What are Sanctuary Discussions?

Sanctuary as Protected Space for Exploration
In the Interactivity Foundation (IF) we often talk about “sanctuary discussions” and “Sanctuary Discussion Projects.” By sanctuary we have in mind a protected space for truly collegial discussion, for the open and collaborative exploration of complex topics or issues. Creating this protected space is an important part of the discussions we’ll have in the project on Shaping Our Towns and Cities. Here are some of the key features of sanctuary discussions.

A Space Protected from the Pressure of Time
One thing we’re protecting against is the crush of time. We want to create a space for unhurried deliberations, so there is time to step back to explore the underlying issues, to question assumptions, and to investigate the different ways of framing the basic issues that make up the topic under discussion. Too often our deliberations are cut short by the demand for quick analysis or quick decisions. Sanctuary discussions make room for serendipitous insights, for the patient generation of novel ideas, and the pursuit of seeming tangents. In our projects we make sure to separate the generation of possibilities and exploration of possible perspectives from the moments of evaluation or choice. There is time for the exploration of consequences and for making judgments about the possibilities that are developed. But this time for review is kept separate from the time for open exploration and idea generation.

A Space Protected from Social Approval
Another thing we’re protecting against is the crush of social approval.
Sanctuary entails a protected space where ideas can be freely explored without regard to one’s approval of them. The participants in a sanctuary project need to be free to explore divergent ways of looking at things. They need to be free to develop unconventional ideas or to generate policy possibilities that go beyond the status quo. One way we create this kind of free space for exploration is to separate ideas from people. When ideas are brought into the discussion, we don’t focus on, or keep track of, who made the contribution. We want to stretch people’s minds, so they’ll consider new perspectives and develop new ways of thinking about things.  Since we separate the activity of idea generation and development from any sort of evaluation, people are able to bring up ideas without concern that these ideas will immediately be shot down in critical review. Sanctuary discussions enable the participants to play with the ideas that are developed collaboratively, rather than on immediately critiquing each idea as it comes up. The participants in a sanctuary discussion are collaborative conversation partners, not opponents in a competitive debate.

A Space Protected from the Past and Present
Sanctuary discussions are also intended to provide a space protected the crush of the actual or of the past. This may sound a bit odd at first. But the key is that we’d like to free people up to think about what could be rather than being hemmed in by the way things are or the way things have always been done. In our Sanctuary Projects, we’d like people ultimately to focus on exploring “possibilities,” whether they’re exploring different possible ways to describe an area of social concern, or whether they’re generating different possible ways that we, as a society, might deal with that area of social concern. By engaging people in the exploration of possibilities, we’re engaging them more as “thinkers” and not just as “knowers.” Our discussions can and should be informed by knowledge, but they are not strictly speaking “study groups.” We want to engage the thoughtful imaginations of our participants so they can move beyond the limitations of the actual, so they can envision new or unconventional possibilities. In sanctuary discussions we want to encourage people’s ability to think collaboratively and think differently and not just recite what is already known. Too often we constrain ourselves by thinking that this is the way things always have been and so always must be. Sanctuary discussions are a chance to free ourselves from this constraint. They’re a chance to ask, what might the possibilities be?

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