PROCESS OF SUSTAINED DIALOGUE Sustained Dialogue as a change process is the conceptualization of two decades of dialogues.

Bringing the same group together repeatedly, we began to see that relationships among participants changed through a recognizable pattern. We thought defining this pattern might enable us to transfer the experience of changing relationships to other conflicts and to teach the process to others. SD differs from most other change processes in two ways (1) It focuses on transforming the relationships that cause problems, create conflict, and block change. SD works within a carefully defined concept of relationship —both an analytical and an operational tool for SD moderators. (2) Since relationships change only over time, SD is presented as a five-stage process . The stages are a guide to moderators and participants—not a rigid template to be slavishly followed. SD moderators must begin by internalizing the concept of relationship and the special work that defines each of the five stages. Stage One: People in conflict or in change-blocking relationships decide to engage in dialogue as a way of changing those relationships. They select SD because they feel they need to act and SD is something they can do that would make a difference. This decision can take a long time and may involve a citizens’ organization to help. [click on change process for a more detailed description of what happens in this stage]. Stage Two: Participants come together to talk—to map and name the elements of those problems and the relationships responsible for creating and dealing with them. In early meetings, this talk can be diffuse, and participants vent their grievances and anger with each other. This stage will end at least for a time when the group agrees, “What we really need to focus on is. . . .” Stage Three: In more disciplined talk, participants probe specific problems to uncover the dynamics of underlying relationships with these aims: (1) to define the most pressing problems; (2) to probe the dynamics of the relationships that cause them; (3) to identify possible ways into those relationships to change them; (4) to weigh those approaches to come to a sense of direction; (5) to weigh the consequences of moving in that direction against the consequences of doing nothing; and (6) to decide whether to try designing such change. Stage Four: Together, they design a scenario of interacting steps in the political arena to change troublesome relationships and to engage others. They ask five questions: What resources to we have? What are the obstacles to moving in this direction? What steps could overcome those obstacles? Who could take those steps? How could we sequence those steps so that they interact—one building on another—to generate momentum behind the plan for acting? Stage Five: Participants devise ways to put that scenario into the hands of those who can act on it and ways of judging achievement. To learn more about Dr. Saunders' Concept of a Relationship, Click Here.

A Visual Representation of the Five Stages of Sustained Dialogue

THE CONCEPT OF RELATIONSHIP Social and political life is a multi-level process of continuous interaction among significant elements of whole bodies politic across permeable borders. We use the human word relationship to capture that dynamic process of continuous interaction. The concept of relationship is both a diagnostic and an operational tool—diagnostic as it helps form a picture of a relationship from the unfolding exchanges in dialogue; operational as it helps us get inside an interaction to change a relationship. Relationships combine five elements. The overall mix—their continuously changing interactions—characterizes a relationship. Changes in any element and changes in the combination of elements help explain why a relationship changes. Each is a point of entry in efforts to change conflictual relationships. Identity. Each party in a relationship is described most simply in terms of physical characteristics—a group’s size, ethnicity, demographic composition, resources. . . . But it is also essential to understand what human experiences have shaped a person’s or a group’s mindset and ways of acting in relationships with others. We often define ourselves in terms of who we are not—parents, enemies. . . . Interests. We have commonly defined interests in material terms—how much money or property we need, what positions we want to control. . . . But interests are defined in human terms as well. Our need for acceptance, inner security, dignity. . . Power is defined normally in physical terms—economic resources, military force, institutions controlled—and as one’s ability to force another to do what it does not want to do—power “over.” But citizens without those raw forms of physical power have come together to change the course of events—marches of the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, Wenceslas Square, Solidarity, the “vote no” campaign against Pinochet. Citizens generated power by acting together. Perceptions, misperceptions, stereotypes familiar to us all often define relationships. Because you have black or white skin, some think that you are likely to act in a predictable way. Patterns of interaction—confrontational, collaborative, combative, argumentative, problem-solving—become characteristic of any relationship. As we understand identity and interests, we may limit interactions to respect them. Once we analyze interactions between or among groups using such headings, we can actually change interactions through dialogue. Identities don’t change, but respect for another’s identity can become real—no longer mindless hatred fueling deep-rooted conflict. Realization of others’ interests can reveal shared interests. People can see how they need each other to fulfill their own interests. Power over can become power with. Stereotypes fade as people sit together. People stop talking at each other and begin talking with each other to solve a problem and actually learn to work together. A DEMOCRATIC THEORY OF SOCIETAL CHANGE Change in societies proceeds from a cumulative, multilevel, open-ended process of continuous interaction among all actors who influence the course of events—citizens both in and out of government—as well as factors beyond their control. The question for citizens is how to conduct that process—to the extent of their capacities—in the public interest. This is a work in progress offered for comment. First, mindset may be the first element to address in a theory of change. Whether citizens see themselves as responsible for solving their problems and able to generate change—or choose to leave solutions to others, especially government— may be a critical determinant of how change takes place. Our theory of change is rooted in a new paradigm for the study and practice of politics—a new way of describing how change happens. We call it the relational paradigm. [click here to read more about the relational paradigm]. That paradigm broadens focus from the formal structures of state, government, political parties, and interest groups as the main agents of change to whole bodies politic—to citizens outside as well as inside the structures of power. Second, citizens’ organizations may act as critical catalysts in a process of change. A small group of citizens together may have the capacity to initiate and organize change on their own. But often they may turn to citizens’ organizations that have developed a particular instrument for generating change. Or those citizens' catalyst organizations may initiate change themselves by introducing change processes, training citizens in their use, and helping those citizens connect with others sharing their objective. Third is exploratory dialogue—first efforts to diagnose a problem and citizens’ capacities to deal with it. Change begins when individuals talk with like-minded others about a problem they see as hurting their interests. We call this period “dialogue about dialogue.” It can produce three products: A judgment that action is needed. They talk about the problem and name it in human—not expert—terms that permit most of them to see their interests reflected in the name. A citizen’s decision to act. The tipping point from recognizing that something must be done to an individual's decision to act seems to lie in citizens' discovery of something they personally can do that they believe can make a difference and in their belief that others are likely to join them in such action. It becomes their own problem. This exploratory space also provides a face-saving venue to begin acquiring skills of collective work and testing others’ willingness and capacity for such work. Selection of an instrument for change. Together with a catalyst organization, citizens decide to use a particular instrument for change. They must choose an instrument suited both to their capacities and to the problem they have named. Then they must prepare themselves use it. Training is critical. They set a time and place to begin and invite participants. Fourth, citizens create a formal space specifically designed for their change instrument. As this wider circle meets, they work their way through a progression of tasks: (a) They broaden and deepen their diagnosis of the problem. (b) They probe and begin to transform their own relationships. (c) They develop the name of the problem they are addressing, probe its dynamics, begin to talk about possible approaches to dealing with it, and may come to some common sense of direction in which they might explore moving. This is the beginning of a strategy—the link between analysis and action. (d) They may decide to lay out a complex of steps that could begin to move in the desired direction and draw an ever-widening circle of citizens into engaging the problem. In this space, as they work their way through these tasks together, they learn to create a cumulative agenda; to talk analytically and empathetically; to relate differently by collaborating and thinking together rather than confronting; to create a common body of knowledge. They develop capacities to become boundaryspanners in communities—both practical skills as agenda-setters, speakers, analyzers and relational skills in bridging deep human divides. These are the capacities they need as political actors. They learn to design change together by developing a scenario of interactive steps for bringing divergent elements of a community together—at least in complementary action—to deal with problems that affect them all. Fifth, citizens build networks as they increasingly engage others. In order to influence the larger environment, they need to connect with other like-minded-groups and engage elements of the larger community. Sixth, as citizens implement an action plan in broadening circles, they constantly take stock. In an open-ended political process, citizens cannot necessarily know at the beginning exactly what the process will produce. Each concrete step forward may make possible achievements that were not possible before. An active citizens’ group becomes a participant in the political process of continuous interaction and change among the elements of the body politic. Continuous evaluation of progress together deepens their relationship—their capacity to make mid-course corrections and to tackle new problems or opportunities as they arise. Judging progress—evaluating—requires a framework that fits what they are doing. This theory of change can provide such a framework up to a point. The framework that describes the change process they have chosen can provide a fuller framework. Those who have chosen Sustained Dialogue can use the five-stage process to reflect on their progress. Their own design of a scenario of interactive steps with its stated objectives will provide a further framework. The concept of relationship may be a useful analytical tool where changing destructive relationships is an objective. The framework must be a continuing part of their process in advancing their work. A democratic theory of societal change can transform random acts into the purposeful conduct of a political process. Power is the capacity to influence the course of events. Citizens can generate the power to accomplish their goals when they see themselves as capable actors in the process of continuous interaction that propels change. RELATIONAL PARADIGM Politics is a cumulative, multilevel, open-ended process of continuous interaction over time engaging significant clusters of citizens in and out of government and the relationships they form to solve public problems in whole bodies politic across permeable borders, either within or between communities or countries. This contrasts to the paradigm that has prevailed in U.S. political science for the past two or more generations. The mantra has been: “Politics is about power” with power defined as the ability to control or coerce. In international affairs, the “realist paradigm” has essentially said: “Leaders of nation states amass economic and military power to pursue objectively defined interests against other nation states in zero-sum contests of material power.”

The relational paradigm’s focus on a multilevel process of continuous interaction among citizens contrasts to the traditional focus on a linear sequence of actions and reactions among institutions as in a chess game. Continuing interactions are the essence of that process. What is important are the interplay and interpenetration between entities—not just the action of one on the other. To capture this dynamic process of continuous interaction, we have used the human word relationship, which has been carefully defined above. The focus widens beyond the structures and institutions of state and government to include whole bodies politic—citizens outside as well as inside government. Picture citizens interacting around common concerns. Each values a number of personal, professional, identity, religious, cultural, and other interests. Each brings those interests into different interactions with others sharing those interests. Each citizen’s life involves a complex of clustered interactions—some overlapping, some not. These clusters interact with other clusters in numberless ways. Picture clusters, groups, associations of citizens in and out of government thinking, talking, acting together because they are concerned about a particular problem. Suspend your inclination to define these clusters in terms of their structures and instead see the permeable boundaries of each group defined only by the pattern created by their interactions—not by constitutions and bylaws. Think of the body politic as the kaleidoscope in which these continuously changing groups interact.

This perspective does not minimize government. There are some things that only governments can do. But there are some things that only citizens outside government can do—such as transforming conflictual human relationships, modifying human behavior, and changing political culture. The energies and capacities of these citizens are the greatest untapped resources for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. A paradigm that does not include them is ineffective because it ignores those resources and immoral because it leaves out most of the world’s citizens.

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