Tips for Successful Dialogue

Tips and Tools for Successful Dialogue

The following are practical steps that Convergence uses to create successful outcomes for our dialogue-leading-to action work. We share these to assist groups that are aiming to convene stakeholders across diverse perspectives to reach agreement on a critical public issue.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Before you invite anyone to participate, start by conducting a comprehensive review of the landscape. Map out the key players and organizations that have a stake in the issue and the nature of the existing relationships among them. To help you in your research, reach out to these stakeholders to learn from and begin to build a relationship with them. You will develop a panoramic view of the issue area, and identify where conflicts reside and common ground opportunities exist among the stakeholders. This research also helps to determine what kind of outcomes the dialogue might enable.

SHAPE THE CONVERSATION FOR COLLABORATION
When tackling a seemingly intractable issue, it is important to frame the conversation in a clearly defined and unifying manner. Choosing neutral, non-biased language is critical because it invites action and collaboration across ideological differences. It also creates boundaries around which aspects of the issue are and are not being addressed, enabling participants to effectively focus their energies.

CREATE GROUND RULES
To promote safety and trust among a group, work with the participants to establish an agreed upon set of ground rules and norms for conversation. Ground rules might include the following: staying present in the moment; allowing everyone to feel welcome to contribute; feeling eager to listen; being open to hearing a variety of options or ideas; committing to checking one’s tendencies to dominate, criticize, or withdraw; and being curious about where the conversation will go.

SHARE VALUES, FEARS, AND INTERESTS
Shift the conversation away from people defending their points of view and invite them instead to speak to their values, fears, and interests. One way to do this is by encouraging participants to share their personal stories about their commitment to the issue and the change they wish to see in the world. This fosters empathy, trust, and strong interpersonal relationships as people connect on a human level.

BE A MATCHMAKER
Try promoting new relationships among participants by mixing stakeholders with different perspectives together to work in small groups. This can be done for substantive conversations as well as icebreaker and opening activities that facilitate stakeholders getting to know one another. You’ll see after a few meetings that stakeholders begin doing it themselves.

IDENTIFY SHARED PRINCIPLES
Help participants identify a set of shared principles that they can agree on, which function as a foundation for the eventual development of consensus solutions. For example, our Building a Better Budget Process project developed principles that an improved new budget process should encompass, including: Comprehensive: It should consider and oversee all of the government’s financial resources, spending and revenue of all kinds, over the short- and long-term. Unbiased: It should not tilt toward a specific outcome, or ideology. Strategic: It should develop and establish a plan that includes clear and achievable goals for fiscal policy and guides budgetary decision making. Inclusive: It should allow for differing viewpoints, including majority, minority, and stakeholder opinions, to be presented and discussed in an open and structured debate.

CONNECT INDIVIDUALLY WITH EACH PARTICIPANT
Take time after each group meeting to connect individually by phone with each participant. These conversations, may generate new ideas, help develop next steps, share successes, and air and resolve tensions. They will illuminate what participants are struggling with, where relationships are frayed, and where new ones can be built. They also help identify and build momentum around areas of agreement and address policy differences so that they do not derail the effort to reach agreement.

CREATE OPPORTUNITIES FOR LEARNING TOGETHER
Learning together can be a vehicle to stimulate new thinking among dialogue participants and create possibilities for conversations that go beyond old arguments. It can also uncover areas of potential agreement or collaboration that had not surfaced previously. Shared learning can be accomplished in many ways, including: learning about the history of efforts in an issue area, learning about relevant theory and research through expert guest speakers, conducting literature reviews on the topic, commissioning new research to create a set of foundational facts to help the group generate solutions, or conducting listening sessions with people who are directly affected by the issue area.

ALLOW SPACE FOR OPEN DISAGREEMENT
Recognize there may be times when the conversation feels confrontational. Allow space for disagreement to arise openly among participants. Name it in a way that enables the group to work through it honestly, while upholding the ground rules that ensure a sense of safety, trust, and respect.

PROVIDE EXTRA SUPPORT TO REACH AGREEMENT
As the dialogue moves towards reaching final agreement, keep the lines of communication open among the stakeholders as well as between them and you. Factor in that unresolved issues among them may resurface at this stage. Engage in shuttle diplomacy between stakeholders and make sure that all voices are heard and integrated into a final agreement. Draw upon the principles established to ground final agreements within those boundaries.