Structural Limits

Robert Stains

Program Director, Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003


This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: In the initial meeting, we recommend a really tight structure with time limited go-arounds, and things like that, which really reduces people's anxieties. If I know that I only have to talk for three minutes, and if I know I only have to listen to my opponents for three minutes, I know I can do that whereas if it's unlimited, it raises my anxiety levels on both lends.

Q: So it comes down to that amount of structure, where you're limiting the amount of time that people can speak?

A: Yeah.

Q: What other sort of structural limits are there to a session?

A: The going over of agreements. We basically play back to people what we've heard from them about how they want to limit their conversations, what agreements end up being, what are our boundaries going to be here, and having people publicly affirm that people agree with these guidelines and that they are going to authorize that we are facilitators to support them in keeping those agreements.

I think that also has a role in making people feel more safe within the discussion. We tend to use questions that are addressed to everyone in the beginning of a dialogue, so people don't have to worry right up front about addressing one another. They're all addressing a common third point. If you're thinking about a situation with two sides, they're addressing a question that is in the middle of the room. They do that in a way that is very democratic, they all get the same amount of time, no matter how many times we go around. So people wind up feeling that there is a sense of structure here, something that will contain the conversation. They don't have to worry about it getting away, or people getting out of control.

One of the big agreements that tends to lead to a sense of trust is the Pass Rule. We call it the non-coercion rule, and we talk with people about it in advanced, and again at the meeting. Anyone can say pass at any time if they don't want to respond to anything so that nobody will feel that they are going to be pressured to say something that they don't want to. That really frees people up. The funny thing is that people rarely pass, but the sense that they can is really quite important.