People in conversation

Our Method

Photo: Dialogue event

Essential Partners envisions a world of thriving communities strengthened by difference, connected by trust.

Building the capacity to live and work together is essential work. It is the work of our times: to live out both the courage of our convictions and the courage of community. 

Working at the intersection of community engagement, conflict resolution, culture change, and dialogue, Essential Partners owes its existence to a research group composed primarily of family therapists. Beginning in 1989, they explored the possibility that the concepts and methods of family therapy might be adapted for conversations on divisive public issues. They were drawn to this possibility when they noticed striking similarities between patterns of behavior in political conflicts and chronic family disputes. 

This origin makes EP unique among organizations working to create more pluralistic, inclusive, and engaged communities and teams. 

It means we pay greater attention to systems—to the dynamics and patterns of communication that become self-perpetuating and stifle trust, relationships, understanding and collaboration. While our work does lead to decisions or policy changes, EP’s priorities go further than a single outcome. Our work helps people recognize and transform the self-perpetuating patterns that undermine effective communication and collaboration across differences of identity, belief, personality, and perspective. EP’s approach addresses patterns such as:

  • The same small group of vocal people dominating conversations

  • The silence, avoidance, or underrepresentation of people who have complex, marginalized, or underdeveloped views.

  • Stereotyping, polarization, and misinformation campaigns

  • Interruptions, angry outbursts, and personal attacks

  • Disengagement and avoidance that, at worst, leads to low participation rates and struggles with retention

  • Confirmation bias, the human tendency to seek out facts that support one’s own perspective while dismissing facts that force them to question their deeply held values or beliefs

  • Repetitive or surface-level debates where little new information surfaces as the values, intentions, and complexities of opponents go untested

These patterns are most evident in hot conflicts across lines of ideology or identity. But we also find those same patterns within groups whose members have a shared identity and common goals but disagree strongly about priorities and strategies. Sometimes these patterns are hidden by an uneasy silence that cloaks underlying disagreement.

If you shift how people have a conversation, you can change the relationships between stakeholders. You can change what people are willing to speak about—not just specific issues but their deeply-held values and beliefs, their experiences, their genuine hopes and fears. 

If you can do that, you can change what is possible.

Photo: EP Planning Meeting

Reflective Structured Dialogue

Essential Partners' trademark dialogue method, Reflective Structured Dialogue (RSD), is designed to help communities and organizations disrupt those patterns to hold open, honest, constructive conversations about potentially divisive topics.

Changing dysfunctional communication patterns can have huge system-wide effects. But how a conversation shifts matters too. Every choice invites new possibilities or returns to old, stuck patterns. Intention, design, and structure are the keys.

Reflective Structured Dialogue relies on preparation, conversational structures, question design, facilitation skills, and reflective practices to encourage people to engage meaningfully across differences. This approach allows for groundbreaking conversations that restore trust, deepen mutual understanding, and lay the foundation for collaborative action.

Rooted in family therapy strategies, RSD has drawn innovation from a wide array of related fields, including professional mediation, systems theory, conflict resolution, interpersonal communication theory, appreciative inquiry, narrative approaches, organizational development, psychology, neurobiology, and intercultural development.

Through training, consultation, facilitation, and long-term collaboration, EP equips people to live and work better together. Although the scope and depth of our collaborations have grown, Reflective Structured Dialogue remains the active ingredient in all our work.

Photo: EP Community Engagement

EP's Core Practices

How do we support the goals of every community we work with? How do we account for the unique cultural contexts of each community? These core practices help us empower communities and organizations to generate the changes they want to achieve.

We learn about the old conversations and about community members’ hopes for their shared future. Before we begin a collaboration with any community, we interview stakeholders to discover what has, and has not, been constructive in the past. We identify the particular hopes and concerns that motivate our partners to embark on the collaboration. We cater our design to reflect those experiences, hopes, and concerns.

We are transparent as we plan to build trust, legitimacy, and buy-in. People are often understandably skeptical of outsiders who open conversations about challenging topics—topics that touch on identities, values, conflicts, or deep mistrust. Through initial interviews, conversations, and invitations, we ensure that the conveners, facilitators, and participants have clear and accurate ideas about both the plan of activities and what will be expected of them. This invites an emergent, consensus-based planning process.

We engage in collaborative design to foster participants’ ownership of this approach. Whether they’re still coping with the aftermath of violent conflict or they’ve participated in poorly-executed efforts at dialogue in the past, stakeholders often enter into the planning process with a guarded, threatened, or dismissive outlook. It is often warranted, based on their experience. EP’s process is unique. We foster a sense of shared responsibility and ownership for the discussion. 

Our approach equips stakeholders with the ability to deploy and adapt our model in response to the unique needs and context of their community. We do not parachute into communities and organizations with a quick fix. We teach facilitators and leaders how to respond to emerging needs, shifting norms, changing stakeholder groups, and evolving priorities. This holistic approach makes it possible for each community to apply our tools long after the direct collaboration with EP ends. 

We seek the involvement of trustworthy and representative conveners or co-conveners. In some situations, EP serves as both facilitators and conveners. But in many cases, we partner with individuals or groups who are known and trusted by the community stakeholders—who are willing to sponsor, offer legitimacy, and help plan the dialogue. We seek conveners who are trusted by all major stakeholder groups involved in the process, particularly those who have been historically underrepresented in decision-making processes.

We do not lead programs in which participants are required or pressured to attend. Voluntary participation is crucial to participant ownership. It empowers people to use their voice when they feel their opinions will be heard and taken seriously, and when they are ready to do so. We ask that every participant who chooses to attend be committed to the stated intentions of the project. When that free commitment is absent, it can drain energy from the engagement and cloud its intention.

We train stakeholders to facilitate Reflective Structured Dialogue in a manner that is responsive to participants’ emerging needs and interests. Our commitments to collaboration and transparency are evident in the way we teach facilitation. We engage participants in the ongoing planning process, encouraging them to remain open and flexible throughout the process. 

We continue to partner with communities as they navigate difficult conversations, empower community engagement, and address systems and patterns of conversation that had previously gone unnoticed. Over time, healthier approaches to public discussion and communication about differences will become part of a community’s DNA. This capacity manifests in the space between a question and answer, in the agenda for meetings, in the flyers for a town hall meeting. It becomes part of the culture of a community as people lean into the possibilities of pluralism without succumbing to relativism. 

Communities become more cohesive as people shift to share some of the weight of discomfort that comes from having to adapt to fit in. They belong to each other and create their future together. When difficult moments arise, they come together to navigate those challenges with greater resilience, trust, and understanding. 

Throughout this process, over the course of years, we remain essential partners. We support our partners through consultation, coaching, ongoing learning opportunities, and in-person gatherings to offer ongoing support and encouragement.

Ready to foster a thriving community strengthened by difference, connected by trust?

Contact us for a free initial phone consultation.