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Our Method

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

Working at the intersection of community engagement, conflict resolution, culture change, de-polarization, and dialogue across differences, Essential Partners was founded in 1989 by a group of behavioral health researchers and practitioners who began a process of innovation to bring the theoretical frameworks and effective methods of therapeutic practices for discussions of polarized and divisive public issues. 

This origin makes EP unique among organizations that reduce polarization, deepen belonging, and create more inclusive, dynamic, collaborative cultures in the spaces where people live, work, worship, and learn.

At EP, we draw the connections between personal development and systems transformation. Our model interrupts dysfunctional, self-perpetuating dynamics that stifle trust, understanding, and collaboration—particularly those that arise 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 and underrepresentation of people who have complex, marginalized, or underdeveloped views
  • Stereotyping, polarization, and misinformation campaigns
  • Disengagement or avoidance that drive low classroom engagement, reduced democratic participation, and poor employee retention
  • Interruptions, angry outbursts, and personal attacks
  • 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 often prominent in conflicts across lines of ideology or identity, but we also find the them within groups whose members have a shared identity and common goals but disagree about priorities and strategies. Sometimes these patterns are hidden by a silence that cloaks underlying disagreement.

Our approach changes the way people understand, communicate with, and relate to one another. It helps them speak about the things that matter most—not just specific issues or policies, not just the surface tensions and rhetoric, but their deeply-held values, their formative experiences, their genuine hopes and fears. 

We give people the tools to see each other as human beings, and that is a transformative experience.

Photo: EP Planning Meeting

Reflective Structured Dialogue

Reflective Structured Dialogue (RSD) is a research-based, flexible, scalable framework 
for systemic change. RSD equips people to interrupt dysfunctional dynamics and build relationships across differences in order to address challenges where they live, work, worship, and learn.

EP's founders were behavioral health researchers and practitioners. As a result, RSD is rooted in proven therapeutic strategies while drawing insights and innovations from an array of related fields, including professional mediation, systems theory, conflict resolution, interpersonal communication theory, appreciative inquiry, narrative approaches, organizational development, psychology, and neurobiology. Browse our archive of peer-reviewed and published research on RSD.

RSD has made change possible in diverse contexts across the globe, equipping local stakeholders to make changes according to their own terms, norms, and values. Because of its flexibility and therapeutic rots, it is uniquely effective in interrupting self-perpetuating cycles of polarized conflicts around differences of identities, values, and perspectives.

The core premises of Reflective Structured Dialogue are:

  1. People get stuck in dysfunctional, self-perpetuating, polarized cycles of communication that are hard to recognize and almost impossible to change organically. These cycles erode trust, deepen division, and discourage collective action, reducing the ability of the community or institution to address problems. Unchecked, it can lead to intergroup violence, social deterioration, as well as the collapse of democratic systems and norms.
  2. Intentionally changing the ways that people communicate, both individually and in groups, interrupts dysfunctional cycles. Dialogic containers, facilitation skills, and design principles work by dispelling stereotypes, fostering complexity, repairing trust, generating new relationships, creating healthier norms, and shifting intergroup dynamics.
  3. Interrupting dysfunctional cycles is a process that scaffolds from individual development through intergroup communication to systemic change. Individuals acquire frameworks, theoretical knowledge, and practical skills to disrupt the dysfunctional cycles in their specific context. They leverage these tools to shift broader group norms and systems in ways that are informal (such as modeling and coaching) as well as formal (such as explicit norms, lesson plans, community organizing, and process design).
  4. The combination of informal and formal influences has the power to change the culture of the group, school, or institution as well as the larger community and the broader society. RSD-trained individuals serve as a permanent, embedded resource, prepared to interrupt new emergent dysfunctions and adapting the RSD framework to meet new challenges through inclusive collaborative decision-making.

Through training, consultation, coaching, facilitation, and long-term collaboration, EP equips people to live and work better together. It also strengthens the pluralism and diversity that are the foundation of a healthy democratic society. Although the scope and depth of our collaborations have grown, innovations have arisen for spaces like the classroom, and technologies have invited new adaptations, 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, college, school, and institution we work with? How do we account for the unique cultural contexts of each space and each community? Over four decades, we have developed a set of core practices that invite a collaborative expertise, a tailored program design, a goal of sustainable empowerment, and a transformative theory of change grounded in well-researched methodologies.

We map the context with partners, learn about current dynamics, and explore the hopes people have for their shared future. Before we begin a collaboration with any community, college, school, or institution, 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 interventions to reflect those challenges, patterns, 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 histories of mistrust. Through interviews, conversations, and invitations, we ensure that all the stakeholders (planners, 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 in our Reflective Structured Dialogue framework 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 support partners as they shift norms, navigate difficult conversations, reduce polarization, and address dysfunctional systems. 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.