People in conversation

Ohio Civic Engagement Incubator: Reflections Mid-Stream

Dialogue in Ohio

While the world may seem rife with harshness, hate, and horror, don’t for a second think that’s all there is. People of all kinds are stepping forward to learn how to support their communities by having conversations that make a lasting, positive difference.

Last fall, in cooperation with the League of Women Voters and Welcoming America, leaders from across Ohio joined Essential Partners for a yearlong Civic Incubator training to learn to foster better dialogue. In Cleveland, Akron, and Dayton, participants committed to bringing their newly-developed dialogue facilitation skills back to their communities. These skills include:

  1. Conflict Management and Collaborative Decision-Making,
  2. How to Design and Facilitate Reflective Structured Dialogue, and
  3. Dialogue to Collaborative Action.

With continuing support from Essential Partners and team coaches, incubator participants have begun to facilitate dialogues in their communities on topics like race, immigration, police/community relations, neighborhood collaboration, civic decision-making, and water quality improvement. Their work has just begun, but here's what we've learned:

  • A community is built upon relationships, which are strengthened by open-hearted conversation. Learning to stay present, be aware of our own reactions, to de-escalate heated situations, and to frame issues so that all parties can see that their interests are essential.
  • Better conversations about divisive issues require a “safe-enough” space to begin. Essential Partners’ framework helps participants and facilitators create a space where people with divisive backgrounds and significant differences can enter into dialogue with a sense of common good faith. This allows them to establish relationships built on mutual understanding, and these relationships lay the foundation for a stronger civil and democratic society.
  • Dialogue is a skill we all need to learn. Dialogue skills are rarely taught in school, and they're rarely demonstrated in society. “Dialogue” is a conversational search for mutual understanding, a way of meeting another person with a genuine curiosity to learn about who they are and what they care about. While dialogue may not focus on decision-making or problem-solving, it often makes decisions easier and more inclusive while encouraging wiser, more sustainable solutions.

Are we suggesting that the Essential Partners’ dialogue framework is a panacea? No. But it does make it possible to safely open up to each other, to understand each other, and to better understand ourselves as well. Dialogue is the basis of a strong community and a life well spent.

Kathy Eckles is an Associate at Essential Partners and Project Manager.