The work of the Public Conversations Project (PCP) is often summarized in a single word: dialogue. But such a simple and often-used term is insufficient to describe the care, planning, and skill underlying the work of those who call themselves dialogue practitioners. Nor does this word adequately convey the profound and demonstrated ability of this work to ameliorate conflict.

PCP was launched in 1989 by a small group of family and couple therapists and a social science researcher who saw ways in which the approaches used in work with families could be applied effectively to larger conversations taking place in the public arena about divisive issues. While PCP didn’t invent the field of dialogue, the organization may be able to take some credit for putting it on the map, due largely to its impressive and visible client list, which includes those on either side of the abortion debate as well as bishops, clergy, and laity in the Episcopal church in conflict over issues of faith and human sexuality. PCP’s work also extends into much less visible realms, including dioceses and congregations. In these settings, members of the PCP team typically train others to act as dialogue facilitators rather than doing so themselves, due to limitations imposed by both the size of PCP’s staff and congregational budgets.

Without a direct experience of a PCP-style dialogue, though, it may be difficult to imagine what it is that these practitioners have to offer, and how their approach differs from other approaches to conflict that many congregations have already tried.

Robert R. (“Bob”) Stains, Jr., PCP’s program director, explains that, unlike many professionals who deal with conflict situations, dialogue practitioners do not seek to eliminate conflict. There is no talk of resolving differences or building consensus. Instead, the aim of dialogue is to cultivate understanding and establish a more respectful way of relating between people who disagree—sometimes vehemently—about an issue. Ultimately, dialogue practitioners hope to stimulate a new kind of conversation that increases each participant’s understanding of the “other” as a person rather than as a stereotype or position.

Rather than debating with one another, the parties in a PCP-designed dialogue are coached to speak openly and to listen respectfully and attentively. While debate is characterized by a desire to “win” the conversation, the purpose of dialogue is not to convert people to “the other side.” Instead, its goal is to transform the conversation from one characterized by attacks on the opposition and their views and defense of one’s own position to one of respectful listening.

In a 1996 article Stains co-wrote with five other PCP dialogue facilitators, the reasoning behind this approach is explained: “We assumed that if members of… less polarized groups also developed new ways of being with one another, they might more readily find areas of agreement and possibilities for collaborative effort.”1

At its most basic, PCP’s approach is one that emphasizes pre-meeting preparation, treats participants as collaborators, and decentralizes the role of the facilitator. Dialogue practitioners also employ structures designed to prevent a replay of the old, destructive conversations and to facilitate a new, more respectful conversation. Using this family therapy approach, PCP team members claim to have seen “dismissive, destructive shouting matches transformed into mutually respectful, constructive discussions.”2

Planning and Preparation

According to Stains, preparation is one of the keys to doing effective dialogue work. He estimates that about 80 percent of his work is done before participants come face to face. This preparation involves a series of both written and oral communications in which dialogue participants learn what is going to happen at the meeting and are asked to consider a number of questions, such as:

  • What kinds of disturbing conversations have you participated in previously around this issue and why did you find them disturbing?
  • Are there examples you can provide of conversations around the issue that have been useful?
  • What words relating to the issue do you find hurtful?
  • What language might be offensive to those with the opposing view?
  • What are your highest purposes for having this conversation, both for yourself and the congregation?
  • Why does it matter that a constructive conversation about this issue be had in this community?
  • What is it about this community that matters to you?
  • What are you afraid might happen during this conversation that would cause you to regret your participation?
  • What might happen that would cause you to feel your participation in this conversation was a good investment of your time and energy?
  • What would it take to bring your best self to the conversation?
  • What agreements or ground rules might help you bring this best self to the meeting?

Through their consideration of these questions and the pre-meeting conversations they have with facilitators, participants begin to participate in building the structures that will govern the dialogue in which they have agreed to participate. In a sense, they begin to practice dialoguing: they think deeply about the experiences that have led them to their position on the issue at hand, about what they value, about what they find hurtful and helpful in discussions of the issue, and they answer these questions as individuals rather than as members of a “side” or representatives of a position. It doesn’t hurt that they have an opportunity to discuss these things with a PCP facilitator, someone trained to listen carefully and nonjudgmentally, someone who responds thoughtfully and respectfully—in essence, someone who models the very behavior it is hoped the dialogue process will instill in participants, both in the facilitated conversation and thereafter.

This may be the most important part of dialogue work, Stains says. “We’re a results-oriented culture and we’re a very reactive culture, and the idea of stepping back and reflecting and really preparing to enter into something runs a bit counter to those expectations.” When participants fully engage in the preparatory work, the dialogue begins, even though the participants have not yet gathered in the same room.

“We ask people what really matters to them about the issue at hand, and this gets into the actual dialogue because people often think they know what matters to the people on the other side, and they discover that often it’s something very different than they had expected. For instance, a conservative might think that, for the liberal, the thing that matters most in a dispute over whether or not to become an open, welcoming, and affirming church is a civil rights issue, whereas the liberal person is actually a deep devotee of scripture and feels that it is part of the Great Commission to bring everyone into the church. It’s those kinds of opportunities for hearing and speaking that people will be open to as a result of the preparatory work.”

One question Stains finds particularly useful is, “If three questions might be asked to open the conversation, which three questions do you think might open the most constructive and in-depth conversation about this issue?” PCP facilitators record all of the responses they receive and later distribute a compiled list to all participants, asking for additional comment. The questions selected in that second round of comments serve as a provisional outline for future meetings.

“At a typical opening meeting, you have time to deal with one or two questions,” Stains says, “but that often can serve as the basis for some ongoing work.” Two questions Stains recalls having b
een especially helpful in framing the subsequent discussion were: “What in your faith explains the bridge-builder in you?” and “How does your current perspective on this issue reflect your faith journey?”

Supportive Structures

When participants in a dialogue process finally meet face to face, some time is spent on establishing ground rules. These might include the option to pass on a particular question, an agreement not to comment on anyone else’s response to the question posed, and a promise not to try to convert anyone to the opposing side’s opinion. However, each group decides its own ground rules, with the understanding that they are subject to renegotiation at any time during the meeting. Until such renegotiation is requested, however, the PCP facilitator acts “in service to the agreements” and asks all of the participants to be monitors of the agreements, as well, Stains explains.

The “go-around” or circle process is another essential feature of dialogue work. It involves posing a question, which each participant then has a turn to answer without interruption or comment from other participants. When speaking, participants are asked to speak from personal experience rather than from a theoretical perspective. This, says Stains, helps bring the conversation down to a human level in which participants can begin to see each other as individuals rather than positions on the issue.

“I think we respond to people based on the story we carry about them. That story can either be very thin and narrow or very thick and full, and the thicker and fuller it is, the more potential points of contact there are between people. When people come to each other carrying thin stories about each other, it’s much more difficult to move forward.”

Stories about other people humanize them, Stains says. “For instance, to learn that the conservative person who is dead-set against having homosexuals ordained has a gay sister that he loves and that he is deeply involved in her life with her partner changes the way folks see that person.”

Similarly, Stains says, the stories we carry about ourselves can affect how we interact with others. “People often come to a dialogue situation feeling very dispirited, feeling as if they are bad people because they have had bad conversations. And all they can think about is their failures around this issue. They have a story about themselves that doesn’t allow them to move forward. But if they can recall other, more positive interactions they have had, these recollections may enrich and thicken the larger story they tell themselves and open up previously unforeseen possibilities for communicating with others.”

During the dialogue, PCP facilitators try to remain on the edges of the conversation as much as possible, which Stains says can be tricky for the unindoctrinated. “The more experience you have, the easier it is to let go. Really, at the core of it, it requires faith. It requires faith in the power of the group to take care of itself and, within the Christian context, it requires faith in the Holy Spirit to move, to be in the midst, and to facilitate our work.”

An example of facilitating in a decentralized manner shows up in the way PCP team members handle comments by participants. In contrast to many meetings in which a circle process is employed, PCP facilitators remain silent after each person has responded to the question posed. “In many modes of facilitation, after a person has responded to a question, the facilitator might say, ‘Thank you, Mary’ or ‘Thank you, John. What I hear you saying is X.’ The effect that has is to constantly direct attention back to the facilitator.” This is contrary to PCP’s intent to empower dialogue participants to learn to monitor themselves and to engage primarily with each other.

“From our perspective,” Stains explains, “the role of the facilitator is to serve the group and to serve the agreements the group has established. We also hope that everyone will see themselves as keepers and monitors of the agreements. In that way we invite them to be very involved and not looking to us to be the only experts in the room. Starting out that way begins to shape expectations. So, particularly in opening meetings, we’re kicking off sections of the process and then we’re getting out of the way. It’s very liturgical in the sense that it sets up a particular rhythm of response and helps people engage one another rather than look to us, so that by the time we move into a more open conversation, people are already engaged.

Respectful Inquiry

The “more open conversation” Stains refers to might begin with a session in which participants are given an opportunity to ask questions of one another. But not just any questions are allowed. “We talk about the character of those questions, asking participants to pose questions of genuine interest—questions that would enhance their understanding of where someone is coming from or about things they want to learn more about.” Rhetorical questions that are really statements or judgments in disguise, or questions designed to reveal someone else’s deficits are not permitted since they serve to re-create the discordant conversation the two groups are accustomed to having rather than the new, more respectful conversation the dialogue process is designed to cultivate.

Later, the conversation evolves further, Stains explains. “In a subsequent session, we’ll introduce the concept of ‘connected conversation,’ where we ask people to be aware of the threads that are coming up in the conversation—where people are converging in their thinking and where they are diverging—and then to weave that into the questions they are asking one another. The result is that people come away with a much clearer understanding of each other as well as a much clearer understanding of where their thinking overlaps and where their differences are quite distinct.”

But, lest anyone think this surely must lead to a closing of the gap between the two sides’ positions, Stains says that in his 12 years with PCP he has found that “it’s been consistent that people have come away from dialogue generally feeling more committed to their perspective and yet more willing to grant respect to the person holding the other perspective.” Dialogue participants may also experience a deeper level of understanding of how those on the opposing side of the issue came to their perspective, he says, as well as perhaps some connection with those on the other side of the issue that they hadn’t expected. He gives the example of two women involved in a dialogue on abortion, both of whom had abortions in their teens. One almost died as a result of the procedure, and she now opposes abortion. The other, who feared what she would suffer at the hands of her physically abusive father if he discovered she was pregnant, supports legal abortion, not wanting others to be without that choice in a situation similar to the one she faced in her own life. “And they look at each other, with tears in their eyes, and say, ‘I understand what you’ve been through. I disagree with what you’ve made of it, but I understand that experience.’”

Whether or not anyone’s mind has been changed, if once bitter opponents like these two women emerge from the dialogue process able to see each other as individuals rather than as polarized positions and with the ability to engage in sensitive and caring conversations about the issue on which they disagree, then the dialogue practitioner’s work is done. PCP hopes this experience won’t end for participants when they leave the facilitated dialogue but will be carried forward into their lives, homes, and communities. One thing’s for certain: dialogue participants won’t soon forget the transformed interaction they experienced with people with whom they were once in a verbal war. The seed of possibility for another kind of interactio
n has been planted.


Questions for Reflection 

  1. Is there a matter in your congregation that is causing tension, disagreement, or conflict?
  2. What might happen if you began exploring that subject more deeply by asking people some of the questions outlined in this article and simply listened to their responses? (For instance, “What really matters to you about the issue?”)
  3. Are there people in your congregation who are nonjudgmental, who listen attentively, and who communicate respectfully (even when they disagree)?
  4. What might happen if some of these people joined you in asking questions about the issue causing disagreement?
  5. What are your fears about what result might ensue from a conversation about this topic?
  6. What are your hopes about what such a conversation might produce?
  7. How might you, personally, be helped to feel safe in a conversation about the issue around which there is tension?
  8. How could you begin to provide this same safety to others in your interactions with them?