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Making a Space for Discovery

Reflective Structured Dialogue (RSD)is the method used by the Zeidler Center in Milwaukee. The basic tools of that method come from the Public Conversations Project in Watertown, Massachusetts.

My personal conviction is that while similar to many important methods, the RSD brings a somewhat different if not unique perspective to the art of conversation. It is this difference that first drew me to the method and keeps me in the game --using it in my everyday relationships and trying to improve on it.

Methods and tools abound in our world. One could argue that there is an overload. We have tools for planning, strategizing and for implementation. There is the SWAT method, the Kellogg Foundation Logic Model, and others. These are good programs that teach these methods. For certain situations they will be more effective than the RSD. Many good things happen because of this work and it should not be discounted. Others processes that look a lot like RSD, peer mediation and retributive justice for example have excellent track records.

But even when those models are chosen, RSD is so fundamental that anyone choosing to involve people at a local level will benefit by including it. For example, a local community organization is building a grassroots response to the coming elections. They do one on one interviews and take seriously citizen participation. I participated recently in one of their 100 small group discussions across the city to prepare demands of local politicians before the elections. The facilitator was sincere and passionate. Their stated agreements suggested that everyone could participate, that there were no wrong answers etc. However, there was no suggestion of shared time, pauses, carefully constructed questions or other things that characterize the RSD. I think their purpose would have been better servd by using RSD. Conversation was dominated by a few. After one response the input basically stopped. The facilitator had to force the issue.

Even when methods sound the same, it is still useful to understand that in every case, the actual process used and how it is introduced and guided is of primary importance. When the RSD practitioners say 'trust the method' and 'trust the group', it is because those are the key to having a conversation that is owned by the participants.

I. What does the RSD method operate differently than others?

Reflective Structured Dialogues do not produce winners and losers. Typically in our culture we celebrate ‘winners’ and dismiss ‘losers.' Who remembers which team loses the Super Bowl except that we know the record of 'losers' belongs to the Buffalo Bills who made it to the Super Bowl four times in a row. But they lost and are forgotten. What a bunch of losers. Thirty seconds or less after our so called political debates or speeches have occurred, we want to know who ‘won’ or if someone ‘hit a home run.’ This is a cultural dysfunction that feeds everyday relationships as well.

The RSD method builds in safeguards that avoid the 'win' of 'lose' or 'dominate' or 'withdraw' practices that characterize almost any small group. We are taught how to use power to dominate one another and only skilled aware facilitators armed with an intentional method to reduce that kind of power can reverse that propensity. The 'old' way can be replaced by a 'new' way.

A set of 'agreements', to which the participants agree, attempt to set both the parameters of the conversation and provide a way of moving from the 'old' conversation to the 'new' conversation.

Many well meaning conversations get stuck. When this happens the tendency is to blame the facilitator, the method, the other participants, the subject, or participant can become as Soren Kierkegaard puts it "the despairing accuser of oneself."

Without pre-set agreements, most conversations will either go off rail or will spend considerable energy in trying to grasp what's happening. Often those in the circle with the most outspoken opinions will begin to dominate. The agreements have been hijacked and now are the new structure unless this is point out. The only tool to bring people back on point is the set of agreements that give the group and facilitator a chance to take a breath, step back, and re-enter the dialogue informed by the new agreements.

Without realizing it, the agreements so basic to having the kind of conversation RSD represents, can change mid-stream. An unintended polarization can quickly substitute itself for civil exchange. Recently one participants wanted to challenge the version of an event that was an important example to another. He asked if he could respond. I said only if you didn't hear what she said or you want her to repeat her response. I suggested he save his comments for the 'Connections' time. Had I let him go, I was risking letting him bring in an alternate agreement that potentially would take the dialogue on a whole different track. In my experience something like this happens in almost every kind of conversation because someone, however unintentionally, cannot fit what they want to say into the structure.

Without a new kind of commitment to dialogue (I think RSD) there is little hope for a new understanding of who we are as families, neighborhoods, communities or nations will start to come about.

II. A Different Kind of Facilitator

All of this is to set the stage for saying, “a different kind of facilitator is needed in our public dialogues if understanding among people with disparate points of view is to happen.”

Facilitators of the RSD method can claim this important overlooked role. We have become used to the debate, lecture, small group study or other types of awareness groups. A kind of typology of a group leader has emerged from all these years of trying to change minds. Here is a sample of the expecations we have of faciltators. Each is a contrast to the expectation of an RSD facilitator.

  1. The Cheerleader who shout ”how are you?” “I can’t hear you” "What a great group!"---the energy is directed to the central player.

  2. The Performer--funny, energetic, model, “be like Mike”--'I've got this really good story" or some 'funny' comment is made to keep the group both loose and focused on the facilitator.

  3. The Affirmer--out to make sure that everyone is comfortable. ‘that’s ok", "is that what you’re saying?", "I think you need a hug." The energy is emotional and spent without reference to the reason for being there, unless you came to give or get hugs.

  4. The Stickler--the agenda, especially 'time' rules" Let’s move on to question two. " " we’re not going to get done at this pace." The energy gets sucked into the agenda.

  5. The Traffic director or Referee: "Let's work this out before we move on." Energy is on those in the struggle.

An RSD facilitator may look at this list and see somethng of importance that would help one's own style. These are not 'bad', but can be exaggerated and distorted. In some ways the 'perfect' facilitator could play each of those roles at any given moment. I try to smile or cheerlead a little. I like to have energy, be affirmative of the process, stick to the method and direct things usefully.

The facilitator in RSD is very self-conscious about her unique role in the method. She understands the 'why' and the 'how' and the need to always to be thinking and reflecting about sharing these skills in virtually every other context. Give some examples of where this kind of conversation is not needed!

In the RSD method, the facilitator is present as a guide, but virtually absent as participating in the conversation. The goal of the method is to have the group see the dialogue as their own, both as an individual who is developing their own skills and as a connector who is participating in the co-creator of something new.

To embody this kind of ‘in but not of’ participatory style, the facilitator works at becoming increasingly aware of what’s happening during her own experience of facilitation. She applies the insights of the experience to her daily life. It is this aspect of being a RSD facilitator that distinguishes its function. It improves being whenever it is used. Much of the power of the method lies in the creation of careful questions.

One mantra of RSD training says"The questions are on behalf of those being served". For the most part, a facilitator both understands and sticks with the questions as prepared for a particular discussion. Any changes come on the fly and may or may not improve the quality of the dialogue.

III. The Reflective Life of Facilitation

A facilitator can master all of the utilitarian dimensions of the method rather quickly—the agreements, the questions, the format— the method is clear at those points. The hard ‘work’ is what one might call the inner growth— how a faciltator grows in understanding of their own mood, style, awareness, listening skills, modes for re-directing conflict or handling the uinexpected. A confident facilitator well schooled in the conversation structure usually discovers the way to proceed. By taking all the pressure or responsibility on oneself, then no one else is to blame. Defensiveness disappears and the participants are more able to be open to the faciltator's next suggestion. In taking responsibility, paradoxically, the facilitator is actually opening the ownership of the conversation up to the group.

A facilitator is part of an evolving, developmental journey. There are some practices, however, that a facilitator engage to improve their skills. Some suggestions includedd:

1. Attend as many conversations as you can as a participants, a shadow or the lead facilitator. Practice, practice, practice.

2. Reflect soon after you have participated in a conversation. Identify the flow of the conversation for clues to the facilitator's responses.

3. Know the method (inside out)—the four parts of the conversation with time for writing responses and pausing between each and shared time by all. (Experience, Heart of the Matter, Dilemma, Connections)

4. Think of the method as a self-discipline, a personal way to look at life. (what am I experiencing, what is the ‘heart of the matter’, what dilemmas do I face, what new connections are possible in my context or those that I am observing.) Take time before a conversation to respond to the questions that you will pose. This will help you control the desire to jump in.

5. Become self-conscious in your closest relationships how you speak, how you listen. Be open with that person(s) and share what you’re trying to improve upon.

6. See the method operating as you go through your day: where a new <ie. civil, respectful>conversation takes place, what helped it to happen? where it was blocked? Keep a journal if useful.

7. Prepare Questions for a Dialogue on a particular subject. Choose a subject and write out questions that will engage (ie. serve) others. Choose a subject for a group conversation and write a script for facilitating a conversation.

8. Make a list of places and groups where you think the conversation is needed.

9. Take each of the agreements and write examples of how you see these operative in other settings. See if you can identify the agreements in your own conversation experience. When people party what are the written or unwritten agreements for discussion. Book clubs?

10. Observe all kind of communication between and among people and ask "where is the energy coming from?" "Who is being served by this approach?" How might the 'old' conversation become 'new?'

The energy in the RSD comes in the midst of those who have decided to participate in sharing their experience around a particular question. That can be a quiet energy with slow, pondering responses or it can be more immediate responses to a particularly moving moment or breakthrough insight. Reality presents itself in its own form through these conversations. No one can make it into what it is not. Energy cannot be superimposed however we wish that we could move things along on our terms.

Slow the converstion down. Trust the method! Trust the group!

—-rick deines (revised 2/22/2016) "this is a working document begging for clarification and insight. Please ask and/or recommend or suggest. Thank you.

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