The Institute for Civil Dialogue
Board of Directors
Clark Olson, Arizona State University, President
James Chamess, Dayspring United Methodist Church, Treasurer
Katherine Roxlo, Scottsdale Community College, Secretary
Jennifer Linde, Arizona State University/The Empty Space, Founding Director
Pastor Sarah Stadler, Grace Lutheran Church, Member
Daniel Schugurensky, Arizona State University, Member
Laura Crawford, Community volunteer and retired lawyer, Mukilteo, WA, Member
Civil Dialogue is.....
Civil Dialogue (CD) is a structured format for public dialogue that provides a tool to build bridges across the chasm of public viewpoints.
We believe that making the effort to listen to each other and understand one another is essential to a civil society.
Civility before Consensus
Many small group discussion formats are designed to build consensus—a worthy goal. Civil Dialogue (CD) backs up one step to promote understanding. We believe that making the effort to listen to each other and understand one another is essential to a civil society. Having established a baseline of civil communication, those groups or communities that need to reach consensus on an issue can then use other methods of deliberation. We believe that incivility in our society is such a serious problem, and that the need to reclaim civility is so urgent, that it is deserving of this narrow focus and high level of prioritization.
You might even say that the CD process is the opposite of building consensus. Our dialogues are most stimulating when there is strong disagreement. We choose a hot topic and then seek to represent the full spectrum of viewpoints on the topic within a safe container. We want to bring the differences out in the open, as a counterpoint to the tendency to retreat to “echo chambers” where citizens engage only with those with whom they already agree. And we only work in a live, face-to-face setting so participants take responsibility for their positions, as opposed to online forums where a veil of anonymity tends to unleash vitriol and hostility. Our purpose is to demonstrate that civility in public discourse is possible. We hope that those who experience it will then make an effort to infuse civility into conversations in other settings: our homes, neighborhoods, and commons.
However, the focus on civility and understanding in CD doesn’t mean that people can’t move toward common ground. Sometimes, a participant is moved to change his or her view. Change is not a stated goal of Civil Dialogue but it can happen when people feel comfortable thinking out loud and then have an opportunity to reflect on what they’ve said. A good example: when it came time for her closing statement, a young woman said, “I realize now that I have been regurgitating my mother’s views; I have no idea where I stand on this issue.” That was a great insight, and it was courageous of her to express it in a public setting. It’s a breakthrough that will stay with her. One more example: after a dialogue on reproductive rights, a woman commented that she didn’t think a reasonable person could have a viewpoint other than her own, but that during the dialogue she heard a polar opposite view, reasonably expressed. She came away from the dialogue with her own position unchanged, but she found new respect for the other, something she never thought possible. She experienced the essential difference between disagreement, which is healthy in a democracy, and demonizing the other, which is poisonous to a civil society.
Jennifer, John & Clark
John Genette, an alumnus of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, originally designed Civil Dialogue as a way to explore citizen reaction to political rhetoric. He and Jennifer Linde, senior lecturer and artistic director for The Empty Space, facilitated dialogues in both the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns. Clark Olson, professor and former director of forensics, has collaborated with Genette and Linde in the development of the format. They have facilitated Civil Dialogues with community groups and university students, taught the format to graduate students as an innovative research method, and trained National Communication Association educators and practitioners the process of staging and facilitating Civil Dialogues. The format continues to be used in numerous settings to explore such controversial issues as taxation, abortion, gay marriage, the war on terror, free speech, and illegal immigration.