Stages of a Sanctuary Discussion Project

The Interactivity Foundation runs long-term citizen discussion projects, or “Sanctuary Projects,” that focus on complex areas of social and political concern. These project discussions have a natural trajectory, since the discussion process is intended to flow organically, like a natural conversation. If you think of a really good conversation, one that led to a real breakthrough or new insights, it’s likely that it often changed direction as new perspectives opened up, or it may have circled around to pick up earlier points that seemed to be left behind. That’s the way we see our Sanctuary Projects unfolding, rather than marching forward in a linear or mechanical fashion. So while there are distinct stages in the discussion process, they’re not rigidly separated from each other. The main stages of the discussion process entail 1) exploring the different basic questions that we as a society might have to address about these topics, 2) exploring different possible ways society might respond to those questions, and 3) exploring what the consequences might be for those different possible approaches (and revising the policy ideas as needed). Once the discussion moves through these main stages, a panel will 4) meet for  joint discussions with its partner panel (each project uses 2 independent panels), and 5) this in turn leads to the creation of a Citizen Discussion Report, by the project facilitator, that captures the panels’ policy ideas for use springboards for continuing grassroots citizen discussions.

In this post I’d like to give a short description of the first 3 stages of a project discussions–since they make up the bulk of the panelists’ focus.

Stage 1: Describing the Area of Concern by Developing Questions

The first stage of project discussions focuses on developing an expanding description of the area of concern. We often talk about this in terms of “describing–not defining.”  You’re not trying to delimit or “define” the area of concern. You’re not trying to say definitively what it is all about.  Instead, you’re trying to generate different possible descriptions of what the area of concern might be about.  One way to get at this is by exploring different basic questions we might face regarding the area of concern.  Raising questions is a different kind of mindset from making assertions.  The activity of questioning can open us up to possibilities.  Further, when you explore different ways to frame these basic questions, you might begin to reflect upon the guiding presuppositions or values that inform the different ways to think about the area of concern.  Typically there are untested assumptions or unquestioned principles that guide a lot of our thinking. This is a time to test them out, to reflect upon them, and  to question them.  This can also help you uncover the various dimensions that might make up that area of concern, whether these be moral, social, cultural, economic, psychological, political, etc.  This is a time to explore the different questions that might be asked from these different perspectives.

The key is to generate an expanding description of the different concerns that make up the area of concern.  You’re not trying to reduce to the one question that should be answered.  You’re trying to explore the different possible questions that might emerge from different perspectives.  You’re trying to explore the different ways to frame the area of concern.  The point is not to create a systematically complete account of the area of concern, since you don’t want to get locked into one particular way of framing the key issues. This is a case where there is a value to discontinuity and where gaps can be useful for provoking divergent insights.  Once you have developed a rich description of the area of concern, it’ll be time to turn to the next step: trying to answer some of the questions you’ve raised.

Stage 2: Generating Policy Possibilities that Respond to these Questions or Concerns

The second stage of project discussions is about putting something together.  This requires a real shift in your way of thinking since, after all, it is easier to take something apart than it is to create and build something new. The attitude of questioning, which pervades the first stage of discussions, helps to open up our thinking about the area of concern. Questions often can provide clues to their own answering.  You might start by thinking about one particular basic question to see if you can find a toe-hold from which you could begin to generate a response. Once you make the transition to generating responses to some of your basic questions, the key points are to be bold and not worry about creating perfect or complete answers. You should think of ways to think big and to address the root causes–not just superficial responses that touch on this or that symptom. This is a time to be imaginative, not a time to be hemmed in by looking at the status quo or conventional responses to the area of concern. Remember, we’re generating “possibilities”–thinking about the way things could be, not rehearsing the way things are.  This is a time to break out a bit and explore different ways that our society could answer some of the big questions raised early on. To do this, it is essential not to evaluate your ideas as you are generating them. That will come later. Right now your focus should just be on creating a lot of ideas, no matter how “out there” or fragmentary they might appear at first to be.  This means you won’t answer all of the questions that you raised in the first stage of your discussions. Eventually you’ll see some ways to combine some of these ideas into coherent policy ideas.

Stage 3: Exploring Consequences to Revise the Policy Possibilities

Once a panel has sketched out at least 4 contrasting approaches that society might take to address the area of concern, then it’s time to start thinking about what these possibilities would be like in the real world (typically panels generate many more than 4).  It’s time to imagine how they might actually unfold and what real-world implications they might have. This helps panelists to think further about what a policy possibility really means. To do this you have to think imaginatively, fairly, yet realistically about what the world would be like if a given policy possibility was in effect. To do this, it’s important to keep in mind that consequences often unfold in unforeseen and unintended ways. There will be different implications for different groups of people in our society, so it’s important to consider divergent perspectives on these consequences.  Also, there are differences between short-term and long-term consequences.  Since dramatic short-term effects can often turn people off from a given possibility, this is a good chance to think ahead about whether those effects could change in the long-term.

The exploration of potential consequences can give you a better sense of what the policy possibilities really mean, which will will help the panel think about whether or how the policies might be revised. You’ll probably see some connections amongst some of the possibilities, which could help you find ways to combine them into a consolidated possibility. You’ll undoubtedly find some consequences that the panel would rather avoid, which could lead to revisions to avoid some of those negative consequences. In some cases you’ll realize that some policies just need to be clarified. In general, this is a time for making  a review of the possibilities, including making revisions, consolidations, and exclusions among the possibilities. It’s also a time for a review of the whole set of possibilities that you’ve developed. When you look back at the big questions you raised in the first stage of the discussion process, and when you look at the whole set of possibilities you’ve developed, you might wonder whether there are any obvious gaps. You might ask how your possibilities respond to the questions raised early on–and whether there are any new possibilities that come to mind. Often those late insights are quite powerful ones.

This period of review and revision should help you clarify your descriptions of the different possibilities.  You can clarify how the possibilities respond to some of the questions raised early on in the project. You can clarify the thinking and beliefs that animate them. You can be mindful of how they might lead to different kinds of effects in a diverse and complex society. Above all you’ll want to think about how your description of these possibilities might help others to engage and expand their own imaginative thinking about what could be. Once you get to this point, you’ll be ready to meet with your partner panel to share the results of your explorations and to see what new insights might be generated.

–Jeff Prudhomme

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