Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Conference report, part one: Red Blue Dictionary

When I started this blog post, it read: "This past weekend I went to the 2016 conference of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD)." That was in October. Many things have happened since then that prevented me from writing down my experiences about the conference: another conference just after it, the start of some new projects, two presentations, and lots of correspondence. So with my apologies, here is a very belated account of the NCDD conference.

Now I don't want to shock or frighten any of my long-time readers, but - I'm going to break my usual practice of writing one very long post and make this a series, probably in four or five parts. I am doing this out of ... out of ... my undying compassion for the precious time of my respected readers, yes, that's it, it has nothing at all to do with the fact that the blog has been ignored for months.

To begin. This (multi-part) account will be very different from the one I posted two years ago (about the 2014 NCDD conference). Then I posted about what I learned, and I included copious notes. This time I still learned a lot, but I was much too busy to take many notes. Why? Because I got accidentally overbooked, which is a good thing and a bad thing at once. In 2014 I learned about the NCDD conference too late to submit a proposal. This time I was keen to get my name on the program, mainly because it cost money, and I needed to justify the cost to those individuals who live in my house and think I should not spend money frivolously (yes, you guessed it, it's the cat).

I knew that many more proposals would be submitted than accepted, and I knew that the NCDD favors group collaborations. So I proposed collaborative sessions to three separate groups of people, hoping that one of the collaborations would (a) come together and (b) be accepted for the conference. To my surprise, all three proposals came together, and all three were accepted. Then, when the NCDD sent out a notice that they needed a few more presenters for their Showcase reception, I jumped in there as well. Lastly, because the NCDD wanted to get people sharing more stories at this year's conference, I volunteered to help out, and ended up helping them set up a story sharing exercise at the first day's plenary session. So I was busy. By the time the conference ended, I felt myself in grave danger of breaking my rule that I should only go to conferences that I should not go to. Luckily the conference that came just after it, which I will tell you about later, righted that obligation nicely.

The best way to tell the story, I think, is to break it down by day.

Day One: The Red-Blue (AllSides) Dictionary

Last December I got involved in a volunteer project that has been a boon to my thinking this year. I don't remember how or why I was asked to be in the group of 30+ contributors, but I soon sent off one of my very long and detailed emails of feedback on the group's plans. The response (which I probably should have foreseen) was: would you like to be on the editorial team? I didn't have time for it, but ... helping people with differing views to get along has been a goal of mine for decades, so I signed up.

When people disagree about political issues, they often discover that they are using the same words to mean different things. For example, the word "freedom" can mean many different things, depending on who is using it. Standard dictionaries define words in a normative sense, describing what they ought to mean. But for the purposes of dialogue, a more useful dictionary would define words in an empirical sense, describing what they do mean - from every point of view.

That's the premise of the Red-Blue Dictionary. (It is also called the AllSides Dictionary because we partnered with AllSides.com to promote and connect it online.) The dictionary's 400+ entries describe words that are bandied about in political discussion in the United States, from all perspectives. Our team of contributors spans multiple spectra of opinion, political, religious, and otherwise; and we have confronted all of these differences as we have worked on the dictionary's entries. Between last December and this October I spent close to a person-month on the project, between other things, and wish I could have done more. I wrote a few dozen entries and improved several dozen more. I hope to spend some more time on it next year.

Working on the Red-Blue Dictionary has been frightening, fascinating, and transformative. I'm used to looking for a variety of perspectives on things; it has been part of my daily routine for decades to check the news from a variety of perspectives (at least on good days). That's also one of the reasons I've been reading the Christian Science Monitor for 30 years, because it helps me pay attention to multiple views on many things. But working on the RBD forced me to push further, read more, and listen more deeply to what people I disagree with have to say. To work on entries, I needed to get at how people felt - personally - about hot-button words like "racism" and "civility" and "socialism."

To be honest, I have grown to find it thrilling, and even a little addictive, to search the internet for words I cherish combined with other words like "sucks" or "is a lie," or to search for words I feel a knee-jerk revulsion to combined with other words like "wonderful" or "saving grace." It feels like scratching an itch or picking at a scab. It hurts, but it hurts good. I think the process has made me more curious about how other people think, and more nuanced about how I define myself. I think everybody could do with more curiosity and nuance.

If you would like to get involved with the Red-Blue Dictionary project, you can micro-participate. Just look at our entries and use the comment system to suggest improvements. If you'd like to get more involved, you can contact me directly.

Ground Truthing with Stories

What does this have to do with the NCDD conference? The first session I facilitated there was a feedback session for the Red-Blue Dictionary. It also turned into a neat new story sharing exercise, which I am now going to tell you about. The purpose of this exercise - or really, exercise prototype, since it has been used exactly once - is to check a communication against experiences. It's like fact checking, only in a different direction - toward what people have lived through and how that connects to what has been prepared for communication. When people write things to show to other people, they make many guesses at how what they have prepared will resonate with their audiences. This exercise is a quick way to check that.

I've placed detailed instructions on the "More" page of the Working with Stories web site, but here's a quick overview of the exercise.

Bring together at least three people, hopefully more. Before the session, break up your document into coherent sections. For the Red-Blue Dictionary, we used individual word entries. For a values statement, you might separate individual values; but in some way, you split up your document into meaningful sections. Give the sections short names. Print them onto separate pieces of paper. Fold the pieces of paper, write the names on the outside, and tape them shut. This last step is important, because what's the first thing you would do if somebody handed you a folded sheet of paper and told you not to read what was inside? I would too.

To begin the exercise, ask people to split into small groups. Then ask each person to approach the section sheets you have arranged on a table or wall and choose one that they find particularly interesting.

Next, going back to their small groups, one person at a time looks at the name on the sheet they chose and thinks back to a time when those words were important to them. They tell the other two people what happened. As they listen, the other two people pay attention to something in the story.

Before the exercise, choose what you want people to pay attention to. For the Red-Blue Dictionary we used beliefs (in your story you seemed to think this was true or false) and values (you seemed to care about this). But you could use a variety of other things that connect to your document, such as feelings (you seemed to feel this way), strengths (you seemed to draw on this), weaknesses (you seemed to be held back by this), problems (you seemed to get stuck on this), solutions (this seemed to work for you), opportunities (this seemed to come to your aid), and so on.

When the storytelling is over, the two listeners report back what they heard - not judgments on what they heard, just what they heard. As they do this, the three people discuss the story a bit more. Finally they open the paper and read the document section together. They talk about where it connects to the story they just exchanged and the beliefs and values they found in it.

Next they annotate the text with:
  • appreciation for what fits - circling words or sentences that connect well, and explaining why
  • criticism of what doesn't fit - striking out words or sentences that conflict with the story, and explaining why
  • suggestions for things to add - new texts that help the document better include the experience described in the story
That's the core of the exercise. You can ask people to go through this process more than once, in the same groups or with new groupings of people. You can ask people to share multiple stories about the same document sections, so that for example the people in each small group might annotate their three document sections with insights from three stories, not just one. You can have groups choose one entry that was particularly resonant or out of touch, and report on their annotations to the whole room. All of this is optional, though. The only essential part is the collaborative juxtaposition of stories with communications.

The exercise went pretty well when we did it. We had something like 15 people. People liked sharing stories, talking about values and beliefs, and going over our dictionary entries. I think, given that the RBD purports to represent all views, it seemed to them like a legitimate way to check what we had written. I got the sense, sometimes, that people were surprised to find that their experiences resonated with what we had written for our word entries. And they were energetic in helping us fill in gaps. From their annotations we learned how we could improve the particular entries people chose and the dictionary in general.

If you want to use this exercise, which I am calling "Ground Truthing with Stories," just read the instructions, prepare your materials, gather some people, and see what happens. If you do, please let me know how it went, what you learned, and how the exercise could improve.

Up next: Bubble up stories.

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