Participatory Practices

How to “be” in a conference and other participatory decision-making groups.

If you’re invited into a family conference, or any other participatory decision-making group, it’s because your thinking and your resources are needed and valued. You are being asked to come in to the meeting and participate fully. That means with your whole heart and mind; in spirit as well as in body. You’re not just there for decoration!

Start with these premises:

  • You’re here because your participation is needed and valued;
  • You have as much personal authority as anyone else and, as such, deserve to be heard and taken seriously;
  • Your viewpoints and contributions are part of a bigger whole picture that no one person can see or achieve alone.

Conferences are typically a combination of “DIALOGUE” and “DISCUSSION”. What’s the difference between these two types of conversation?

According to Ellinor and Girard (1998), the differences can be summarized as follows:

Dialogue Discussion
Emphasis on seeing the whole among the parts Emphasis on breaking issues into parts
Emphasis on seeing the connections between the parts Emphasis on seeing distinctions between the parts
Inquiry into assumptions Justifying and defending assumptions
Focus on learning through inquiry and disclosure Focus on persuading, selling and telling
Creating shared meaning among many points of view Gaining agreement on one meaning.

Generally speaking, we use DIALOGUE to explore the issues, resources and possibilities, then DISCUSSION to set the plan of action.
What are some of the skills and personal qualities that help make for strong participation?

Personal Qualities Skills
Awareness of your “ground”: your perspective, opinions, knowledge and experience Ability to articulate your “ground”
A spirit of inquiry and nondefensiveness Ability to suspend judgements
Awareness of the “logical forces” at work in the conversation: “shoulds”, behavioral norms, etc. Ability to reflect
Tolerance of the tension between the need to open up and explore and the need to decide and settle matters. Ability to inquire

It also helps to know the difference between your personal authority and your role authority

Personal Authority Role Authority
Your ideas and opinions Your ability to offer services or commit your agency’s resources
Your knowledge of resources Your authority or responsibility for making recommendations to a court
Your perspective on issues Your responsibility for implementing court orders
Your feelings Your responsibility for communicating information, e.g., your agency’s position, information from court, etc.

What do people most often ask for help and training on? In the words of our colleagues, it’s on “how to say difficult things” in a team meeting. From our experience there’s two parts to this: how to SAY difficult things and how to HEAR difficult things!

“Difficult things” often tend to be one of these:

  • Unpopular ideas — ideas that may not jive with the direction the group seems to be heading in;
  • Fuzzy ideas — things that are abstract, unclear, difficult to explain;
  • Half-baked ideas — important thoughts you haven’t developed all the way;
  • Confrontations — when there are issues of distrust, lack of confidence and other interpersonal sticking points.

These are some of our favorite books on these subjects:

Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most
by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher

Getting to Yes
by Roger Fisher, William Ury, and Bruce Patton

The Little Book of Dialogue for Difficult Subjects: A Practical Hands-On Guide (The Little Books of Justice & Peacebuilding)
by Lisa Schirch and David Campt

Dialogue: The Art Of Thinking Together
by William Isaacs

The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation
by Daniel Yankelovich

Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation
by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard

The Center for Restorative Practice