Facilitating Dialogue in a Populist Era

This post was written for ICAI’s online magazine Winds and Waves, May 2017 – now published at Medium.com (see explanatory note).

Ordinary people in the 21st century want to participate in decisions that affect their lives. The Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the recent Women’s March that spontaneously happened all over the world, the Water Protectors at Standing Rock: all are manifestations of the desire to be heard. And so, too, are the US election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in the UK.

It is a trend that has been building for some time, and it seems to be sweeping away any ideas that others should make decisions for us. The American election and Brexit vote, however, have burst any illusions I had that engaging local people in making decisions about their own lives always creates better decisions.

Part of the contradiction, I think, is that many local people lack ways to access a range of information that would help them examine a situation from different angles and then think deeply about possible consequences of their recommendations. Taking time to think something through has been supplanted by quick and easy grabbing of easy solutions spread by media. Often we fear that a different worldview or opinion will overwhelm and erase our perspective.

It is a huge challenge to hear the views of the “other”, and an even greater challenge to look for the common patterns between me and others.

Between the ‘no-longer’ and the ‘not-yet;

In ICA’s terms, the time of the economic, political, or intellectual elite making decisions for all is the “no-longer”. But I’d propose that the time of ordinary people making informed, wise decisions is the “not-yet”. As social pioneers standing in the space between the ‘no-longer’ and the ‘not-yet’, we can influence history by working with the trend and facilitating thoughtful, wise decisions at the grassroots level.

The Oxford dictionary definition of populism is “Support for the concerns of ordinary people.”, or “The quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.” Or another definition: “At its root, populism is a belief in the power of regular people, and in their right to have control over their government rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite. The word populism comes from the Latin word for ‘people,’ populus.” (from Vocabulary.com)

In Canada, “Prairie Populism” was a political movement starting in the prairie provinces that had a high point in the 1930’s, symbolized by Tommy Douglas and resulting in the creation of free health care for all the people. It was a reaction to the rule of the elite who ignored peoples’ needs.

My father was a populist in the US. He loved the Iowa caucus system, which in the 50’s started with each party’s local precinct meeting or caucus which discussed issues and created the “planks” of the party “platform”. A representative took these planks to the county convention, which put them into a suggested “platform” that went to the state convention. In turn, this went to the national convention and became the official party platform. He loved how the views of ordinary people were gathered together at each level to create their party’s national consensus. These caucuses are currently reduced to voting for presidential candidates, which has diminished that power my father saw.

Since my childhood, when I helped host our Democratic precinct caucus in our cozy front room, I have always been an advocate of drawing out local voices. ICA has worked hard for this, through community consultations and facilitating groups and organizations. Two of my core mantras are the chorus to an ICA song which goes “Local people shall rise again, to build the Earth, the common Earth”, and the quote from Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

How we limit populism’s meaning

Current usage, however, reduces the word “populism” to meaning something like “blind appeal to stupid local people”. A recent article in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper talked about demonstrations against Trump’s policies as “resistance” to populism, instead of yet another manifestation of populism.

I believe that facilitating methods that guide local people to think beneath the surface and listen to each other can give us a way forward. In 2002, Margaret Wheatley wrote a book “Turning to One Another”. She urged people to gather their neighbours and have dialogue around kitchen tables. She didn’t say how to have those conversations, but her idea is a vital one. The hard part is finding and inviting people who think very differently to come together.

Once they come together (over food if possible), the “talking stick’ tool supports dialogue. Sitting in a circle, each person has a turn holding the stick, and speaks without interruption while holding it. When finished, they had the stick to the next person in the circle. More than one round is possible so that all the ideas are out on the table.

The Focused Conversation method of ICA’s Technology of Participation helps people listen to each other, keeps a conversation moving, and digs beneath the surface for deeper understanding. The decisional level doesn’t have to be complete agreement.

Guiding any process on a difficult topic does require the facilitator to be totally detached from his or her own opinions. The facilitator must be prepared to intervene if anyone starts to cut someone off or argue with them, referring back to any ground rules set at the beginning.

A sample conversation for dialogue on a difficult issue:

Topic: Some controversial issue that affects us: eg. Immigration, Abortion, the new condo building proposed in our neighbourhood

Rational Aim: Each person will understand the other perspectives in the room on this issue

Experiential Aim: Each person will be heard and hear others

Context: Let’s take some time to listen to all the perspectives on this topic so we can understand each other. We can assume that each person has wisdom, and that we need each person’s wisdom for the wisest result. We don’t need to agree with each other. It’s perfectly fine to have opposing perspectives. If we reach a decision, that’s good, but we are not aiming for that, just for listening to each other.

Before we start, let’s set some ground rules that will help us respect each other. (You can create these with the group, or share some and ask if they would add any.)

Objective level:

  • What are some of the facts we know about this issue?
  • What evidence can we point to about this fact?
  • Where did this fact come from?

Reflective level:

  • Which part of this issue worries you the most? (you can ask “why” from the interpretive level after each person’s reflective level answer)
  • Which part of this issue makes you angry?
  • Which part of this issue are you OK with, or maybe even pleased with?

Interpretive level:

  • Why does this worry you?
  • Why does it make you angry?
  • Why are you pleased with this?
  • What negative implications do you see in this situation?
  • What are some positive implications this situation might have?

Decisional level:

  • What are you taking from this conversation today?
  • What will you continue to think about as a result of this conversation?
  • What shall we do next?


Thank you all very much for your wisdom.

The consensus workshop for gathering input and developing consensus

You may be an elected official and want to get a consensus from your constituents, without having those awful town hall meetings where everyone screams at you or insistently pushes their positions. Try having an outside facilitator use the Consensus Workshop method of ICA’s Technology of Participation. The assembled group to write their answers to a focus question (a generic sample question: What are all the elements of a solution to this challenge?”) on cards and cluster them to look for the common patterns, and then name insight behind the clusters . People will be surprised at the consensus And then not only get the results of the workshop back to the participants right away, but communicate to them how you are using their ideas — and use their language!

I once said to the members of a City Council, “If you ask people for their wisdom and you really listen, they will think YOU are wise! And they will re-elect you!

These tools address the contradiction of not listening to one another. There are many other actions we can take as social pioneers to address the other contradictions. What else would you suggest we do?

Jo Nelson first encountered the Institute in 1966. Inspired by the care and commitment of ICA, she has worked for ICA since 1970, facilitating participatory community development, groups, and organizations, and training facilitators. She has promoted the field of facilitation through facilitating the development of competencies and certification with the International Association of Facilitators. She is a dual citizen of Canada and the US, so participates in the political process in both countries.