Imagine a different kind of public discourse than that which assaults us each day in our civic, professional and personal arenas, one in which ”people (can) speak truthfully and compassionately about what matter(s) in their communities without letting differences tear them apart.” –Laura Chasin, Founder of Essential Partners

On March 11, a frigid Saturday, the Network held its annual community workshop. This year’s focus was “Constructive Conversations across Differences.” Around 45 participants warmed the Sanborn House from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. with engaged, deep conversations that reverberated through the adjoining rooms.

In a pre-workshop survey, registrants made reference to this particular political moment as inspiring them to participate. Some were thinking about becoming more active in social justice issues of health, income inequities, religion, and race. A few were considering running for office. Others were wrestling with how to approach controversial issues. Some wanted to engage with those holding different views, even within their own families.

Under the professional guidance of Essential Partners’ facilitators, Katie Hyten and Phoebe Sinclair,* the group learned to move past the shape of “old conversations” that trigger reaction, vigilance, and defensiveness. They entered a new practice, a more constructive cycle, including the steps

  • of listening for meaning, for values, for emotion;
  • of asking open, honest, personal questions;
  • of reflecting, pausing, slowing down;
  • of responding by speaking to be understood and in assuming good intentions.

One participant felt held “within a safe container” that allowed the comfortable expression of experiences and belief.

An opening question in a segment was “What is at the heart of your political beliefs and what is it in your life experience that has led you to those beliefs?” Through a structured format, groups of four took on this courageous conversation. Each person, across differences and similarities, learned not only from the others but also about self in practicing a new style of conversation.

In another segment, with re-shuffled groups, one person presented a dilemma and the other three each posed several questions. The practice continued until each had presented a problem with questions posed by the others. The task was not immediately to answer a question but rather to notice what effect the question had—how did each make the presenter feel? What thoughts did the question raise? For the questioner the task involved experimenting creatively with the content, form, intention, and tone of the queries. As Essential Partners described the process, these are questions “in the service of the one being asked.” Again, participants were trying on another aspect of “new” conversations.

In a thank-you note to the Network, a participant wrote: “I came away from it having learned new skills that will help me foster a higher level of consciousness, especially in relating with others whom I previously would have perceived as being ‘different’ from me. Underneath our perceived differences, we all want the same things, and that is a very beautiful connection that all people share.”

The Network thanks its many contributors for helping to underwrite this annual workshop and the Winchester Historical Society for the venue. As a result of generous support, the Network continues to provide community-building, experiential opportunities throughout the year, open to all and free of charge.


*Katie after graduation from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Tufts University) worked with “Search for Common Ground” in Lebanon; Phoebe has worked with Essential Partners for over a decade. She is the first point of contact for community-related inquiries and consultant on several community dialogue projects.