Tough talk turns to trust

A carefully planned dialogue helps opponents transform heated argument into helpful discussion

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It's a dialogue few could have imagined in the wake of a fatal attack on two neighboring clinics that offer abortions.

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.

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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."

Leave stereotypes at the door

Breaking down stereotypes has to start before a group conversation, Chasin says. If people aren't prepared to trust the process and put their best foot forward, there's too much risk that the meeting could do more harm than good.

Participants also collaborate with facilitators to design the goals and structure of the dialogue. For those in which Ms. Gamble and Ms. Thorp are involved, early sessions were highly structured and tightly facilitated. They sat in a circle, each next to a woman from the other side. They had equal "air time," would not interrupt, and would try to speak from an "I" perspective.

The six women also agreed to attend as individuals, not as representatives of their organizations - which ranged from Massachusetts Citizens for Life to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

At first, they struggled over the words to describe one another's positions, and they worked out a list of "hot buttons" - language that could shut down the conversation. For instance, as they wrote in an article in The Boston Globe when they went public Jan. 28, pro-choice women are inflamed when they're referred to as murderers, and pro-life women are disturbed by dehumanizing terms such as "products of conception."

Meeting for up to four hours at a time, their conversations covered everything from religious convictions to abortion procedures. "There was a growing trust among the group, that we could speak as best from our intellects as we could, but also from our hearts," says Barbara Thorp, director of the Pro-Life Office of the Archdiocese of Boston. "There was a real glue there that really began to develop."

A few months after they started, two of the pro-life participants showed up for the memorial service on the anniversary of the shootings. Gamble, who had lost a staff member in the attack, was amazed at the progress: A year before, they didn't speak unless the event was moderated on TV.

Now, Gamble and Thorp chat warmly about their families and an upcoming holiday as they sit down for an interview. This closeness can sometimes make their deep disagreements even more painful.

There's dialogue - so what?

No one ever stormed out of the room in anger, partly because Chasin and co-facilitator Susan Podziba are "enormously sensitive to bad moments, and [try] to repair them," Gamble says. At times, it seemed there was no point in continuing, but they valued the experience so much that they always came back from the brink.

Not every dialogue results in an outcome as visible as the Globe article. Which means that Public Conversations often runs into the "So what?" question. "It's coming from a very short-term, very limited idea of what a product or outcome is - a piece of paper or an agreement," Chasin says. Public Conversations emphasizes hard-to-measure mental shifts and greater respect in relationships.

Zachary Green, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership, says he routinely faces people's impulse to have an immediate action plan. He remembers starting a racial-reconciliation process with church groups in Washington, D.C. When he said they had to begin with a conversation about race, half the group dropped out. But those who stayed were eventually able to take incremental steps.

Two or three generations ago, it was normal for people to come together in civic organizations or church groups, but those forums have been lost, Mr. Green says. "So part of the cultural aspect of the whole dialogue movement ... is for people to be able to simply sit with one another."

Learning to listen often does translate into tangible changes. "I certainly changed how I spoke about the other side," Gamble says. "I didn't write them off as all demonic and nonintelligent and misguided.... I can't help but think that if enough people do that around contentious and sort of intractable controversies, you're going to be better off."

Thorp agrees: "The participation in the dialogue has really taught me to see that value in taking the time to ask more questions and to not be satisfied with simplistic, easy ideas."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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