Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dialogue, deliberation and stories

Now that the (first) book is finally done, I've been starting to pick up my head and look around me at what the rest of the world has been up to. One of my book-finishing cheerleaders (thank goodness for these people) brought my attention to the US-based National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and to their upcoming conference in Washington, D.C.

Here's what the NCDD says about itself:
The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) is a network of nearly 2,000 innovators who bring people together across divides to discuss, decide, and take action together effectively on today’s toughest issues.  NCDD serves as a gathering place, a resource center, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this vital community of practice.
Sounds exciting, right? So I joined the network and signed up to attend the conference in October.

I think I should explain what the NCDD means by "Dialogue and Deliberation," or "D&D." This is from their web site:
Dialogue and deliberation are innovative processes that help people come together across differences to tackle our most challenging problems.  In a time of extreme political partisanship and increased conflict between religious and ethnic groups, teaching, spreading, and supporting the skills of dialogue and deliberation are vital.
D&D is a lot like sensemaking, but with a stronger focus on bringing people together. You can see why I think this is such a good fit to the work I've been doing with stories. Bringing groups together is not the only use of participatory narrative inquiry, but it is one I am particularly interested in.

One of the first steps when you join a network like this is to introduce yourself on the forum. So I started to write an introductory post. However, this was a difficult task. How could I sum up fourteen years of research within a socially acceptable span of words? First, that's a lot to summarize, and second ... I'm ... me.

While wrestling with this problem, I realized that you, my blog readers, held the answer, as you so often do. Not only could I move most of my introduction to the blog, but you might find it interesting as well. In this way I can introduce myself to the NCDD, introduce the NCDD to you, and feed the blog. What could be better?

A listening tour

I could have written pages summarizing the ideas and experiences behind participatory narrative inquiry, but that seemed an inappropriate introduction to a group with as much combined experience as the NCDD. In this context it seemed more important to listen than to explain. So I began by reading through some of the abundant information on the NCDD web site. I particularly wanted to know what people would be talking about at the upcoming conference.

The most interesting thing I found was a conference planning document from March of this year listing 95 ideas submitted by NCDD members for discussion during the October conference. This seemed a good place to look for connections. I read through the 95 ideas, looking for areas of good fit between issues PNI focuses on and issues NCDD members want to talk about. I whittled down the possible connections to three sets of three:
  1. three operational issues (things NCDD members want to do in their practices) 
  2. three three meta-level issues (things NCDD members want to do together)  
  3. three growth-of-PNI issues (things I would like to get for PNI from the NCDD)
 Then I wrote a bit about how PNI connects to each of the issues.

1. Operational issues 

These are issues NCDD members expressed an interest in talking about with respect to their work in dialogue and deliberation.

a. How can D&D practitioners invite everyone to participate, across ranges of motivation and interest, and across ranges of power and ability? 

First let's tackle the power issue as a barrier to participation. Typically in participatory narrative inquiry (PNI) projects, everyone in the community is invited to tell stories, and the storytelling is almost always anonymous. As a result, everyone has an equal voice in what is collected. When the stories are all mixed together, power distinctions become hard to see (and are often deliberately hidden). In fact, quite a few of the PNI projects I've worked on have been called "Voice of the ____" (citizen or customer or patient or somebody).

But what if telling people that their voices will be heard doesn't work? What if people don't trust the people who are collecting information? This is where it makes a difference to be collecting stories rather than opinions. To quote myself (in WWS):
A story is a socially accepted package in which people have learned from a young age to wrap up their feelings, beliefs, and opinions. ... People know that they can metaphorically place a story on a table and invite others to view and internalize it without exposing themselves to the same degree as they would if they stated those feelings, beliefs, and opinions directly.
Being invited to share one's experiences, rather than being grilled about one's opinions, communicates respect, inclusion, and safety. In fact, I have found it to be a common experience in PNI projects to find people -- even those who consider themselves uninvolved or oppressed -- expressing gratitude for the chance to be heard during the project. "I can't believe anybody wants to know what has happened to me" is a common response. Additional measures, like proof of anonymity and the ability to remove or change one's contributions on reflection, can also help people feel safe enough to speak out.

Another barrier to participation is motivation. People can't be bothered to participate, say project planners. One of the strengths of PNI is that it doesn't try to find participation where it can't be found. (I call this "the power of giving up.") PNI works well in situations where trust is low, apathy is high, and consensus is impossible. PNI can scale up in terms of participation energy, but it can also scale down to work in situations where energy to participate is minimal.

PNI projects involve three phases during which the amount of energy required to participate varies.
  1. During story collection, participants need only tell a story and answer some interpretive questions about it (like, "Who do you think needs to hear this story?"). 
  2. During sensemaking, people work with the collected stories in a more energetic way (usually with group exercises).
  3. Finally, the stories (those originally collected and those that came from sensemaking) are returned to the community. In this stage, minimal participation is again supported through (usually anonymous) comments and continued story exchange. 
This low-high-low participation structure helps people find their preferred level of participation in the project. Even when few people are willing or able to participate in the higher-intensity sensemaking sessions, similar sensemaking activities can be spread out over weeks or months. For example, people might be asked to answer a few questions about stories told by others (like, "If this story were told in the council board room, what would happen?" or, "What would happen in our community if everybody acted the way this person did?"). Such a project design can cope with a uniformly low participation threshold, but can still include narrative sensemaking that leads to useful insights.

b. How can D&D build bridges among groups? What if those groups cannot come together due to conflict and distrust? How can the beginnings of trust be established?

Asking people about things that have happened to them (with strong anonymity in place), and then making those stories available to people in all groups, can help to begin the process of mutual understanding. I've worked on many PNI projects in this area, including in the areas of mergers and acquisitions, relations between management and staff, exploring public reactions to large community development projects, and helping law enforcement officials understand the mindsets behind criminal actions.

If you don't mind, I'll quote myself again on this point:
Unique among our forms of communication, stories do not force unity but preserve conflict and contrast at all scales. This is why many folk tales have other stories nested within them, sometimes several levels deep. The Arab story-of-stories One Thousand and One Nights is the most famous example of narrative nesting. Likewise, a story project can contain other story projects. It is because a community’s story project can contain -- without controlling -- the projects of its sub-communities and families that the community may discover valuable insights about its conflicts and agreements.
What does this mean in practice? When you can collect stories from people and show them to other people, views can change. But to make this sort of exchange work, it is critical to allow stories to flow unimpeded. Stories cannot be censored (for example by collecting only "success stories") or improved (for example by prettying them up with technology) or ranked (for example by having people "vote" on the best stories) or categorized (for example by having experts choose which stories others will see). It is the rawness and immediacy of the experience -- my story to you, your story to me -- that matters. This is why one of the goals of PNI is to "get stories to where they need to go."

However, sometimes where stories need to go eventually is not where they need to go right away. Nesting of stories and story projects means that sometimes stories should be collected and kept close to home, then only slowly, carefully, and gradually -- under the control of the people involved -- spread to other groups. When we exchange stories in everyday conversation, we participate in complex rituals of negotiation over things like where a story came from, who can tell it, who can hear it, and so on. The same negotiations must take place when stories are shared in the aggregate. Simply rushing in and grabbing stories, then scattering them around in new places, is likely to backfire (if not at first, in the long term, through the erosion of trust). Giving groups of people the power to negotiate how their stories will be shared with others can help to build trust in the process.

c. How can D&D efforts scale up to the state and national levels?

Parallel story work run in different regions can create "sister" projects where people can learn from each other without being forced to share too much too soon. I've been part of several projects in which we used parallel story collection and sensemaking to help people in different groups (industrial plants, schools, government agencies) learn from each other by comparing experiences -- again, in a controlled, negotiated way.

I don't think it works to scale story methods up to huge uniform scales without some degree of parallelism and nesting. What can be shared at global levels becomes too bland and safe to be useful at the local level. What tends to happen when story projects are too large and widespread is that the people who told the stories in the first place lose out on the depth of exploration they should be achieving. Having both depth and breadth is possible, but it requires multiple levels of negotiation.  I have seen success when projects are replicated across areas and knowledge is shared through negotiated, facilitated pipelines between projects.

2. Meta-level issues

These are issues NCDD members wanted to talk about, but that have to do with dialogue and deliberation among practitioners, not among those they help.

a. How can D&D practitioners bridge gaps among approaches? How can we identify and work with common principles despite our different sets of jargon and our overlapping but distinct worldviews?

This is actually a fairly typical PNI project: to find out where people are coming from in their experiences of a topic, to discover similarities and differences, and to find opportunities for connection and dangers of miscommunication. A "My D&D" experience base -- what D&D means to me, as illustrated by some of my experiences with it -- could be a useful addition to the D&D discussion space. Similar PNI projects have been in the areas of bringing scientists and policy makers together, looking at how teachers and students view the same events, and looking at how patients and doctors see disease.

This aspect of possibility is the one I am the most excited about for the future development of PNI. My colleagues and I developed the ideas and methods of PNI in a particular set of contexts. Other people have developed similar ideas and methods in other contexts. I believe that there is a potential for PNI and several other related bodies of work to grow as a result of sharing ideas more completely. (See point 3a for more on this topic.)

b. What means can be found to demonstrate the value of D&D as an approach?

As I have helped people collect and work with stories over the years, I have noticed three types of story that usually become important in projects.
  • Pivot stories sit at the intersections of interweaving threads in the tapestry of the topic under consideration, getting to the heart of what is going on in the community.
  • Voice stories cry out to be heard. They bring little-known perspectives to the people who most need to hear them.
  • Discovery stories create "aha" moments in which people understand something better about themselves and about the topic they are exploring.
I would say that one way to demonstrate the value of D&D is to find each of these types of story.
  • Pivot stories can help people peer into the heart of what is valuable about D&D and see how it all works together.
  • Voice stories can help people "see through the eyes" of D&D practitioners to experience what D&D can be like first-hand.
  • Discovery stories can explain what exactly it is about D&D that makes sense.
These stories are never constructed or fictional; they are real stories told by real people. The PNI process involves collecting stories, then making sense of them to discover the pivot, voice, and discovery stories that can communicate to those outside the process what needs to be said.

c. How can newcomers and outsiders to D&D be helped to understand its principles and methods?

My answer to the question above (about pivot stories, voice stories, and discovery stories) also pertains to this question, because the same sorts of stories also help people to come to grips with complicated topics. I have worked on projects in which collected stories were interwoven into learning resources, giving learners the opportunity to place the information they were receiving into the context of meaningful (and real) experiences.

However, for this sort of learning resource to work well, you can't just collect "success stories." You need to be ready to hear about the good, the bad, and the ugly in D&D practice, and you need to be ready to collect stories of mistakes and failures as well as what people are proud of. That's why anonymity is so important in a project like this. It's also important to do more than just interview experts. I've found that the best way to draw out learning stories is to create a space where experts and novices can interact, put some rules in place, then watch and listen.

3. Growth-of-PNI issues

These are issues that I myself want to talk about with NCDD members, as part of my goal to continually improve my own work on participatory narrative inquiry.

a. How can any approach to dialogue and deliberation (such as PNI) connect to similar approaches in such a way that it continues to improve, but does not risk losing its unique values and benefits?

When you develop an approach to doing anything, you spend a lot of time focusing on internal tasks. This has to be true, because otherwise you would not be able to develop the approach at all. Much of the development of PNI has been "heads down" in particular projects, solving particular problems for particular organizations and communities. When people are internally focused like this, they develop a language for speaking about what they are doing, and some of that language is going to be unique.

But an approach that never looks around itself to see what other people are doing is not going to last very long, because it will never be able to compare and learn from similar approaches. During the development of PNI, I've read a lot about similar fields -- participatory action research, narrative inquiry, oral history, mixed-methods research, participatory theatre, narrative therapy, decision support, and so on. I've also read about other approaches to narrative work in dialogue and deliberation -- Circle methods, Appreciative Inquiry, The Art of Hosting, and so on. To be honest, I've had a hard time keeping up with all the similar-but-not-identical methods and approaches. Each has its own special jargon: words that are deep with meaning to those inside the approach but that only have simple meanings to those on the outside. Those simple meanings sometimes cause us to look away, thinking we know what something is about, but in fact only understanding a caricature of reality. I must admit to a certain amount of jargon fatigue in looking outside my own experience.

One idea I've had along these lines is to get together a group that can build a translation dictionary for jargon terms, like babelfish or universal translators we could wear in our ears when we meet. I would particularly like to build concept bridges -- explanations of how foundational ideas in different approaches are nearer to each other than people think, once you understand their meanings in both places. (For example, the concept of generativity in Appreciative Inquiry is similar to my elements of contact, churning, convergence, and change in narrative sensemaking.) If anyone is interested, I would be happy to work on such a project. 

b. How can we change the US culture to be more welcoming to dialogue and deliberation? 

I've been trying to get people to give PNI methods a chance around the world for more than a decade. This has always been a "harder sell" in the US than elsewhere. People seem to understand the purpose and opportunity of PNI right away in Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa, South America, and Canada. But in my own country, people are more likely to listen politely for a time, then get very busy with something else. I would like to change this.

The only explanation I can come up for this pattern is that the prevailing culture in this country is not comfortable with hearing all voices. But this is not a pattern in the popular culture; it's a pattern of insecurity in authority. The resistance I find to doing PNI work is almost never from the people who will be telling the stories. It's from the people who need to sign off to allow the projects to take place. I've seen regular people get very excited about the possibility of a participatory narrative project, only to have the project shot down by people "higher up" who suddenly become defensive about what "those people" might have to say. I have developed some ways to communicate the value of PNI to those in authority (summarized in this blog post), but still, when the potential project is in the US, I prepare extra explanations.

Since the NCDD is a US organization, I would like to learn from its members how I can approach US communities and organizations, and convey the value of PNI, more effectively. I like doing projects all over, but I would like to see more use of PNI in my own back yard.

c. How can dialogue and deliberation work better in the world of social media and internet sociality?

I spent several months a few years ago exploring the topic of story exchange on the internet, when I built and tested Rakontu, a web application for story sharing. That project took a long nap while I finished the book, and I don't know exactly when it will wake up. But I  would be very interested in talking with NCDD members about how ideas like those in Rakontu could revive and find new life in the next generation of internet sociality. (If you haven't seen Rakontu yet, you can look at my quick elevator pitch for it here.)

I hope this little exercise in listening and connecting has been helpful to my blog readers and to members of the NCDD. After the conference I'll be sure to update you on what I learned.

No comments: