This was a gratifying week for WinC with the three-day visit of Serge Da Deppo, our new colleague from NATO’s Allied Transformation Command headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia. Serge is an enthusiastic, forward-thinking individual who thinks that dialogue is an essential tool for working on problems that arise around the world. We happen to think so too.
So, we are in the process of crafting a plan for working together on training NATO recruits that will involve engaging in cross-cultural dialogues with civilians in pre-conflict areas where they might one day be deployed. This is only a single dimension of a much larger collaborative plan for WinC and NATO. At the core of all of our brainstorming, however, is to use dialogue in a broader way so that individuals who will be on the ground in situations of confrontation will have more tools in their repertoire to help them solve problems before needing to use force. Naturally this lessens the negative consequences for civilians and societies in general. We are looking forward to a fruitful partnership with our new colleagues in the Alliance.
Although the vast amount of our dialogues occur face-to-face, World In Conversation has been slowly and steadily engaging in virtual dialogues–and we are experimenting with this medium both locally and globally. Locally, our student facilitators are guiding conversations with other Penn State students who are not studying at University Park. They meet via Skype with Commonwealth students who are gathered in small groups at one of their campuses. They apply their face-to-face facilitation skills as if they are in the same room as this group of students. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive. But we are working on the translations of skills from one medium to another. Internationally, we bring small groups of Penn State students together with small groups of students in places like Kuwait, Iran, Qatar, Israel, Palestine, Leech Lake Reservation (in Minnesota)–and soon Taiwan and India–to create a kind of virtual circle. Half of the circle is formed at Penn State and the other half is formed by students at our partner location. Sometimes there is a facilitator at Penn State <em>and</em> a facilitator at the other location. Sometimes there is only one facilitator at the Penn State location. There are also translators in one or both places. All in all, we are experimenting with several different ways to structure these dialogues and to apply our facilitation model in a new way.
Why am I saying all of this? To describe the dynamic context within which we are beginning to test a new video-platform that we hope will surpass other similar services for ease of user interface and potential for flexible facilitation. We are imagining that the popularity of online conversations is only going to grow as individuals begin to recognize the educational potential and power of engaging with people in other places. And we are going to have to find ways to accommodate the demand for dialogues that are both international and intercultural. So we have been working on finding the proper platform for that, and to design facilitation training for the purpose of working in virtual land.
This week we started a rough guide for virtual training and we tested the site that could be the foundation for a world wide web of conversation. Lots more to say on all of this. But you get the idea for now.
Like many others living in the Mid-Atlantic region, I am a bit distracted right now by the looming visit of Hurricane Sandy. “She” is making her slow crawl into our region and I find myself wondering who she is and what will she really be like. Saying it that way reminds me of a conversation I had this week with some of our facilitators. We were exploring our relationship to conflict and, in that context, we started to talk about anger and the expression of anger. I found myself asking if we sometimes need to accept the fact that anger exists–in the way thunder exists and hurricanes exist. Yes, I said that. I thought it made a lot of sense at the time. We can’t change the fact that thunder happens or hurricanes happen. So why resist anger so much? Perhaps it’s best to see it as a natural phenomenon. The problem is–I’m watching myself resist the natural phenomenon too–even though it’s clear there’s nothing I can do about it. I’m shaking my fists and crossing my fingers that something will change her inevitable course. So now I’m thinking back to that conversation and I’m asking myself how I can accept anger if I can’t accept this approaching storm. And vice versa.
What do we mean when we refer to radically open dialogues in our mission statement? Radically open refers to a forum where all views can freely meet and converse and clash and collaborate, a forum where there is no particular political agenda to shape the discussion. Facilitators create this type of forum by using the Socratic Method to guide inquiry so that these differing views can find constructive ways to articulate themselves, to provide a challenge to others, and to examine themselves. Not all of those things happen every time. But the opportunity is there for any narrative, any conclusion, any perspective to find air time in such a forum.
In a radically open dialogue, facilitators take a neutral position in order to help participants explore an issue without alienating–or reinforcing–particular perspectives. In this way, they empower the group members by providing them with the encouragement to peel back the layers of every value, every supposed fact, every belief. Facilitators do not take the role of determining what is true and good and right. They shape a group interaction so that educated people do this for themselves.
For some, this kind of forum can be worrisome, perhaps suggesting a dangerous kind of relativism. So what makes us value this radical openness so fundamentally? Because we see that when participants have the opportunity to listen to themselves as well as listen to others, learning and understanding begins. We see it every day.
Of course we are committed to dialogue and to the groundbreaking things that happen when people have the opportunity to look into the eyes of someone with whom they disagree and actually listen to them. But we are committed to something else that is just as important and just as essential and just as inspiring as the dialogues themselves–and that is the process of training and coaching facilitators.
It is truly a privilege to walk through this deeply human endeavor with students and to watch them evolve from their initial desire to become a facilitator to the very mature act of guiding participants through difficult conversations. That is deep. And what we see from doing this for more than a decade is that this very labor-intensive and personal process creates leaders of a very special order–leaders who know how to listen for what is beneath a person’s words, how to discern what is the real issue at hand, how to communicate in a way that opens people up rather than shuts them down, and how to work with very different perspectives. This particular kind of social and emotional intelligence is often in short supply among those who we think of as leaders–who sometimes confuse being assertive and headstrong with leadership. Our task now is to “export” this training process in such a way that allows us to participate in creating this unique kind of leadership throughout the world.
As we all know, Martin Luther King had a dream. And when he articulated this dream, it allowed generations of people to dare to dream with him–and also to act in order to bring forth the seeds of his imagination. We at WinC have our own dream. And in following the boldness of MLK, we have articulated that dream; and so it is time to share it with you. Are you ready? Here is what we see coming and what we are working toward every day:
Facilitated dialogue will revolutionize cross cultural relationships by transforming conflict into collaboration.
That’s big, right? We think so. But we think it encompasses everything we’ve been implicitly working on for the past decade. And we think making it explicit is important for inviting others to join us in manifesting the dream. In 1963, MLK’s dream may have seemed filled with impossibility. But in 2012, it’s clear he was just charting the course of how things would unfold. And that’s how we’re thinking about our vision. I’ll talk more about what “Conflict into Collaboration” actually means. But for this week, just know that we know where we’re headed–and we hope you’ll come along in whatever way you can.
Someone asked me last week if we really need to keep talking about race relations. “Aren’t we past that? Doesn’t talking about it make it worse?” they asked. I actually questioned our facilitators about this not too long ago to see how they would weigh in on this issue–given that they are in these dialogues every day of the week. Every one of them said, “No way. These conversations are necessary.” What they meant is that people in different groups continue to have assumptions about one another that create awkwardness, distance and fear. And these assumptions just don’t disappear without some kind of deeper contact. Maybe it’s not so urgent if you’re taking about the different between left-handedness and right-handedness (though you might ask someone who is left-handed about that!). But still, the point is that some group identities make our lives much more complicated, to say the least–and that has implications for how people from those groups relate with people who are not from those groups–and vice versa. What we see in the realm of U.S. race relations is that most of us can “get along” on any ordinary day, but when something messy happens between members of different groups, or something confusing, or something controversial, we start to see how wide is the gap between them. Although these divisions are obvious in our dialogues (i.e., people speak differently, have different values, believe different things about their lives), talking about all of this is actually a step in closing the gap–because something happens between people who look directly into each others’ eyes and meet one another as individuals. Maybe their humanity or their hearts shine through. I’m not sure. Whatever it is, this kind of up-close and personal contact is not only still necessary, it clearly does not “make it worse.” So day after day, we keep bringing people together, opening up the conversation, and finding ways together to close the gaps.
We didn’t plan it this way. But at the same time that we hit our tenth anniversary, we had the good fortune of re-employing two members of our inaugural facilitator team, that daring group that got this whole World In Conversation thing off the ground back in 2002.
After doing some pretty important things–like parenting, attaining an advanced degree, establishing a business, and running for public office (to name a few), Takkeem Morgan and Maurel Merette are back. Though they are a bit shocked at how “big” we have become, they remember well the days not so long ago when eight of us met on Sunday nights over a big pot of soup to talk about the different approaches we were testing for getting Penn State students to engage, to think, to explore the big issues. They also remember how many arguments we had in our meetings about what was most effective and least effective. But we know now that those passionate differences were the foundation of what we have become—and they were essential to shaping the mission that guides us today.
It is gratifying and humbling to have the opportunity to work with Takkeem and Maurel again as they help WinC take its next step forward.
WinC had another opportunity this past summer to take dialogue facilitation “on the road.” Sam (Richards) and I and a small group of alumni facilitators all boarded planes from Austin, Newark, DC and Philadelphia at dawn on a beautiful Friday in July, and landed in LA within hours of each other. From there, we drove to Irvine to spend the afternoon preparing for the Sounds of Truth festival set to occur the next day.
This was going to be a gutsy event organized by Rebellious Truths, a gutsy group of people, who want “the facts” and think we should seek those facts together. So they spent months meeting up with members of Occupy, the Tea Party, Oath Keepers, Republicans, Libertarians, Democrats and others, asking them to consider engaging in a single dialogue with their counterparts. When one of the founders shared with me their plan, I was immediately intrigued and interested. We all wanted to see if this kind of gathering could happen, and if it were possible to find common ground amidst the divisiveness. When the day finally arrived, a film crew followed all of us through the event–from its awkward beginnings to its monumental end. And finally, just two days ago, they released their documentary about what we tried to accomplish that day. In this season of (too often) mean-spirited bi-partisanship, this just might provide a vision of hope. Check it out: The Day We Came Together: