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What are Sanctuary Discussions?

In the Interactivity Foundation (IF) we often talk about “sanctuary discussions” or “the IF discussion process” in pretty interchangeable ways.  In this post I’ll describe some of the key features of  of what we mean by calling them sanctuary discussions.  When you think about these general features, you might think about how they can transfer to your classrooms.

By “sanctuary” we have in mind a protected space for the open and collaborative exploration of complex topics or issues.  One thing we’re protecting against is the crush of time.  We want to create a space for unhurried deliberations.  We want to make sure that people have time to step back to explore the underlying issues, to question assumptions, and to investigate the different ways of framing the basic issues that make up the topic under discussion.  Too often our deliberations are cut short by the demand for quick analysis or quick decisions.  Sanctuary discussions make room for serendipitous insights,  for the patient generation of novel ideas, and the pursuit of seeming tangents.  In this process there is a time for evaluation, a time for the exploration of consequences, and for making some judgments about the possibilities that are developed.  But this time for review is kept separate from the time for open exploration and idea generation.

Another thing we’re protecting against is the crush of social approval.  “Sanctuary” also means a protected space where ideas can be freely explored without regard to one’s approval of them.  The participants in a sanctuary discussion need to be free to explore divergent ways of looking at things.  They need to be free to develop unconventional ideas or to generate policy possibilities that go beyond the status quo.  One way we create this kind of free space for exploration is to separate ideas from people.  When ideas are brought into the discussion, we don’t focus on, or keep track of,  who made the contribution.  You’ll know your on the right track when people start saying, “I don’t really believe this, but here’s an idea . . .”.  Since we separate the activity of  idea generation and development from any sort of evaluation, people are able to bring up ideas without concern that these ideas will immediately be shot down in critical review.  By following the collaborative approach of saying “yes–and” the participants can focus on playing with the ideas that are developed collaboratively, rather than on immediately critiquing each idea as it comes up.  The participants in a sanctuary discussion are collaborative conversation partners, not opponents in a competitive debate.

This free or protected space for exploration means that participants can explore connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.  It means that people have time to get to the bottom of things. It means they don’t have to be hemmed in by disciplinary boundaries or by one way of defining a problem.  Instead, they can explore the interactions among different perspectives or divergent ways of approaching the subject matter. The participants are free to explore lines of inquiry about interconnected issues–without knowing in advance where these lines might lead.  They are free to think about the social, cultural, psychological, and moral dimensions of some area of public concern–dimensions that might be excluded from a more hurried approach.  And they can do all this without worrying about defending or taking personal ownership of every idea or connection that comes up.

There’s one other aspect of the protected space of “sanctuary” that I’d like to highlight: we want to protect people from the crush of the actual or of the past. We’d like to free people up to think about what could be rather than being hemmed in by the way things are or always have been.  Sanctuary discussions ultimately focus on exploring “possibilities,” whether we’re talking about different possible ways to describe an area of social concern, or whether we’re generating different possible ways that we, as a society, might deal with that area of social concern.  By engaging people in the exploration of possibilities, we’re engaging them more as “thinkers” and not just as “knowers.”  Our discussions can and should be informed by knowledge, but they are not strictly speaking “study groups.”  We want to engage the thoughtful imaginations of our participants so they can move beyond the limitations of the actual, so they can envision new or unconventional possibilities.  In sanctuary discussions we want to encourage people’s ability to think collaboratively and think differently and not just recite what is already known. Too often we constrain ourselves by thinking that this is the way things always have been and so always must be.  Sanctuary discussions are a chance to free ourselves from this constraint.  They’re a chance to ask, what could the possibilities be?

–Jeff Prudhomme