Although frank talk on race calls for structured dialogue, lest anyone think “structured” means “straightjacketed,” it’s quite the contrary. Once you’ve agreed to ground rules for respectful dialogue, it actually frees people up to say what’s really in their minds and hearts. Within the structure, everything can come out. Structure is your friend when it comes to discussion about highly sensitive issues. Without ground rules and competent facilitation, you’re likely to generate heat without light and the discussion is almost guaranteed to be unpleasant and end with people feeling dissatisfied or worse.
Here’s a sample set of ground rules similar to those I’ve used many times:
· Create an atmosphere of respect by welcoming others’ perspectives and not personally attacking anyone.
· One person speaks at a time; everyone will get plenty of chances.
· It’s a dialogue, not a debate. We’re listening to learn where others are coming from, not to refute each other. We know we will disagree and that’s fine. We “agree to disagree.”
· Share “air time.”
· Be discrete after a session. If someone reveals something very personal about themselves or their family, don’t repeat what they said after the session with their name attached.
In the posting by Ernie, the discussion seemed largely about the shortcomings of black people and black culture in he United States and complaints about race discussions themselves. While posters were openly and honestly expressing their anger and frustrations, it is not the kind of dialogue to increase mutual understanding, break inaccurate stereotypes and build trust and better relationships – even friendships – across racial barriers that I think Mr. Holder had in mind. Again, while he called for frank discussions, Holder unfortunately did not help us out by suggesting how. That is what I’m doing here.
The dialogues I organize typically bring together groups of 20 with approximately equal numbers of people of color and whites. Ground rules like the aforementioned list are proposed, discussed and agreed upon by the participants. They meet for at least four sessions, guided by two co-facilitators of different backgrounds themselves. e.g. a white facilitator paired with a black facilitator who prepare the sessions together beforehand. Various experiential topics are introduced. People discuss how they grew up, how they formed their attitudes toward people of other races and ethnic backgrounds, what their lives are like now, etc. Four sessions with the same group, usually meeting once a week for two hours, gives people enough time to develop a level of trust so they can go beyond the superficial level. They are able to discuss lifelong hurts, angers, questions and frustrations they have often kept to themselves or only talked about with people of their own group.
What makes a successful dialogue on race possible is the ground rules, the facilitation and good session agendas that allow people to talk about what they need to talk about and not get mired in arguments or long, unfocused digressions. Although some will say, “talk is cheap,” dialogue like this is not for the faint-hearted. Some participants may be eager to do a brain dump of their pet gripes or hijack the discussion in other ways but the facilitators don’t let them. They have to be patient and reasonably respectful. Because the ground rules have been accepted at the beginning, it’s relatively easy for the facilitators to keep order and allow everyone eventually to say what they need to say. It works. That is not say there aren’t uncomfortable moments or that sparks don’t fly occasionally. There are, and they do. But it’s kept under control and those moments are often a good sign that people are challenging not only others’ assumptions but their own. After a powerful dialogue session, people can leave the room literally buzzing for quite a while on the way home. We’ve seen new friendships, across race and ethnicity, form in some dialogue groups that have endured for years.
I have hoped that Obama’s election will stimulate interest across the country in exploring the divisions we still have, the social segregation that Eric Holder talked about, and yes, the injustices and discrimination that persist. I assure you that an effective dialogue need not be about angrily pointing fingers at each other or calling each other names. It does depend, however, on coming into a dialogue with the willingness to listen more than talk and that can take courage.