Instructions on Effective Group Dialogue

A core element of the field school involves frequent formal and informal group discussion or sharing circles. These are intended to be venues for fruitful dialogue where we connect our collective field experiences to the course learning objectives.

Success will involve keeping two things in mind: 1) course objectives and 2) expectations of dialogue.

Course Learning Objectives: We want to constantly keep the course learning objective in mind to provide some structure for our learning and give us direction in the field. Group discussions should thus focus on advancing our understanding of the pressing challenges of and creative opportunities for sustainable community development in the Cascadia region, the critical who, what, where, when, why and how questions of sustainability, and the stories and tools we can use to inspire change in ourselves and our communities

Expectations of dialogue*: Dialogue is an approach to and a quality of purposeful talk that involves openness, committed listening, making meaning and learning together. The intention of dialogue is to seek deeper understanding of an issue or situation through including multiple perspectives and invites humility and respect for others. Dialogue differs from advocacy and debate in that it emphasizes collaboration and inquiry. Rather than looking to defend your views at all costs and searching for flaws in other’s views, dialogue is based on the belief that the outcome of constructive and collaborative inquiry can lead to deeper, more insightful understandings that transcend any individual’s own capacity. Indeed, commitment to robust dialogue is central to functional democracy and yet an art not well understood in contemporary “democracies”. Keep these points in mind while participating in our group discussions.

Redfield (1993) provides insight into group interaction, useful to reflect upon as we prepare for this field school...

[It is important to learn] to interact consciously when in a group.  But don’t get self-conscious.  Just understand the process.  As the members of a group talk, only one will have the most powerful idea at any one point in time.  If they are alert, the others in the group can feel who is about to speak, and then they can consciously focus their energy on this person, helping to bring out his [or her] idea with the greatest clarity. Then, as the conversation proceeds, someone will have the most powerful idea, then someone else and so forth.  If you concentrate on what is being said, you can feel when it is your turn. The idea will come up in your mind.

*** “The key to this process,” Sanchez said,“is to speak up when it is your moment and to project energy when it is someone else’s time.” ***

“Many things can go wrong,” Julia interjected. “Some people get inflated when in a group. They feel the power of an idea and express it, then because that burst of energy feels so good, they keep on talking, long after the energy should have shifted to someone else.  They try to monopolize the group.”

Others are pulled back and even when they feel the power of an idea, they won’t risk saying it.  When this happens, the group fragments and the members don’t get the benefit of all the messages.  The same thing happens when some members of the group are not accepted by some of the others.  The rejected individuals are prevented from receiving the energy and so the group misses the benefit of their ideas.

* these ideas re: expectations of dialogue emerged out of dialogue at the workshop Why Sustainability Education? at SFU, Wosk Centre on Mar 31, 2007