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.
Invite Personal Sharing
Encourage dialogue participants to share their own personal stories about why they are committed to the issue. This is a great way to foster understanding and interpersonal relationship building. It helps to surface people’s values and fears, generate empathy, and build trust 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. This process enables them to surface underlying values, assumptions, and beliefs. For example, our “Working Up” project on economic mobility developed the following principles:
- Working with dignity for a decent income is central to a good life in our society. Work is also a primary way to meet our personal, social and economic responsibilities. Therefore, all Americans should have the opportunity to work to their full potential.
- Participation in the workforce should provide all workers with substantial opportunities and supports for increasing their skills, capacities, income and assets over time to facilitate upward mobility.
- Work, supplemented by supports and benefits, should provide sufficient income, economic security and stability for workers and their families to live in dignity.
- Public policies, private practices and social norms should remove barriers to work created by place, race, class, gender, disability, age and other circumstances.
- Responsibilities related to work and returns from work should be shared appropriately among workers, employers, government, and society.
- Employers are critical partners in creating work opportunities, promoting economic mobility, and building workforce capabilities
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
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 and have “lived experience.”
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.