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No debating the need for community dialogue

Dave Sturges

In our personal and public lives we seem to be always rushing toward deadlines for decisions or actions, but sometimes never feeling we have enough time or information with which to make the best decision for ourselves or our communities. It seems like these deadlines are usually set by others and their agendas. But for most things or issues, beyond totally unforeseen events, we really can choose to collect the information we think we need and to take the time to deliberate the long-term merits of the options we choose to consider. I suggest that we turn our private and public approach to important community issues from our long-used, and sometimes abused, “debates” to “dialogues” first. Debate entails the following characteristics: assuming that there is a right answer and you have it; combative, in that participants try to prove the other side is wrong; it’s really about winning; listening to find flaws and to make counter arguments; defending your assumptions as truth; critiquing the other side’s positions; defending your own views against those of others; searching for flaws and weaknesses in other positions; and seeking a conclusion or vote that ratifies your position. But dialogue approaches our conversations with very different characteristics, namely: assuming that many people have pieces of the answer and that together we can craft a solution; collaborative, in that we work toward common understanding; listening to understand, find meaning and agreement; revealing all assumptions for re-evaluation; re-examining all positions; admitting that others’ thinking can improve on our own thinking; searching for strength and value in others’ positions; and discovering new options, not seeking closure. See Yankelovich, D., (1999) “The Magic of Dialogue.” New York: Simon & Schuster. To understand these concepts, we probably need to accept that our “positions” are usually our own solutions to the problem we see. There are some basic principles we need to bring to our dialogues. The first and perhaps the most important thing we need to bring to a real dialogue is “active listening.” That means we really listen fully. We respect every comment. We listen to learn and understand. We stay open to others’ thoughts. We withhold our own judgments on what others say. We think larger rather than smaller. And we accept silence, i.e., your role is not to speak in every silence the dialogue brings. When we speak, we speak from our heart. We speak from the “I” and not from the “you.” We reflect or think carefully before speaking. We share our values even if it seems risky. And we speak to connect to others in the dialogue, not to separate from them. See Horan-Gates, J., (2-22-00) “Dialogue Principles.” Avon: White River Institute.I think true dialogue is based on building personal relationships with others of diverse opinions and life experiences. Based on a respect we give to others and their values, we can learn to listen more actively to new thoughts and really work toward understandings that can become the basis of decisions that we all can support. To me, in public policy issues, there is nothing more exciting than seeing a group of individuals working together come to realize that they can accomplish so much more as a group than as they can as individuals.Dave Sturges is a member of Glenwood Springs planning and zoning commission and a graduate of the American Leadership Forum.


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