Seeking to Understand: The Power of Participants

By Ali Steed

I am very shy. I thought that might be a problem when I entered into an SCOM class that centered on the organization and facilitation of public process. I was nervous about my ability to facilitate a dialogue for people I didn’t know. What would they be like? How would they speak to one another? What would I do if the conversation veered off into a bunch of name-calling and raised voices? My trepidation lingered until my first time as an official facilitator, where I began to see the unique ways that people interact in the type of environment that dialogue and deliberation makes possible.

It’s an interesting contrast: the point of having the conversation is for people with a stake in the dialogue to be able to contribute their perspective while simultaneously enlarging it through engaging with others. Yet, it is those same participants with a vested interest in the conversation that are likely to have the strongest feelings and opinions about the issue. On one hand, this is exciting—the prospect of knowing that you can help positively impact a person by allowing them to speak about some of their most deeply held truths is one of the most rewarding parts of being a facilitator. On the other hand, it is a daunting task as the facilitator to ensure that people so invested in the topic speak considerately and seek to understand those who also have deeply held beliefs.

Facilitating the dialogue The State and Marriage: Understanding Two Perspectives helped illustrate the unique ability of dialogue to foster an environment that promotes true understanding and valuable conversation amongst its participants. The small group that I facilitated was as engaged, compassionate, and thoughtful, as any group I have seen during my last few years as a facilitator. The marriage forum was a great example of a group of people seeking to understand. The participants asked with genuine interest and spoke with true consideration.

Sometimes, as a facilitator, you can get so wrapped up in the “what could go wrong,” that you forget all of the “what could go right.” My experience at the marriage forum reminded me of all that does indeed go right by virtue of engaging in community dialogue, regardless of how delicate an issue might be. Participants have the power to hold onto their own beliefs while still acknowledging the beliefs of others. Though centered on an extremely sensitive topic, the marriage forum ended up being one of the most productive dialogues I have been a part of. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the compassion and productivity that even the most value-laden conversations can produce.

This is not to say that every dialogue will be so smooth—free of hiccups and full of kindness. But, it is to say that the reason that public process is so valuable and can contribute such tangible benefits is because of the atmosphere that occurs as a result of dialogue. The true impact that engaging in dialogue and deliberation can have communities, and the power of the participants that make these processes possible, never ceases to amaze me.

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