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Reaching the Open Minds

One of the things I learned from being a collaborative partner in the application of IF process to a series of independent policy explorations of contentious subject matter is that it is difficult to broach conceptual possibilities when so many minds are already locked into specific outcomes.

About a year ago I had just finished developmental work on a set of energy possibilities that arose first out of an online discussion facilitated by a friend of long standing who is an excellent facilitator. She was able to apply the IF process of exploration and development without much difficulty in the online setting. Despite some heated exchanges, she kept diverse participants focused on providing discussion starting-points for others. Those starting-points for an energy discussion were subsequently further developed through public discussions that also included some fairly heated exchanges.

More recently I have developed a working paper on climate change possibilities that is the result of online discussion during the Copenhagen Conference, a further intensive three days of face-to-face developmental sessions of the prior online participants who were physically able to attend meetings held in Madison, Wisconsin, and two subsequent public discussion series that added both framing ideas for the possibilities and additional possibilities. The resulting working paper outlines how the possibilities were developed and hints at some of the entirely different tacks taken at various stages.

I have been asked a number of times what I hope to accomplish by tackling these difficult subjects through an approach meant for more dispassionate consideration of topics not yet so polarized. It is true that one set of responses I have gathered on these possibilities on energy and climate change goes something like: “I don’t like that possibility and won’t discuss it, it goes against my beliefs.” But it is also true that others have responded with something more like: “I haven’t thought about that aspect of the subject and I’m going to pay more attention to the issue.”

I have probably telegraphed where I am going with all this—the difference in response was the difference in dispositions of those who reviewed the possibilities. For some, the entire report was “damaged goods” because it included a possibility that they were vehemently opposed to. For others, their humility regarding the inherent uncertainties regarding implementations and the likelihood of unforeseen consequences allowed them to be open to each possibility, if only for discussion’s sake.

So what have I learned from dealing with rooms full of angry people and people who would not be caught dead in the same room?  I think it is something along these lines:

  • In almost every divisive public debate there are still some people who are open to additional information and perspectives that come from further discussion.
  • Those developing starting-points for discussions that will serve the open-minded in contentious times must work even harder to acknowledge the existence of the division of opinion (not gloss it over), work to understand the differences in beliefs and values behind the divisions, and identify the key disputes over “facts”.
  • Those developing the starting-points must be prepared to engage in some “shuttle diplomacy” where it is initially difficult to get diverse views talking to each other and engage in some trust-building exercises where necessary.

We are fairly confident that IF process works well to deal with emerging areas of concern—before the issues hit the fan. But it is not always possible to get ahead of the curve on societal concerns. Yet there is benefit, even in stressful situations, in trying to promote thoughtful governance discussion. Speaking to the open minds in those public conversations requires that we proceed somewhat differently in both facilitative technique and preparation of materials.