Tough talk turns to trust
A carefully planned dialogue helps opponents transform heated argument into helpful discussion
It's a dialogue few could have imagined in the wake of a fatal attack on two neighboring clinics that offer abortions.Skip to next paragraph
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Certainly not Nicki Nichols Gamble, then head of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, for whom going to that first meeting with abortion-rights opponents in 1995 was "a little like going to Africa." On the pro-life side, Barbara Thorp, too, felt anxious - though curious.
But after the gunman was arrested and the TV crews shifted their attention to other crises, an opportunity emerged. Six women more accustomed to confrontation than communication were able to start talking - in secret.
The conversation started cautiously, impelled by a desperate need to reduce violence and dispel an atmosphere of anger. But 5-1/2 years later, the dialogue continues, now from a basis of trust.
Recently, the two women decided to go public, so others could be encouraged by what they had been surprised to discover - that even among people whose convictions are immutably opposite, it's possible for relationships to supersede rhetoric, for hostility to give way to understanding.
After the 1994 clinic shootings in Brookline, Mass., near Boston, then-Gov. William Weld and others issued a call for dialogue. But for pro-life and pro-choice leaders, it wasn't as simple as picking up the phone and saying, "Let's talk."
The structure they needed came through the Public Conversations Project. Its founder, Laura Chasin, is a former family therapist whose work took a more public turn after she saw a televised discussion about abortion degenerate into a screaming match. She started facilitating talks among less high-profile women in 1990, and learned over time the types of ground rules that calm participants' fears and enable them to listen to one another.
Listening in a divisive age
Listening seems simple enough. But in a society that dwells on the divisive aspects of public debates - a staple in TV talk shows - it's often difficult to look beyond caricatures. Public Conversations places people in a setting tailored to help them break cycles of reaction that, in extreme cases, can lead to violence.
Much of the group's work is done prior to a face-to-face meeting between participants. Ms. Chasin and the rest of the small staff often have to assure people that a dialogue is not a stealth attempt to get them to change their positions. Nor is it necessarily a precursor to an action plan.
"We value the power of a constructive conversation in and of itself," Chasin says, sitting in the same windowless conference room in Watertown, Mass., where many of the abortion dialogues have taken place. "We more and more live among people who are like us ... [so] to have an opportunity to really hang out with difference is a transforming kind of thing.... It opens the possibility for problem-solving."
The office space in a white converted house is a humble setting for Public Conversations' far-reaching work, which includes training, consulting, and a think tank. The nonprofit relies primarily on grants and individual donors, but in recent years has begun attracting paying clients. Groups they've helped include international church communities that are split over issues of sexuality; a city's human-services department that was experiencing conflict among its diverse staff members; and the US House of Representatives, which had Public Conversations facilitate a bipartisan retreat in 1999.
Ann McBroom, a conflict-resolution specialist in Bainbridge Island, Wash., signed up for the "Power of Dialogue" training last May. In advance interviews, and then during the 2-1/2 day session in Watertown, about 16 participants were immersed in role-playing so they could learn "in a real visceral way," Ms. McBroom recalls. "I was engaged fully every minute."
In many disputes, the need isn't so much for a "resolution" as for a reduction in hostility, McBroom adds. One technique she's picked up from the training is to ask participants to tell a personal story related to the issue at hand, which allows them "to connect on that human level."
Understanding others in a personal way is essential to Public Conversations' approach. In public debates, says training director Bob Stains, "people speak from their podiums, as if their own personal experience is not relevant ..., which has the unintentional side effect of making them less human to their adversaries."