough? Do you want to do more? Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve?

* Some clients only have one meeting; some work with the organization for up to 3 years

* Susan- Please tell a story. . .

* Church that was deciding whether or not to be welcoming to openly LGBTQ people

* For listener’s reference

* Church leadership had tried to do this without consultation of the congregation and lost ⅓ of church attendance

* New minister came on board

* Spent year of preparation and dialogue before a vote

* Core component: teaching people how to ask questions of one another and personal stories

* Engaging people across the theological divide + education, dialogue

* Had people write questions and put them on big index cards for all participants to see- “Community of Questions of the Church)

* About 300 people in congregation at the time, now about 600

* Create the container where people felt heard as they wish to be heard

* Minister used PCP’s work and approach to create space to engage in a way that allows this

* People won’t listen and understand if you start by shoving a stick in their eye

* Results:

* Voted overwhelmingly to be openly accepting of LGBTQ people

* People who had left came back

* They came back and participated in this process

* Not everyone agreed, but they stayed because they felt heard

* They raised a few million dollars to create more physical space to hold the increased number of people in the congregation

* The principles stated before still guide their meetings and interaction in the church

* Susan- Are there limitations to this model?

* Challenge 1- working within an institution that has a larger power structure

* He works at the middle of the system, but their is a structure on top of this middle that doesn’t want to budge

* Can only focus on people in the room and change their relationships

* Sometimes, the hierarchy does not support these new changes at the middle

* This will not automatically change how the hierarchy works/doesn’t change the policy of the organization

* Run the risk of being rejected by the hierarchy

* Be clear about objectives: what can we do and can’t do?

* Sometimes this isn’t a problem because the hierarchy wants to see this change

* Challenge 2- Fear

* Conceptually- yes, I want to meet with the opponent

* When it comes down to it, you might not want to be in the room with certain people

* People are afraid to enter into a space where others might not equally value their lives (sexual orientation, gender, race, etc.)

* Pre-meetings are essential for people to know that they have an ally in the facilitator

* Susan- Thoughts or Reflections on his work in this field

* People often think of this as a discrete thing professional do

* Rather think: a quality of engagement in leadership. This is a skill that can be brought in various contexts. Doesn’t have to be a professional trying to make money. It’s a skill that is implemented in life.

* Family Dinner Project

* Shelly London (shoe designer)

* Program at Harvard where corporate executives can take on a nonprofit task

* Shelly wanted enhance capacity to make ethical decisions and build character

* Bring people back to the dinner table

* Brainstorming with Bob and Laura from PCP about the “dinner table”

* Created the Family Dinner Project

* Challenges of families eating dinner together

* The potential

* What would make this easier/better?

* He got involved because we learn how to engage at a young age at home

* Yale University research study about accepted students eating dinner with their families

* Project 0 has taken over the Family Dinner Project

* Help families eat together, cook friendly and budget friendly

* Help families have different kinds of conversations at the dinner table

* Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Table” https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/dinner_party

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