The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: dialogue

“From Interests to Interest” – Community Engagement Podcast (35)

To create meaningful dialogue, good citizens display empathy more than emphasis.  To understand and respect where the other person is coming from is one of the hallmarks of civil society – a trait made all to rare these days by a partisanship that’s gone mad.  We all have our points of view – interests – and we all need to present them.  But above all there is the need to get to the overriding interest of why were attend such gatherings in the first place.  Sometimes the best people in such situations are those with respectful characters, instead of those with smart minds that are nevertheless petty.

Just click on the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

A Life More Important Than Words – Citizen Engagement Podcast (33)

The genius of democracy is not how right, or even how smart we are.  It is how open we are to find compromise that will permit us to move ahead as a citizenry.  Our present democratic state is mired in rigidity, in policies that won’t budge, and in characters than think having a strong opinion is the same as possessing strong truth.  No leader can deliver us from this and no government can legislate an open mind.  There’s work to do and humility is the one great essential if we are to succeed.

Just click the audio button below to listen to the five-minute podcast.

Humanizing Our Words

A few days ago I was having coffee at one of my favourite places when in walked a Conservative MP from an era prior to the Harper times. He immediately sat down and began talking about how he was glad to be out of politics in Ottawa, given all that has transpired in the last few years. He then went on about being retired and brought up some of the challenges he is witnessing in our community.

“When I was in the House, Glen, long before your time there, we’d have good friends in other parties and we’d head out for drinks or dinner, and always the subject came around to the legislation we were debating or voting on. And you know, we found we agreed on more than we realized. There were times when some of us changed our votes as a result of those talks. Nowadays you have no choice, especially with a partisan government.”

It got me to thinking about this blog post and the next step required for citizen dialogue to be effective.  It’s all about the search for mutuality. John Lennon once said that, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy pursuing other plans.” In Ottawa, those “other plans” are all about party politics and rooting for the team. Yet in my time there I was approached my numerous MPs from all parties who wanted to know about my kids and tell me about theirs. They were curious as to our work in Sudan and often talked about how they volunteered at their local food bank. They were talking about life and not their party.

When citizens get together to talk about ways to improve their community, it is what they discover in the course of their discussions that often leads to more breakthroughs than mere opinions.  If talk is all about “you share your ideas and I’ll refute them with mine,” then there’s nothing that can be discovered. It is actually in the humanizing of our thoughts that new ideas and better communities are discovered – not through argument but empathy and understanding. In its own way, conversation is a political art form. It gets people to share experiences and not just rigid opinions.

Sometimes the most important things being shared are emotions – fear, anger, insecurity, joy, love of family. And many times it is those sentiments lying behind the words that are the most eloquent. As business guru Peter Drucker puts it: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” Remember the story I told in the first blog of this series about the developer and the ostracism he felt at a community meeting? He could have argued outright, but instead talked about his insecurities at being seen to be a bad guy. The effects were immediate. People swiveled in their chairs and listened intently. Soon enough they were not only attempting to understand things from his point of view, they were understanding them.

This is the beauty of citizen conversation: it isn’t out to win, but to share ideas. It doesn’t so much have an end game as it does a process. And that’s exactly what it is. That first post talked about rigid positions, even ideological ones, and the need for citizens to get their frustrations on the table. But then it moves on to the next stage of understanding why everyone is at the table and that it’s bigger than their point of view. Our last post was about moving on from that to finding alternatives through conversations and not just prescribed agendas. What we are talking about now is the next logical step. People have aspirations, despite varying views. They all want productive, safe, smart, green and caring communities, but those commonalities are often eclipsed by negative experiences, cultural leanings, or even political ideologies.

The great Albert Schweitzer used to say that the tragedy of life is what dies inside a person while they yet live. It seems as though modern politics is all about the decline of ideals, the death of hope, the acceptance of decline. At some point it will recover, but not today and not soon enough. As citizens we need not accept such a fate. We grew up believing our country and our communities mattered – we mattered. We felt our place in this life was important and that we could make it better. We believed our natural world was worth preserving and that no child should be trapped in poverty. Instinctively we understood that productivity didn’t need to bring depravity along with it and that our brothers and sisters in our aboriginal communities deserved every chance that we had. We wanted to honour our elders and prepare a prosperous and learning path for our children. We wanted to be Canadian because that meant something.

Those things have been dying in us because we’ve permitted politics to disillusion us and our love for all things material to cheapen it. But that is not us – not by a long shot. We are better than this. The moment we begin our progressive discussions with others, seeking solutions and understandings, that spirit of youth reaches out from with us and it is our desire for better lives that drives us towards better outcomes for our communities. We do not have to die while we yet live, and neither do our communities. We all share in our desires for life and it’s in our dialogue that we will discover each other.

New Cards

William Greider, an astute chronicler of the American political system, has come to believe that without citizen interaction the United States itself will grow increasingly dysfunctional – as if it isn’t enough already. He admits to certain doubts as to whether citizens are actually equipped and up for the challenge but also comprehends that the politics of the professionals has placed the country in a box from which it cannot escape. And so he looks to average people to rescue politics from itself. He didn’t start with this position, but following years of disenchantment observing the political order, it is where he has ended up in the later years of his life. And so he would seek to draw us to a simple conclusion:

“Creating a positive future begins in human conversation. The simplest and most powerful investment any member of a community or an organization may make in renewal is to begin talking with other people as though the answers mattered.”

As times draws on, Greider is appearing more and more correct. But the desire for dialogue all comes down to one thing: Who frames the questions? Who establishes the agenda? We have grown so accustomed to allowing the elites in policy and politics to establish the parameters of our official conversations that we have only recently come to the realization that some of our most important queries aren’t even on the official agenda.

Put a group of citizens in a room, or a coffee shop, and ask them how our communities can be renewed and something remarkable transpires – the framing of an agenda actually comes later in the process of talking. It’s messy work but it’s actually how people communicate. They assess their surroundings, take measure of those around them, and overcome their own nervousness in order to speak up. In other words, they have to feel democracy before they can formalize it. Only when that is under their belt can they begin talking about certain objectives. I have participated in dozens of such conversations in the past year and have been amazed at how the participants became group directed over the duration of the conversations. A professional facilitator hasn’t been trained that way, preferring to put the subjects and their proper order on pieces of paper in front of the participants. This is done because it’s how the professional world stays on its game, but democracy doesn’t work like that – not in coffee shops, gathering places, or even our homes. We don’t sit at our dinner tables and lay out for the family what we’ll talk about during the meal. If we did, we would be met with a stony silence.

Here is why an agenda is so important: whoever controls it controls the outcome. Citizens are getting wise to this and are trying to discover ways they can bring their own concerns to the table. In other words, they want the agenda to be set during the course of the discussion, not at its beginning. This is only natural, as they don’t want someone else determining what kind of direction the dialogue will take. For the politician or the bureaucrat this represents nothing but headaches because they have places they want to get to and sometimes view involving citizens as a necessary evil if things are to appear inclusive. It seems to me that London’s own civic engagement exercise – ReThink London – has understood this, and in holding out only five broadly based subjects – grow, move, green, move, prosper – has permitted plenty of room for free-flowing discussion that might well see some kind of agenda emerge during the process.

But there’s another development that occurs when an agenda comes out of a discussion as opposed to preceding it. Citizens conversing over important issues in their communities understandably come from different places and emotions. Yet when they do dialogue they don’t just exchange facts but transform them. They toss concepts around for a time, reshaping them and learning different dimensions to them. New ideas and trains of thought emerge that would never have arisen when following a set timeline or a rigid agenda. Community conversations like this don’t just shuffle the cards, but actually introduce new cards altogether. For anyone with a set idea this can be maddening, but for citizens looking at challenges from various dimensions it can be liberating.

The city of London, Ontario presently seems bent on a “growth at all cost” direction that is alienating many citizens who had once dedicated themselves to the engagement process. Old fault lines are re-emerging – growth versus sustainability, cars versus public transit, waste versus environmental stewardship. Forced agendas put us into this mode with little chance to extricate ourselves. But what would happen if in the course of discussions citizens and their civic leaders suddenly discovered third or fourth options? I’ve been in a lot of negotiations in my time, long enough to have learned that compromises are frequently discovered, not by finding some space between two rigid positions, but by happening upon other options people hadn’t thought of yet. It happened in Sudan, Ireland, Bangladesh and Guatemala – all places where I have worked.

What is missing is the process of dialogue without forced directions. It’s about the ability to discuss our way into a solution. It won’t occur in the timeframe our leaders would desire, but in the end everybody owns it and the victory is the community’s. Given the failure of the present political construct, it’s perhaps time for someone to introduce some new cards.

From Interests to Interest

It all was rather bizarre. Attending the peace talks between north and south Sudan in a nice hotel outside of Nairobi promised to be a challenge. It had been Africa’s longest running civil war, with millions killed and even more displaced. But the point was that people were tired of it – all the killing, the lost generation, the poverty, the hopelessness.

Wisely, the Kenyan mediator had opted for three rounds of meetings spread out over a couple of years. The first round was just as I described in yesterday’s post: anger, fierce positioning, recriminations, blame, and inflexibility. Yet behind it all was a growing understanding that the nation itself couldn’t survive in its present state. Nevertheless, there had to be venting and ideological speeches.

The suspicions effectively expressed, the leaders of north and south then entered into that second important phase of development in progressive dialogue – the moving from interests to interest. Despite all their protestations and issues, there was that one clear recognizable reality behind it all – without peace, nothing was possible. Eventually, that goal began to emerge out from all the other points of debate until it began to frame much of what came after. To our amazement, Jane and I watched as the two sides began breaking off into twos and threes over coffee in some secluded shady spots. We could tell something was happening – not significant, but a lessening of animosities that had been exacerbated because of the earlier speeches. They went from being foes to seekers of that larger goal.

Without a larger purpose, what’s the use of dialogue anyway? It’s not the same as general talking, the kind you overhear in coffee shops everyday. It’s there to find common ground for a reason. Yet all too often we’re more concerned with our points of view instead of the overall reason we are communicating in the first place.

If we are to get someplace with these kind of conversations, then we must be careful not to blow up the bridge through our passionate rhetoric in the earliest stages. As Dale Carnegie used to note: “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” In arenas of age-old animosities, like in that Kenyan hotel, this is a given and must be permitted to work itself through a process.

Citizen engagement often doesn’t carry such dire consequences of failure, but it’s still relative: people judge from the situations they are in, not someone else’s. They hold their positions sincerely and seriously, and yet they wouldn’t be in the room if they didn’t recognize that there is a better place to get to that’s farther along than where they are at present. Their community’s future will require such efforts by dedicated people, no matter how opinionated they are.

For our community conversations to have meaning they must be more flexible than firm, be more tolerant than talkative, and pragmatic more than positioned. The people who accomplish this best are not necessarily the smartest or most eloquent, but those possessing dispositions conducive to friendliness and encouragement. In fact, the smartest ones are often the most distressing and jarring in their conversations. They forget that those they are trying to best actually come from emotional places that are important to them and must be respected before any advancement towards compromise can be made.

In the most effective process of dialogue, the ardent debater begins to learn the early skills of an adroit diplomat, and that distinction is essential in citizen engagement. Good citizens practice empathy over emphasis. The ability to listen is obviously essential, but first must come the understanding that the other person is coming from someplace meaningful to them. For whatever reason, they have chosen this place to plant their flag and it’s important that we acknowledge that reality before we can get anywhere.  Should we wish to pick a fight at the outset, it’s not the rationale that will be rejected but the lack of respect for their belief system. Or as Carl Buechner once stated in a speech to professional negotiators, “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Without realizing it, the citizen that develops empathetic instincts actually becomes the bridge on which two positions can meet, effectively becoming a change agent just through the very ability to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. It’s a remarkable gift in short supply in many situations.  For all intents and purposes, that person uses silence while others resort to talk. Without such silence there is often nothing but noisy opinions and protestations. It is the ability to refrain that eventually produces the opportunity for understanding.

John Kennedy once told a group of politicians: “If we are strong in our care for others, our strength will speak for itself. If we are weak, words will be of no help.” In other words, if you can’t get outside of yourself and make time for the ultimate “interest” over your own “interests,” then the conversation is already over. We require serious citizens, aware that the ultimate reason why dialogue is necessary is, at all times, more important than the dialogue itself. The Sudanese, to their credit, learned that skill over a couple of years. But for us it will all depend on whether we possess pliable natures, not rigid arguments.

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