At the 2008 National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, we focused in on 5 of the most pressing and challenging issues our field is facing – issues that past conference participants agreed are vital for us to address if we are to have the impact we’d like to have in our communities. One of the five challenges we focused on was the “Framing Challenge” — framing this work in an accessible way. Our leader for the Framing Challenge was Jacob Hess.
Six months before the conference, we used the online dialogue and collaborative proposal-writing tool CivicEvolution.org to engage the NCDD community around the 5 challenges. Here is the summary of the discussion about the Framing Challenge, prepared by 2008 conference planning team member Madeleine Van Hecke.
Summary of the Pre-Conference Online Dialogue on the Framing Challenge
The “Framing Challenge” focused on articulating the importance of this work to those beyond our immediate community (making D&D compelling to people of all income levels, education levels, and political perspectives, etc.) – and helping equip members of the D&D community to talk about this work in an accessible, effective way.
I. What is currently happening that makes talk about D&D inaccessible or ineffective?
II. What might we do to help D&D practitioners talk about this work more effectively?
Articulating the importance of this work to those beyond our immediate community (making D&D compelling to people of all income levels, education levels, and political perspectives, etc.) – and helping equip members of the D&D community to talk about this work in an accessible, effective way.
Clarifying Challenge B, defining some proposals for that challenge.
PROBLEM: Given the excitement and real curiosity I’ve experienced in people from all walks of life intrigued with D&D processes-teachers, parents, youth, elders, particularly, this challenge appeals to me. What simple tool would (easily) help us disseminate D&D and empower community or do we have it already?
SOLUTION: Clarify, edit the language of this challenge to clearly address it with an on-going team of 4 – 6 people in regular dialogue. Synthesizing what’s working/not working in this challenge. Develop proposals to make D&D processes accessible – effectively, simply and sustainably. Deliver them through NCDD 08 conference to vote on those proposals.
I. What is currently happening that makes talk about D&D inaccessible or ineffective?
A. Off-putting Language
The language some people use to describe D&D turns some people off because it is too new agey using “touchy-feely” jargon (talking about heart and meaning, love, togetherness) and turns others off because it is too ivory tower using academic jargon that goes over people’s heads (referring to deliberative democracy, whole-systems change, multi-stakeholder engagement).
Example: “I have seen many of our friends and colleagues in this field shoot themselves in the foot when they unknowingly use language that turns off young people, conservatives, power-holders, and others. It’s a problem, but they are very attached to the terms they use and can’t see the negative impact those terms have on people they’d like to reach.”
B. Uninspiring “colourless” language
The language currently used to label D&D work tends to be abstract and “bloodless,” so it isn’t terribly meaningful to people who don’t already know that the terms mean and it doesn’t trigger an emotional response (such as dialogue and deliberation, capacity-building, civic renewal, the arts of democracy). This also makes it hard to increase national awareness of D&D.
Example: Developments (in dialogue and similar approaches) “have flown under the national radar. One of the main reasons is the abstract, technical, unappealing language used to describe the work. Terms like “deliberative democracy” have so far failed as a rallying cry for citizens, public officials, or other audiences… The relationship between citizens and government is undergoing a dramatic shift; our language about democracy needs to reflect these changes. (Matt Leighninger)
C. Language that others can’t/don’t relate to.
“Many of my colleagues (people who I think are brilliant, are doing terrific work and who get a lot done and many of whom do not live or work in the U.S.) do not feel a part of or are interested in becoming a part of NCDD… partly because of language that creates a wall. For example, one colleague of mine said her clients talk a lot about decision making but do not relate to the term deliberation – even if their processes are what many of us would call deliberation. Another colleague says he would never use the term democracy because it’s too loaded and manipulative when used in the contexts he works in.” (Erin Kreeger)
D. Using “liberal” sounding language that has troubling connotations to more politically conservative folks.
Example: Jacob Hess notes that right-leaning students at the University of Illinois aren’t inclined to sign up for their dialogue program because it’s described as reflecting a “social justice” paradigm, a portrayal that remains negative to many social conservatives–code for ‘the liberal/diversity agenda.'”
E. Using language that is disrespectful to more politically conservative folks.
“At the last NCDD conference there were quite a number of times when I cringed at things I heard. Different speakers made references to “Carter = good, Reagan = bad” (which was accompanied at the appropriate times by cheers and boos) and to “Joe Sixpack” (accompanied by scattered snickers of derision). I couldn’t help thinking that if I were more conservative, I would definitely feel isolated, unwelcome and put down by such comments. I hope that we can all be more conscious of how we use language in ways that may turn away the very people we most need to engage.” (Dave Joseph)
“Language can either inhibit or facilitate the development of meaningful human relationships, so it is worthwhile to be careful and intentional about the words we use.” – – Landon Schultz
II. What might we do to help D&D members talk about this work more effectively?
A. Use Graphics and Imagery
Put some of the basic D&D ideas into a graphic form to make it more accessible to visual learners and to be more memorable and understandable to everyone by conjuring up images that have emotional pull in people’s minds. (Deborah Goldblatt and Avril Orloff)
B. Develop principles about what D&D means and base PR on that meaning
Develop a concise set of principles about what D&D means – “a basic floor of understanding beneath our feet which will allow us to have consequential interaction with the public (and each other) instead of continually re-establishing what D&D means” – that could serve as a PR platform. (Brian Sullivan)
C. Brainstorm to develop more vivid and understandable terminology.
Brainstorm with others to develop introductory terminology that is understandable to beginners that can act as one public face of D&D, using methods such as generating metaphors, recalling the kinds of phrases people often use when referring to the problems D&D is attempting to solve, etc.
Landon Schultz “I would like to propose ‘Resonance’ as a key term for the work we are doing in dialogue.”
Deborah Goldblatt offers some of the phrases that often come up in intergenerational dialogue: “in my day we would never have tolerated…,” “you mis-heard me,” boxed-in, “yeah,yeah,yeah…blah,blah,blah…I got it, I got it…,” generative listening, uncovering blind spots, resonance…very cool, learning a lot, when can we do this again?
D. Review what language is currently being used by D & D members that seems to be effective in their area.
Example: Some wisdom circles in sustainable agriculture create “citizen think-do” tanks that attempt to bring the common good back into the center of our communities to work towards “a future worth having,” phrases that appeal to both rural conservative people and urban environmental members. (Joseph McIntyre)
E. Explore what is off-putting about some of our current language to see what we might want to avoid in the language we do use, such as excluding others who don’t share our academic background.
Example: “What is it about these words, phrases, expressions that turns people off? …Personally, the bureaucratic language turns me off because … it excludes those who aren’t versed in the jargon… maybe “heart language” is a problem to others because it sounds insincere …” (Avril Orloff).
F. Explore the language that people who use D&D processes but don’t call them that use to describe their work. Consider integrating some of that language into our descriptions of D&D.
Example: Others talk more in terms of solving problems and addressing issues, and think more in terms of outcomes and content than process. Everyday Democracy now describes their work this way: “We help your community find ways for all kinds of people to think, talk and work together to solve problems.” (Sandy Heierbacher)
NCDD site says: “Welcome to the online hub for those dedicated to solving tough problems with honest talk, quality thinking and collaborative action.”
G. Use language that explicitly connects D&D to solving the particular problem that the other person or group is grappling with.
Example: “Coming from a background of mediation I’ve learned that the most effective way to bring people to the table is to address the question of ‘what’s in it for me?’ … In the political environment in which I work I often face resistance to “process” as time consuming, touchy-feely” and too difficult as an alternative to just having the powers that be mandate. What has been effective for me with politicians is to talk about building “political will” which only exists when people believe that the solution meets THEIR needs and interests.” (Judith Mowry)
H. Have people available to demonstrate what D&D is.
Form an “ambassadorial team” from the NCDD skilled network who would be called on to demonstrate D&D on a voluntary basis when requests come through NCDD. A standard presentation could be created for a variety of purposes: for example – a rotary club, community councils, peace and conflict departments in schools….etc.
I. Create something that translates the different languages that D&D practitioners speak.
Create a thesaurus or “cross-walk” that shows how all the different terms relate to one another rather than asking or expecting people to give up their ingrained or preferred language. (Rod Reyna)
J. Encourage respect for the different languages that D&D practitioners speak.
Urge everyone to be respectful of other people’s language, viewing it as a gift to the larger group (Rod Reyna) and also “be a bit forgiving …In what we say, and in what we hear from others with different experiences.” (John Spady)
K. Look at the “pattern language” that Tom Atlee and Peggy Holman explore in their pre-conference workshop as a possible resource.