People in conversation

A Brief History of Essential Partners

In 1989, family therapist Laura Chasin recognized the dysfunctional trajectory of American public discourse. Conversations about important issues were increasingly polarized, uncivil, and disconnected from the views of everyday people.

Inspired by thinkers like John Dewey and informed by her professional experience as a family therapist, Laura believed that a healthier civic life is possible—one in which people can speak truthfully and compassionately without letting their differences tear their communities apart.

Laura and a group of colleagues began to research constructive communication patterns and the dynamics of polarization, launching a new research initiative called the Public Conversations Project of the Family Institute of Cambridge.

It was a bold exploration in community.

In their initial set of experimental dialogues, they explored the highly polarizing issue of abortion. Could people who disagree on this topic have robust, nuanced discussions? Could they reduce stereotypes and build relationships?

Through iterative design and extensive research, these founding leaders innovated a dialogue approach that leads to deeper, more open, more civil conversations about divisive issues—an approach that combines elements of family therapy, neuroscience, and mediation, as well as real-world research results. They called their model Reflective Structured Dialogue.

Then, on December 30, 1994, John Salvi entered two women’s health clinics in Brookline, MA, with a gun. He opened fire, murdering two people. When the public called for something to be done to address the violence, Laura Chasin, along with her colleagues, launched and co-facilitated a multi-year, confidential dialogue between pro-choice and pro-life leaders in the Greater Boston area.

In the years that followed, Laura and the rest of our founders continued to research, adapt, and apply Reflective Structured Dialogue within a wide range of issues and communities, from a regional environmental preservation conflict to a United Nations conference on women’s health.

More than three decades after Laura initiated her research into the dysfunctional patterns of public discourse, our vision remains the same: a world of thriving communities strengthened by difference, connected by trust.

After more than 25 years, Public Conversations Project embarked on a major strategic planning process. With an evolved mission, greater capacity, and three generations of practitioners, the organization emerged, renewed and rebranded, as Essential Partners.

We serve as partners to civic leaders, community stakeholders, and organizations across the globe, equipping them to hold constructive conversations about the values, views, and identities that are most essential to them.

Want to build trust, understanding, and connection across differences?

Contact us today for a free consultation.