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The dialogue process.

The Dialogue Process


Have you ever needed to develop a legislative or regulatory position with organizations at odds with your own? Have you ever wished you had educated organizations with differing views on an issue while that issue was emerging, before litigation became necessary? Have you ever wondered why representatives of other organizations take the positions they do?

One formal approach to increasing communication and understanding among groups with differing interests is the dialogue process, which brings together representatives of organizations with diverse viewpoints on issues of mutual concern. The goal is to develop more informed participants in the public policy arena.

The Edison Electric Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents investor-owned electric utilities, developed a dialogue process in 1983 that other organizations can use as a guide for developing and managing a similar program.

In a speech before EEI's environment and energy committee, a representative of the environmental community suggested that it was time for the electric utility industry and the environmental community to work together constructively to address the environmental issues facing the country. The door was opened, and EEI stepped in to take the challenge.

Twelve representatives from environmental groups and electric utilities met together several times a year for six years to discuss environmental issues. They discovered they had common interests and could jointly agree upon possible solutions. The process used to bring these two groups together was called the Environmental Dialogues Program.

A democratic process

What is a dialogue? As described in this article, it's a democratic process that adjusts to the insights and needs of participants as they are exposed to new information during an exploration of public policy issues.

The process involves a series of meetings attended by representatives of organizations that represent different views on issues of mutual interest. These representatives agree to develop a better understanding of a public policy issue through information exchange in a nonadversarial setting. A neutral facilitator helps the group achieve consensus on potential solutions to the issue that the group has chosen to deliberate.

Other approaches that address public policy issues--such as litigation, mediation, and arbitration--all result in "winners and losers." In contrast, dialogue participants have not come together because they had to rely on a third party to resolve a dispute. The participants interact in an effort to foster better understanding before legislative and regulatory decisions have been made.

The key purpose

Dialogue participants have ready access to respected sources who are knowledgeable about the issues. The exchange of technical or policy information allows the participants to make more informed decisions on public policy.

Participants in the Environmental Dialogues Program found they had the same general interests even though they addressed issues differently. For instance, a corporate environmental manager could hold the same goals of protecting the environment as a representative from the environmental activist community. They may, however, want to accomplish those goals in different ways and to different degrees.

A common refrain is, "I respect what you are saying, but I disagree with your approach." Once it is understood that participants share common interests, action items can be addressed and solutions or understandings can be agreed upon.

The technical and personal information exchanged among participants in the Environmental Dialogues Program laid the foundation for better communication among the individuals and organizations involved in the dialogue. Open and established lines of communication provide a long-term foundation upon which participants and their organizations develop legislative and regulatory decisions.

Participants found out who in the group understood the issues and could be called upon in the future to discuss similar matters. The process of learning about an issue from different political and technical perspectives places all the participants in a better position to make public policy.

Some do's and don'ts

The success of the dialogue process depends on an understanding of the unique characteristics of managing and participating in a dialogue. The process is slow, resource intensive, and time consuming.

The process and products are no stronger than the technical and political abilities of the participants. A successful dialogue program is based on several fundamental principles:

* Involve motivated people. * Use a facilitator and recorder to manage the process. * Have the group develop procedures and live by them. * Ensure confidentiality. * Let the process move at its own pace--don't try to rush it. * Focus on understanding the issue and not on developing an end product. * Allow time to get to know each other--have dinner before, during, or after a meeting.

Getting going

The convener in the dialogue process--usually an association--develops an interest in bringing parties together to evaluate issues of common concern.

EEI, for example, believed that evaluating issues in which both the electric utility industry and environmental groups had an interest--such as global climate change, energy conservation, and air pollution--would result in a better understanding of public policy options.

The first step in the dialogue process is to develop a preliminary list of what the process might accomplish: a list of goals. This list of goals must represent the interests of all potentially participating organizations and stakeholders.

The list--developed by the staff of the convening organization--is fine-tuned in communication with participants before the first meeting. Examples of goals include enlightening one another, building trust, and sharing information and experiences.

The next step is to develop a list of possible participants--a total of 10-14 is ideal. Consult an adviser who is not employed by the convener and who has a working knowledge of the stakeholder groups to suggest potential participants for the dialogue.

Participants should have substantive interest in the issues, represent the full spectrum of views on the issues, be appreciative of the value of the dialogue process and what it may accomplish, and--most importantly--be open-minded and willing to listen. Abrasive, confrontational, and uncooperative individuals who are unwilling to support consensus are poor candidates. Even though participants represent themselves, they must also be able to speak for their organizations when it comes to discussing policy issues and making decisions on courses of action the group may agree to undertake.

The dialogue process is no stronger than the individuals involved. Care must be taken to include not only the right people, but they must be from the appropriate organizations with a stake in the issues.

For example, EEI's Environmental Dialogues Group developed a proposal for a new approach to air quality permitting without involving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so EPA had to be convinced to adopt the proposal. It would have been more efficient to involve EPA in the initial discussion and proposal development than it was to bring the agency in after the fact.

Once the list of potential participants is developed, the next step is to initiate contact with the candidates. The adviser can let them know representatives of the convener may be contacting them. Another possible approach is for the convener to interview each potential participant to weed out confrontationalists and request the participation of selected candidates.

Initial contacts with possible participants are best made by telephone, followed by an interview. The convener should meet personally with each possible participant before the first meeting to discuss * primary goals of the dialogue; * how the dialogue process will work; * other potential participants; * the schedule and agenda of the first meeting; * rules of the group; and * constraints to participation.

The interviewer should request candidates' input on the goals of the dialogue and their concerns regarding the process and should also inquire about the availability of other possible participants.

In the case of the Environmental Dialogues Program, these meetings were followed by a letter of invitation to each prospective participant. The letter further defined what was to be accomplished, the meeting agenda, and the individuals and groups that agreed to participate.

Role of the facilitator

A dialogue, like mediation, involves an impartial third party. Unlike mediation, however, the third party in a dialogue has no authority to make decisions. The facilitator's role is to direct the entire dialogue process, including the meetings and the interim activities.

The facilitator must act as an impartial guide in directing discussions during and between meetings. In this role, the facilitator assists participants in identifying issues, focuses their attention on substantive issues, helps the group achieve consensus, and generally keeps the discussion on track and enforces the group's agreed-upon procedural rules. In essence, the facilitator is part guide, part enforcer, and part coach.

Another important aid to the dialogue process is the recorder, whose role is to capture the major thoughts and decisions made during the dialogue meetings on large pieces of paper or flip charts. The participants--freed from taking notes--can better concentrate on the substantive parts of the meeting. The recorder's "memory notes" are subsequently typed, reviewed for accuracy by dialogue participants, and distributed to the full group.

Use the same facilitator and recorder throughout the dialogue process. Sponsoring organizations, with input from the participants, should determine the necessary qualifications of the facilitator and recorder at the beginning of the dialogue process. If the discussion topics are highly technical, the process may be enhanced if both facilitator and recorder are trained in related disciplines. In cases where the dialogue topics are not highly technical, support staff can serve as recorders.

It's important for both facilitator and recorder to have well-developed facilitation skills including, above all, impartiality. Participants will be quick to point out if they think they are being treated unfairly by the facilitator.

If financial resources are limited, the facilitator and recorder can be associated with involved organizations, but not--ideally--from organizations aligned with each other.

Two benefits accrue from the use of internal facilitators: 1) commitment of the organizations to the process and 2) a greater likelihood of familiarity with the issues, the participants, and the organizations involved.

On the other hand, external facilitators offer the advantage of unbiased perspectives because they are not aligned with organizations involved in the dialogue. Contact fellow association professionals for referrals or consulting firms that provide such services.

The first meeting

Two factors that may inhibit communication in the dialogue process are previous experience with members of groups involved in the dialogue and disillusionment with group processes in general. One purpose of the first meeting is to address these factors.

Distrust is the first major hurdle a group of individuals has to overcome. In the book Managing Public Dispute, Susan Carpenter defines trust as "the expectation that people will deal honestly with each other."

In the Environmental Dialogues Program, trust was developed when participants stopped stating predetermined views, left their "baggage" at the door, and began to respond to the facts and options presented to them. As participants began to express opinions based on information presented during the dialogue process, other participants responded in kind, and they moved from trying to gain individual advantage to a better understanding of the issue.

As the first order of business at the initial meeting, participants identify their affiliations, their responsibilities, and what they hope the dialogue will accomplish. The objectives are categorized and agreed upon by all participants.

Once objectives have been identified, participants make decisions on nonthreatening items through a series of brainstorming and categorization activities. These items include the ground rules of how the dialogue will operate, identification of issues for discussion, and the next steps in the process.

By addressing nonthreatening items first, participants learn how the others communicate and that agreement is possible. They also find out that those who they thought may be unreasonable can be reasonable, that they can trust each other, and that they have respect for all views.

The next agenda item is the development of a list of procedural rules similar to the following:

* The rules of how the dialogue will be conducted can be revised at any time based on a consensus process. * A quorum must be present to convene. * No substitutes are allowed at meetings. * All statements made during a meeting are confidential and must not be repeated to an outside party. * No statements about the dialogue activity are made to the media except through designated dialogue participants. * Group memory notes are confidential. * Participants represent themselves, not their organizations. * The meetings will be held at a certain location. * Agreement will be reached on how the dialogue process will be funded.

Once this foundation has been laid, it's time to develop a list of possible first topics that the group can address. In the case of the Environmental Dialogues Program, possible first topics were far reaching, had not yet reached the legislative arena, and were of interest to the majority of dialogue participants.

Once the first topic is chosen, choose the date and place of the next meeting. Participants with an interest in the chosen topics may be requested to develop a brief issue description to be distributed before the next meeting. If the group determines that outside experts are needed, a subsequent meeting is held.

Subsequent meetings

At the second meeting of the Environmental Dialogues Group, each member of the group who wrote an issue description paper gave an overview of that issue. Participants were asked to identify the major associated topics by a "round-robin" brainstorming process.

The topics were categorized and a vote taken to determine which of the associated topics should be addressed first. An open, spirited facilitated discussion followed, and the recorder captured major ideas on flip charts.

Examples of associated topics identified by the Environmental Dialogues Group for the issue of global climate change included the economic consequences of controlling carbon dioxide discharges and the environmental impact of uncontrolled carbon dioxide emissions. Experts from EPA; the Department of Energy; the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado; and the World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C., were asked to speak at the subsequent topic-related meeting.

This meeting can be held in two parts. The first part is dedicated to presentations by outside experts addressing issues identified in the previous meeting. After all presentations have been given, a panel made up of the presenters answers the questions of the dialogue members. Following the panel question-and-answer session, the dialogue group meets privately with the facilitator and recorder.

As the dialogue process develops, participants may find that consensus can be reached on a course of action. Identifying potential solutions or actions that result in better public policy is desirable, and the support for these solutions or actions is strengthened if there is a degree of consensus or letters of agreement on any one issue. While consensus is desirable, it is not required as an indication of success of the dialogue process.

On the occasions when the Environmental Dialogues Group chose to communicate the results of the consensus process to third parties, it developed specific recommendations. Examples of recommendations included increased research on global climate change and regulation of indoor air quality.

In the global-climate-change example, participants in the Environmental Dialogues Group realized they could agree to the action that needed to be taken. A team made up of one representative from the utility industry and one from the environmental community drafted a letter to Congress at a meeting. The other participants made surprisingly few changes to the draft. The letter to Congress was signed by all those wishing to sign.

In cases like this, each signatory signs as an individual and not as a representative of his or her respective organization. Even though this is understood, some participants are reluctant to sign if statements in the letter are in conflict with policies of their organizations. The signing of the letter can be deferred until all parties have reviewed the conflicts with their organizations.

The reluctance of a participant to sign a letter does not diminish the value of the letter or the process. However, if the number of participants signing the letter is inadequate, or they do not represent normally differing points of view, the efficacy of sending the letter should be reviewed.

In some cases, a letter or document is not the desired end product. A better understanding of the topic, which can result in a more reasoned public debate and balanced conclusions, may suffice.

The process of choosing discussion topics, considering them openly, and bringing in outside experts to aid the discussion can go on as long as there is valid interest. After the group discusses each topic to its satisfaction, the facilitator determines if there is an interest in continuing the dialogue. If all agree to continue, a new topic is chosen and the process is repeated.

The dialogue group continually reviews its purpose and goals and redefines them as the process evolves. The evaluation may result in the dialogue process being terminated. This occurs when the participants agree to discontinue the process, or after making a number of unsuccessful attempts to hold a meeting.

Although the dialogue process may end, the spirit of camaraderie it engenders endures. For those who are committed to the dialogue process, its benefits continue through communication among individuals and groups with differing points of view. Above all, the dialogue provides an avenue through which better public policy can continue to be developed in the future.

Gerald Edgley, formerly manager of strategic planning development at the Edison Electric Institute, Washington, D.C., is now an associate, strategic planning and management consulting, with Dames & Moore, Bethesda, Maryland. Jene Robinson is manager of environmental affairs at the Illinois Power Company, Decatur.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:increasing communication and understanding among groups with different interests
Author:Robinson, Jene
Publication:Association Management
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:Educating America.
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