The Citizens Handbook
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Healing a Divided Public

Charles Dobson

Let's say you want to resolve a difficult issue, or the differences between two sides at the grassroots. Healing a serious rift is not easy. It requires the two sides spending time together, and face-to-face dialogue between people who may not even agree on basic facts.

Bringing together opposing sides requires the skill of convening. A convener is a person who enjoys bringing people together. We all know people who are good at this. They are the ones who organize potluck dinners, special events, babysitting networks, choirs, community groups, and parties. They are people who enjoy the company of others, and recognize the overarching importance of developing and maintaining human relationships.

Let's say you've found the right person: a lively, friendly, and capable convener — one who is not afraid of conflict, and believes that difficult conversations are the ones most worth having. What then?

You might try to identify a common interest that will serve as a focus for bringing the two sides together. The issue might be small and mundane. Some of the best issues have focused on food. Gandhi didn’t win Indian independence by focusing on the big issue of democracy; instead he started small with the price of salt.

So, the first get togethers should not focus on difficult issues, but some small local concern that crosses party lines. Once the combined sides have gathered a following and made some progress on a small issue, it can gently move toward addressing the larger issues and wider rifts. Moving into this territory requires a trained facilitator who can encourage genuine dialogue. The facilitator's main job will be to encourage people with different views to listen to the other, and ask questions, rather than trying to score points. There is a lot of good practical information on dialogue and non-violent communication that can reduce "sidedness" and help people to come away with a feeling of accomplishment.

Before the 2016 election,The Pew Research Center surveyed the views of Democrats and Republicans and found that there was an astonishing lack of agreement on basic facts. So a dialogue session might include a focus on figuring out an objective and mutually acceptable way of determining the validity of relevant facts. Agreeing on the facts is a basic first step. If there is little agreement on basic facts, resolving differences on complicated issues becomes next to impossible.

See also Lay Out the Facts
And Conflict Resolution and Non-violent Communication (pdf)
And The Salon Keeper's Companion (pdf)
And Future Shaping by creating and discussing scenerios (pdf)

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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is a print version of The Citizen's Handbook published in 2003. It contains all of the handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots wilt, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from Amazon or from New Society Publishers.