Sallyann Roth

Family Therapist, Trainer, and Co-Founder of the Public Conversations Project, in Watertown, Massachusetts

Topics: listening, dialogue, facilitators

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: How do you approach training?

A: Let me give you a tiny history of the training, and of PCP. When we first wrote about our work, we mistakenly called it a method. What we discovered was people who came to one training or read one article tried to apply it like it was a technique, a kind of cassette that you could put in for any circumstance. In a way it's our responsibility that that happened because we were trying to come up with something that was quite general, that you could use across a broad spectrum. When we looked at what people were doing, who had learned about our work in that way, we discovered that they had the action but not the spirit; the words but not the music. They sometimes had difficult encounters in trying to do the work because it was eviscerated; it was not as lively and connected.

Then we began to wonder how we could transmit the premises behind it. We don't do something because it's the right thing to do. We don't have a recipe book. We have a way of thinking that enables us to work with the people we are meeting. We design what we do for the certain circumstance in a particular way. The question is: how can we do that training?

Before I answer that question, let me say that the other thing we were confronting was that if you just look at what we do and what we've written it looks really easy. It looks like you get these people together and you ask these questions and you do this and that. The people that tried it were having very dismaying experiences of being in the circumstance and then discovering how hard it actually was.

So we decided to design a training that brought people inside the process. That gave them two things. One was a set of experiences that would be parallel or were isomorphic to the kinds of experiences we hope the participants would have. That would give them experience in trying to design and do a full facilitation. Thus, they would have a very safe, out of ordinary life experience of planning every piece from how to say hello to people when they walk in and what it means to do it one way or another way. So those were the two guiding forces in designing the kinds of training that we have.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the kind of qualities you're trying to reflect in the training?

A: In the work that we do, you'll see that I'm going to be bouncing back and forth between the work and the training because we're trying to have them braided at all times. In the work that we do, there are five or six things that I can think of off the top of my head that are characteristic and without which we wouldn't recognize the work.

One is we rely very heavily on what I call the, "Focused Pause", which occurs when a question is asked and then giving people an opportunity to reflect quietly before anyone speaks. It may seem like a tiny little thing but in American culture, and some other cultures, it is unusual to pause and reflect before speaking and then notice what they've said. This has a few really important effects. It gets people to think about what's really important for me here. It gets people to be succinct in their speaking, which means it is easier for people to listen. When everybody thinks before anyone speaks and is committed to speaking what they have thought of, as opposed to reacting to what somebody else has just said, they are able to stay centered in themselves and notice what they care about. They are able to notice what they want and listen. In other kinds of conversations, people become reactive, and then look back later and say I wish I had done this and instead I spoke of something that wasn't important to me.

We want to give people an experience and a training of really getting it. How they listen differently and how they speak differently. Encouraging them to get it more from their center, more from their heart, more from what really matters and what they care about through the focused pause. I also think it has a democratizing effect, and that is that it stands in the way of what Sarah Cobb and I call, "Effect of the First Speaker". This effect can be described as once somebody speaks, everything is a reaction to or a follow on and if we want to have a truly free conversation that surfaces differences, it's really useful if we can have people who speak without that process. We get a more contributory conversation. And that has an effect on power differences, or perceived power differences.

So I'm probably speaking too long about these.

We also want people to have the experience of the difference between going into a conversation with a free-floating attention - I'll see what's there, or I'll grab it out of the air or I'll see if this has anything to offer me, a judging position-and to instead ask them a question that helps them connect with "What do I really care about for me and my work in this training, or in this conversation, what do I really want. If I have to pin it down, beyond winning, why does this really matter? What do I want to get from this meeting, this conversation, from this series of meetings, from this training?" So that they become focused on what they want and not what the other is doing. That is a way in which we try to get the training parallel to the work.

I'll give an example, we might ask at the beginning of a training, think about a question that relates to the title of this training or what you thought this training was about that is not a question you expect to be answered here. It is not a question that you expect, not only the leaders of the group to answer, but anybody in the group, or yourself to answer. It's a question that's really interesting to you, that's not so big that it's way far away and not so small that it's trivial. It's a question that you care about and your thinking about this question will be affected about in some way by what happens here today.

Q: You usually bring people together with a pre-determined topic, that's in the work, so when you ask this question, is it relative to the topic of why you're there?

A: This is where it gets a little dicey about the parallel between what's training and what's the process. In the work,

We want people to be really focused on what they want when they come. We ask them before a meeting all kinds of questions that help them do that and it wouldn't be like the one I just said. A sample question might be; what could happen in this meeting that would make you feel that coming and spending your time here was quite a good thing? What could happen in the meeting that would make you feel it was quite a waste of time or even worse? What kinds of questions would you hope that people you disagree with on the issue would ask you, that would then enable you to speak about things that you don't usually speak about in this conflictive context? What are questions that you have for the people that are coming that you would like a chance to ask that in ordinary circumstance you absolutely wouldn't, you would be afraid to, or embarrassed to, or would be sure they wouldn't answer in any genuine way?

So we get people to think about those kind of questions.

and ultimately what are some questions that you think the conversation we're about to have that could address what you believe would start a generative conversation, that might move the conversation forward, and

We get everybody's questions ahead of time and we distribute them, unattributed, but that's a very different process.

What I'm talking about for training is, "How can we get people to be thinking about getting focused on what I want and what is the best thing that can happen for me here?" and not to be focused on what the leader and the other people in the group are going to do. We want them to be really connected with their own purpose for being there.

For training you have to do it in quite a condensed way. One of the ways is to ask this question, and I do it a particular way, I sometimes say "What's a question you want to be in relationship with during this meeting?" Or, "What's a question that could be a coach or a guide to you as you're in this training, which really matters to you?" We collect these questions and people hear each other's questions and instantly a different type of community is created.

Q: This is during the training?

A: Yes.

Q: So rather than come together over a subject matter, we come together and you develop you own sets of questions based on people's personal interests?

A: No. We have a very tight, highly planned training no matter, which it is. We know exactly what we are going to do and what experiences we are going to provide. When we ask people to come up with their questions we are asking them to expand their ideas of what training is so that when people come for conversation, we are asking them to expand the conflict and to expand their ideas about what a constructive conversation is.

So, there is a philosophy behind this which I hadn't planned on talking about, which is that we make selections out of any experience we have. We record the stories we have about ourselves, only a very few things, and those stories can often become crystallized. In conflict they often become crystallized in a way that often looks like it doesn't goes anywhere, it's just repeating. When people come to training, they often have ideas about training or about what they're going to experience. It puts the responsibility for their learning on the trainer and that also does not take into account what it means to have the group develop in a way, which allows the group to be the generative entity instead of the leader or the facilitator.

In our work we hope that the facilitator becomes invisible and not so focused on. We feel that the more the group gets to feel it's doing its own work, the more powerful it will be, so that's another parallel we want to bring into the training. This means when we collect people's questions we don't expect to answer them. We're not going to change what we do. People will have a different filter to experience whatever happens in the room than they usually have. They'll be filtering it through. This is what's important to me and this is what I mean by a coach, a coach says to you, gosh you're dragging your right leg, get them even. If the questions are a coach, and your question is, "How can I bring some of these ideas to my context," in a medical context, for example, and that's your question, then you'll be thinking about that no matter what we're doing. It'll come to you and your question will evolve or your ideas will evolve over the course of the day or the three days. That's the next use is

We collect all these questions and we put them on a board. Everybody says them out loud. It's an introduction and they look at each other. They are no longer Joe Jones, who's the executive director of XYZ, they're a person who has a lively question.

That question may make me think of ones I didn't think of, and suddenly as the group has 20 or 30 questions on the table, suddenly there is a kind of excitement. "Oh! That's what we want to hear about. Oh! I want to talk with you. I'm interested in that also." Suddenly there is a sense of the group sharing a common interest, beyond the interest that we are here to learn what these people are here to tell us. That is one of the ways that we hope to make a parallel between the work that we do with people in conflict and the training. Can it be that in the first or second round or when we get something on paper, they're thinking, "Oh, I can't wait to talk with these people," even if it's with people they might usually be silent with or yelling at.

Wow, these are taking a long time.

Next is collaboration. We really believe that the most effective work, and the only way we are comfortable working, is to really work hand in hand with the people who are consulting with us. We consult about what's going to be useful to them and about the processes, and the structure and what they care about. We don't expect them to be able to just tell us. So we have these lengthy interviews in which we elicit different descriptions. They are really helpful in developing agreements for the group that come out of their wishes and needs, fears and concerns, and hopes. As well as their specific content areas, their questions and so on. But this idea of collaboration, literature is full of it. Most people don't have a real experience with their professional lives of a sense of easy collaboration. Where you are really working with each other and it's not just you producing your thing, but more of a back and forth. We have exercises that we produce with this. One example would be, let's suppose that you give me a sentence or two that describes a dilemma you have, or some conflict that you've been in. Not a giant one but a little small one. Would you be willing to do that? Just take a minute to think of it. Just so you know what's going to happen, I'm going to ask you a few questions and your job is to not answer anything that's not interesting to you, but to help me as your interviewer, so I know what you prefer to be asked.

Q: Ok, so I need to come up with a problem..

A: Yes, or a dilemma, not necessarily a problem, something that is on your mind, it could be anything at all.

Q: Well, sure, I am sort of caught in professional limbo right now, between taking short-term contractual work that may or may not lead me to where I want to go, but has the potential for very exciting and large opportunities, or I have the opportunity to take a full-time steady job, which is also good work but may be somewhat limiting in upward mobility.

A: Ok, so I didn't start taking notes right away, so I might not have all the words I might use in this circumstance but I would say, if our conversation were to go further, would you prefer for me to ask questions about limbo, where you want to go, contractual work, or limiting?

Q: What questions would be most interesting to me? Well I think limiting or limbo would be interesting to explore. This actually makes me think of other words that make me think of, like where I want to go.

A: Well yes that's one, but I just need one to get started

Q: Let's pick: where I want to go. "Exciting" is the most uncomfortable, and the most provocative.

A: And as you notice that "exciting" is more provocative and uncomfortable, you've picked where I want to go and do you want to save "exciting" for later or?

Q: I thought it was your word?

A: Actually, I wrote interesting in the questions, but you said exciting in your speaking. We don't have to go any further with this but what I am trying to show is the way in which, actually let me just ask you, what was your experience at my asking you about your own sentence?

Q: Let me see, a little discomfort having to provide substance to things that are easier to say sort of off-handedly. It certainly requires some serious reflection and some decision making because if I define where I want to go in one way, that means I am not defining it in another way, which is what I might discover with the whole thing to begin with.

A: But if you said, I want some questions about where I want to go and I said how many ways are you thinking about where I want to go, you could expand that. If I said a question that left you in a box, you might say I would prefer that you ask me a question that doesn't lead me into thinking where I want to go has to be only one place. We don't in our actual conversations with people in conflict do exactly what we did here, but in training we would probably do it a fair bit.

We have the idea that by asking questions that are collaboratively developed by the asker and the asked, they get tuned into how to really pay attention to what the other really wants and what will help them move forward in their own thinking and feeling.

I think just in this little exchange, I experienced you saying hold it, I think it's a little bit scary, and really making some fresh distinctions. That would be the goal and once people have an experience like that it's hard to go back to check mark questions or assuming that they know exactly what to ask.

If we were to go through this for fifteen minutes, my guess is that I would as an interviewer, begin to notice that you were going places that I couldn't have imagined that you would go. It would remind me as a facilitator or a participant in a dialogue, how carefully I would have to listen, and inquire in order to not let my assumptions get in the way of really being interested in you and us developing a conversation that was a fresh one.

Q: What effect does that line of question and that approach of listening have on the people who are observing this interaction between Party X and the facilitator?

A: Now I want to go back to training because I'm making a distinction. Our hope in the work is to behave in such a way and to be, not just what we do, but to be present to people in a way that invites them to get interested in each other. Not so interested in declaring the same old things but interested in expanding, if not actually breaking stereotypes by inquiring. So in a training, we would give people an experience like the one I just described so that they could get the feeling of how wonderful it is to be asked questions when somebody is actually interested in following you in what interests you. I would hope that they would then take that to the work that they do in the field. And as facilitators try to develop questions that would leave people feeling that the facilitators were interested and trying to open new areas. That would also leave the participants who ultimately would be asking questions of each other able to listen and speak in those kinds of ways.

One of the things that people tell us is that when we ask questions this way they often speak freshly, they discover things that they didn't even know. So it goes beyond something that's new in that conflicted conversation. It goes to speaking differently in their conversation with themselves. We hope if people have an experience with this in their training that it will inspire them to might find many ways, some of which we might not of thought of ourselves, to do this in their facilitations.

Q: Let me back up one second and ask you who you are training? My initial impression is that you are training people who might do PCP type dialogues around issues, but it sounds like it might be a little bit broader than that.

A: Would it be ok if I just put in two things here and then went to that? Another thing you might have noticed in this little example, I could've put two things together by paying careful attention to your language, that I didn't want to assume that any one part of that sentence was going to be at the most important to you and it might be that if I had said back, if I had said something that had a sort of negative connotation or mad some sort of conclusionary comment in my question or some sort of instruction you probably would not have liked that, I would guess, is that true?

Q: Well like what?

A: Well, like suppose I'd said to you, "So, how long have you been in limbo?" What's your response to that?

Q: I don't know.

A: Does it move things forward or does it just leave you stuck?

Q: Doesn't move things forward for me.

A: So that might be one that would need correction, so correct me. What would be a better question about limbo?

Q: You could ask me why limbo's a little uncomfortable because maybe it's not. Maybe it's a sign of opportunity as much as it is limitation.

A: Let me try that. So as you experience being in limbo, does it feel like it's uncomfortable, exciting, opening, closing or all of the above or something I didn't even say?

Q: Yes, all of the above basically, I mean it's exciting, there's lots of opportunity. It's nerve-racking, security is low, opportunity is high.

A: If I said to you, well we could take any one of those pieces, the opportunity high, the nerve-racking, the this or that, and follow them. Which would you follow? Then you would have another choice to make, but don't do it.

Q: What appears to me is there are infinite amounts of choices here.

A: That's right. If we were having a conversation and not this interview, and you took a minute to think about your choices, you would probably land on one where you would probably say I like these three, let's do them sequentially. We would be in a conversation that would be quite different from a normal one, where they all get lumped together and you kind of get a buzz in your brain. So, this isn't about you, although I thank you for putting yourself forward, but what I was trying to show was a collaborative process and showing careful attention to a person's language. Not only inserting language of my own as an interviewer, but also holding steady that we are in a process. If this is what we're talking about, our goal together is to expand the usual ways of speaking in a way that leaves you feeling interested and excited. Also, that there's something new here and it would be interesting for me to listen to, because you would be on a fresh journey. And interesting for you to speak because you would be on a fresh journey.

That's the conversation we hope that disputants will end up having with each other. We want the people who come to not do exactly what we do in this instance, but to find ways, to know enough about what it feels like and what it can do that they will struggle to find ways to enable disputants to do that with each other. So, when we talk about this parallel process, what we are really hoping, is that people will have experiences of being a particular way that will enable them to figure out lots of things they can do, not just by following our technique or method. Then it becomes a different task and what I want is for people to have this kind of experience. I want them to recognize, "Oh, the PCP people have done it one way, I think it will work with this kind of people, how do I want to do it?" We are hoping that they'll get involved in that kind of thought process as opposed to a kind of repeat of what we do. I think I've kind of hit the highlights except for one thing.

Everything we do, whether we are asking a question, or designing a conversational structure, we are always planning. We want it to have certain effects. But the effects that we have and the intentions that we have are never going to be exactly aligned. So another piece that we try to get to in the training is to create a sense of mindfulness about the gap between intentions and effects.

We invite people to whatever exercise we're doing, to think about what the trainer's intentions were. What the effects were on them doing it, if they're having a practice conversation with each other. What the intentions of the person asking the question were, how they were thinking about it, what the effects were on the other, that's very humbling. It means that we are then able to put into place two key teaching points. One is that

a responsible facilitator is always mindful of the gap and always trying to reduce it and doesn't feel awful when there is a gap. It's not that you've done something wrong mostly, it's that you need to step back and get reconnected to try again. It becomes a learning experience, as opposed to a failure experience.

And the second thing, one I wish I had said upfront which we try to promote in all the trainings, no matter who is taking them, is that every conversational structure invites some things and it blocks others. So you can't facilitate a conversation without having an influence on what people experience themselves as able to do and say. One of the major gaps that we are asking people to be mindful of is, "What is the kind of conversation that I hope people will be able to have and what is a conversational structure that I can design that will elicit that kind of conversation?" By designing the workshops carefully with that intention and giving people practice in that way, we're hoping that what they will take back in a general way, whether as we do or not, is that piece, which is so central that whatever they do is invitational for some things and blocking for others.

Q: So any choice basically means that you didn't make other choices.

A: Exactly, and if something happens in a conversation that's not what you intended you can go back to the conversational structure and redesign it. You can redesign it with the people who were in the conversation. "This happened, what do you think we could have done to move the conversation in this way?" You can do it in the group; you can do it outside the group, which will get you very different answers. Before you asked, "Who do we train?" Well it's a very mixed bag. We do these open trainings as well as contract trainings. We keep it mostly open, so people come who are mediators, facilitators, interested in our particular way of working, people who are interested in public participation kinds of projects, organizational development, therapists who are trying to seek can this apply to their practice. While we do the training about what we do, our long training, our kind of dialogue, we don't anticipate that everyone who comes is going to do what we do. We anticipate that there are some principles that will become very clear to people if they go through the whole process. Just to take what they usually do in a drawer and know that they can pick it up when they walk out, and see if they can find things in their present context. As well as how they might rethink what their intentions are and what they do in ways that might be more generative because they've had exposure to this. Other people come and they really do want to learn what we do. Often they follow up by consulting with us about projects they're involved in, their wishes to partner on some project and things like that. So we try to set the training up so that it's accessible, whether people want to work the way we do or not because we think we have something to offer that's beyond what we do.

Q: Are there other techniques that you use during the trainings that are useful?

A: In the long training we have an extremely realistic role play. We have ways of inviting people to be in a partially scripted role play which they become very deeply enrolled, so that they are not only speaking positions but that they have an emotional history, and they are often quite involved as real people as well as in different roles in what happens. We generally invite people to take roles that we imagine are quite different from their usual ones in this role-play and our hope is that for the people that are facilitating, it's clear they'll have a chance to try out our ways of working. We have lots of clear instructions, lots of chances to practice, lots of chances to notice what they do really well and like, want to do again, and what they would change. For the people in the role, it's often a very profound experience to move inside the character and being a person of someone who's quite different from them in a particular way. Some people have told us that that has been the most generative part of the training for them. We are hoping in all positions that people will come up with ways of shifting perspectives from the immediate journey of urgency (I've got to solve it) to thinking about what I care about in the future. Maybe there's a timeline, to thinking about how the past connects with this, to thinking about what context may not have been engaged and needs to be engaged.

So we're really working on developing all kinds of ways that will give people facility in helping others shift perspectives, make new distinctions and create distinctions where there was a blur, as well as create something more homogenous where there were lots of distinctions. The idea is to move toward some different way of being with each other. I've used the word "being" a lot in this conversation and I'd like to specify why, but I would like to. Some people when they think about training, they think about learning what to do and teaching what to do. However in our work, we think that there is a kind of relational ethic that underlies everything we do. What we care about more than anything else is that people get in touch with and have a feel for what that relational ethic is. And then we really believe, that they will be able to figure out what to do. They can try on what we do if they want to, and if it suits them and the people they're working with, but we think it gives them something much more valuable. Again, we don't expect that they would necessarily accept it or believe in it or that it would be fit for them, but we ask them to try it on.

Q: Last question, and you've been over a few of these, but perhaps you could be more explicit, what lessons have you learned over these years, doing these trainings. I'm sure the ultimate training is a product of a lot of lessons that you've learned. In other words if you were giving advice to someone heading into designing trainings for themselves, what would you tell them?

A: Two other things that we hope people will get out of the conversations that we hold and the training is a sense of being able to make choices when they feel reactive. The one that I can't believe that I didn't mention yet, is the one that I care about almost beyond anything which has to do with the skill of being able to be transparent, even when it's really hard, even when what you're thinking feels like you can't, dare say it. So you've asked me for some examples about training and I would say that the lessons I've learned are about how to be transparent about the dilemmas that have come up in the training, without leaving people feeling insecure. How to be transparent in a way that is clearly in line with what the goals of the training are, not offline, or something personal. Rather, how to stay focused on what it is and how to be transparent.

Q: So contextualize that for me a little bit.

A: There have been a few training experiences that Bob Stains and I have had together, where we were concerned about something in how the training was going and didn't get ourselves to speak transparently about it. We kept trying to fix it. We know that that pattern of behaving actually helps people stay stuck, so I would say that one of the lessons that I've learned in the training is to stretch myself in my training relationship and my relationship with myself to be able to move toward that kind of focused transparency. I don't want to model reproducing the very kind of things that I've been teaching people that get them stuck.

I'll actually give you one example, but it's not from the training. In my other life, I actually lead some supervision groups. It happened one time, that this woman came in who (I'd been in this group for about 6 years) and she said, "I can't figure out what to do about x." I was very tired that day, and inside, my inner conversational voice I thought, "I cannot believe, after all these years, that you are still coming in asking me what to do!" I was totally irritated. I did not show my irritation. I did whatever I did, and I went home and started to think about why I was irritated and what it meant. I thought there really is something wrong here. What's wrong is that she's behaving in a way that I totally don't like, but if I was supervising in a way that supported the way I hoped she'd learn to be, then this wouldn't happen.

So the problem here isn't with her, it's with me and how I'm doing with this. Then I had to go back to this training context and say, "You know last week this thing happened, and I gave it a lot of thought and I've designed a different way to do this, in the hopes that we can all have different experiences here and would you be willing to try it." We did, and it's now evolved into an exercise on being transparent, and enabling the people in the group to be more transparent with the people that they are working with.