Reaching collaborative agreements is complicated and requires the favorable convergence of many factors, among them incentives, interests, politics, resources and leadership. But once the decision to collaborate is in place, the convening done and the meetings underway, the process initially depends on the quality of communication among the participants. What people say to each other and how they say it are the early signals for evaluating commitment and the likelihood of success. Everyone is listening carefully. What do they need to hear in order to trust the collaborative effort?
Dialogue is a term often used to name the responsive and truthful talk that lays the groundwork for collaboration. There are many definitions of dialogue and descriptions of the conditions for its use. Some of the most important discussions are presented by William Isaacs, in Dialogue, and Daniel Yankelovich, in The Magic of Dialogue. They believe that dialogue goes deeper than negotiation aimed at reaching agreement. As Isaacs puts it:
The aim of a negotiation is to reach agreement among parties who differ. The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act . … We do not merely try to reach agreement, we try to create a context from which many new agreements might come. And we seek to uncover a base of shared meaning that can greatly help coordinate and align our actions with our values.
Although these writers separate dialogue from negotiation, the fact is that a collaborative public policy process requires both. There needs to be a period for establishing human connections, building trust and developing both shared meaning and new ways of thinking about familiar issues. Those critical steps depend on dialogue, but progress toward practical agreement through negotiation has to follow. Dialogue helps create the atmosphere in which productive collaborative agreements can be reached.
Trying to explain dialogue may be quite complicated, but it depends on simple and spontaneous exchanges. A few words that sound true, a story that conveys a depth of feeling or commitment, even a gesture, can transform the tone of discussion from guarded and defensive to open and sincere.
This openness is critical because of the nature of collaboration itself. One of the most effective and widely applied models for reaching cooperative agreements depends for its effectiveness on the willingness of participants to reveal to each other the basic interests and needs they are trying to meet. The shared understanding gained in this way makes possible the joint development of agreements that can meet the diversity of needs represented at the table.
How is it, though, that participants committing themselves to a collaboration get to be so open about their interests? For the most part, they aren’t accustomed to doing that, and established habits don’t just disappear. There is often a history of conflict among members of the group, sharply differing values and cultures that may have led to frequent misunderstandings in the past or inter-organizational rivalries and competition, not to mention clashing economic and financial interests.
The norm in our system is to get what you need by winning as much influence and power as possible through litigation, lobbying, elections and numerous other methods. The groups represented at the table likely know each other best as allies or adversaries in these arenas. They are used to employing strategies that conceal interests, use information for advocacy and vilify opponents. Unless they’ve successfully used collaborative strategies in the past, participants walk in the door with ideas and habits about others in the room that don’t have much to do with openness.
Conveners and facilitators of collaborative groups usually admonish the members to check their histories of conflict and their adversarial weapons at the door, but that rarely happens. Even though they have presumably committed to collaboration, members of a group may have little conception of what the process is all about. Collaborative communication is a learned skill, though one that draws on knowledge most people have.
John Forester, an acute observer of participatory processes, offers an approach based on research into many diverse cases. In The Deliberative Practitioner, he argues that much more than dialogue is required. Participants need to take part in a learning process that leads to a change in the way they think about each other, not only at a personal level, but also on a level of values that guide them and the community or institution they represent.
That sort of deep learning opens the possibility that an adversarial relationship – rooted in assumptions about diametrically opposing interests and values – can give way to a productive working relationship. Forester’s observations support the idea that story-telling is one of the most effective forms of communication. Of course, helpful stories can’t be the type used to illustrate the horrors or virtues of one side or another, like campaign ads. Instead they need to be personal, but in a way that captures something fundamental about the group or community the teller belongs to.
Stories of this type help people relax their defensiveness. They don’t need to be alert for threatening arguments that immediately have to be attacked and refuted. Since a story of this type is about personal experience, it’s obviously true for the teller. You listen closely because it’s surprising and a little disarming to hear such things in a forum for negotiating policy and resolving conflict. By making it easier to listen, stories can convey important values through narratives of experience that capture the human meaning of those values.
Surprise, coupled with a relaxation of defensiveness, not only permits listening, but is important for learning as well. It can be said that one of the purposes of creating a collaborative meeting structure is to allow people to trust each other enough to let themselves be surprised. They can listen for new information and consider ideas for action that spring from discussion among people of diverse experience. The ability to learn from one another and to create solutions jointly makes possible the development of sound working relationships as well as agreements.
Methods of dialogue and story-telling help make successful collaboration possible. Unless a group can achieve a breakthrough in the way they think about and relate to each other, they have little chance of reaching agreement or developing the collaborative relationships necessary for turning paper commitments into effective action.
But the use of these methods runs into resistance not just from personal sources but also from numerous constraints beyond the control of participants in the room. They arise from institutional mandates, political forces, deadlines, pressures from constituencies, the economic bottom-line, and many other sources. The next post in this series will examine ways to achieve openness and collaboration even in the presence of these realities.