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Public Discussion Facilitators as Interpreters of Metaphors

For a long while here at IF, there’s been quite a bit of internal debate as to how our reports should
be written, how much detail they should engage, and who their intended audience should be. 
A couple years ago, public discussion reports were more than a hundred pages long, on average,
and were distributed in a binder.  These days, our reports are more like 20-30 page long and come
in a short, multi-colored, staple-bound booklet.  These now include pull-out boxes and even, on
occasion, bullet points.  Still, though, we hear from a sizeable number of our participants, that
our materials are dull, inaccessible, overly complicated, and/or unclear.  And so we wonder
what to do.

One idea is to continue to modify our reports—perhaps including photos, suggested readings,
more bullet points and white space, and/or a more conversational tone.  These ideas derive
from the point of view that says that the reports are intended for discussion participants.

An alternative approach would be to entirely shift the focus with regard to intended audience of
our reports.  While we might still give a copy of the reports to participants in one of our
discussions, they would really be intended for use by the facilitator.  By this reasoning, we are
hoping that our facilitators will read and understand the report, contact the author for
clarification—if needed, and then appropriate the material to their discussion per their
discretion
.  With this approach, we could even set up a system by which there would be a web
page on which different approaches to facilitating the discussion of a particular report could be
posted.  Tools that worked well for a particular group of citizens could be shared, along with an
introduction as to the setting in which they were used.

Consider a couple of recent disasters:  the BP oil debacle unfolding on the Gulf Coast and, before
that, the explosion at the Massey mine in West Virginia.  In both of these situations, there have
emerged some questions with regard to the attentiveness of the regulatory authorities that were
supposed to be manning the switch so as to prevent such catastrophes.  When I watch the
citizens who are directly affected by these events being interviewed on television (say the
fishermen on Dauphin Island or the miners in Rock Creek, WV), I think to myself, “Wow, it
sure would be interesting to facilitate those folks in a discussion of our regulation report.”  And
then I imagine actually facilitating those discussions.  I cannot see how I could effectively do so. 
I think citizens in both of these locations would have a hard time understanding our reports as
they are currently written, and I also feel like I would not have sufficient understanding of these
citizens to effectively interpret our reports into metaphors with which they are accustomed.  This
is where the facilitator’s role is key:  really, both as facilitators of our public discussions and as
participants in our discussions, I think we want to overemphasize citizens who have the ability
to traverse worlds.

As it happens, several of our Fellows grew up in working class communities but then went on to
college and either a Ph.D. or J.D. degree.  Such individuals, including those who have lived in
a different culture for an extended period of time, tend to be better able to interpret ideas and
metaphors across cultures.  These qualities likely make for strong facilitators and for effective
members of a project panel, as individuals with these sorts of experiences are likely better able
to relate to and to be curious about people who see the world very differently than they do.  In
fact, these “travelers” likely have themselves seen the world in (a) very different ways(s) within
their own lifetime.

Years ago, I had a student who had grown up in Iran.  When she wrote a paper, she would, at
scores of places throughout the paper, include large { } brackets with two possible words inside
each bracket.  I found this to be absolutely fascinating in that it suggested that her mind was, 
in effect, structurally designed to see a multiplicity of possibilities.  It was so central to how she
saw the world that it defined how she communicated.  To my mind, that is the IF mindset.