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Thought Piece | We Need to Talk: Why and How Think Tanks Need to Rethink Dialogue and Convening

Rebecca Farulli, Associate, APROPOS Group

Chiara Rosselli, Executive Director, APROPOS Group



This piece was originally published on the MERICS website as part of the Think Tank Lab's Think Tank Toolbox collection. Rebecca Farulli and Chiara Rosselli, urge think tanks to rethink the role of dialogue and convening as tools for better policy thinking and policy making. ________________


The ability to generate and test new ideas is crucial to create political systems able to face change, uncertainty, and the future—and it is especially important for think tanks and policy organizations. To achieve this, we need to invest more in spaces intentionally designed with dialogue in mind—spaces that exist for the very sake of promoting better dialogue and constructive political exchanges. 


Dialogue is a crucial function of better policymaking. The aim of this reflection is to raise awareness on the importance of good process design for hosting effective and trustful conversations in the political sector and beyond. 


There are two major reasons why the policy world needs to pay more attention to the way in which we engage our key audiences:


  1. It is key for those interested in policy change to understand the behavioral dynamics that underpin the art of change—to understand what causes people to change their minds—and to explore how we can design exchanges and convening spaces that allow for such change to happen.

  2. So much of the basics of what dialogue is—and why it is crucial to the good functioning of our societies—is still dramatically misunderstood in the policy world. While we are growing more enthusiastic and aware of the need for more dialogue to achieve inclusive policy outcomes, still too few of us recognize dialogue as an indispensable democratic muscle, an existential survival skill for societies in an age where diversity is and will continue to be on the rise. 

What is dialogue?


As Norbert Ropers defines it, dialogue is “the meaningful and meaning-creating exchange of perceptions and opinions.” There are three distinctive and essential elements of dialogue: openness, honesty, and genuine listening. 


This is what sets dialogue apart from related concepts, such as “debate” or “discussion,” which we erroneously tend to use interchangeably. “Discussion” and “debate” are content-oriented words and introduce a sort of a competitive component, hinting at the superiority of some opinions over others. “Dialogue,” instead, emphasizes the relationship and interaction between the people involved and implies mutual understanding and the goal to identify common ground. 


Why dialogue is so important for our democracies is simple


Research has confirmed that human beings are far from rational decision-makers. In his "Thinking Fast and Slow," Daniel Kahneman describes how most of our decision-making is processed through two different kinds of “thinking systems”: “System 1”—the intuitive, automatic, knee-jerk way of thinking, informed by past experience and context more than by the processing of information—and “System 2”—the slower and more logical process of decision-making.


If we accept this basic premise, we can start building political conversation spaces that actively aim to encourage “System 2” thinking. Because there are ways in which we can slow down conversations and attempt a switch between “System 1” and “System 2.” 

This starts with trying to design convenings that consider the reality of how people's minds work—not how we wish they would work—and that build on the so-called “affective tipping point,” where a more rational updating kicks in. This is what creates the conditions for a change of perspective to happen.


How to create the space for genuine dialogue through better-crafted engagement formats


1. Create thinking spaces that are explorative, not prescriptive. 


An explorative approach means taking on an experimental and learning-based approach. It embraces the point of view that we do not have all the answers to complex policy questions. This simple but crucial point of departure encourages participants to explore new perspectives instead of engaging in a debate about which solution is best. Indeed, an exchange designed with a “problem-solving focus” can often lead policymakers and thinkers to jump into solution mode without first having allowed enough time for a proper diagnosis of the problem. When this happens, the tendency is to stick to trusted, known solutions, which diminishes the possibility for new thinking, constructive discomfort, and self-doubt, and, ultimately, the possibility of a change in perspective. 


An explorative approach trains the sensitivity to the more non-measurable parts of a problem—the subjective, emotional, and perhaps irrational parts—thus making it a tool for better understanding complex problems. Explorative approaches allow us to broaden the scope of our understanding of any given problem. Taking solutions temporarily off the table creates an appetite for new and different insights into complex questions, opening up the door to new solutions down the line. 


2. Design a process that helps you achieve your purpose and works with the people in the room.


So many policy exchanges and initiatives suffer from the plight of “good intentions.” Unfortunately, having identified what you want to achieve with your dialogue or other convening format does not automatically translate into the desired outcome. The exchange needs to be designed to do what you want it to do


The number one golden rule of process design embraced by the Open European Dialogue and APROPOS – Advancing Process in Politics is to always make sure you align your three Ps.


The Three Ps are the three building blocks of any good convening, which need to work synergistically in order for your activity to deliver its intended outcome: 


People


This is about the who, the stakeholders you will be bringing into the room and for whom you are designing the dialogue. Think about: 


  • Who should be involved? 

  • Who will help you achieve the outcome you desire? 

  • What are their needs, expectations, and pre-knowledge on the topics to be discussed?

  • How can you make sure the different needs of your stakeholders are being catered to? 

Pro tip: These are the people you are designing for, not for yourself, not for the convener, not for your funder, not for an imaginary third-party audience that is not in the room. Keep that in mind. 

Purpose


This is the why behind the convening. Clarity of purpose is the make all and break all for designing an impactful convening. Often the purpose is either: a) not clear, b) not realistic, c) one of too many competing purposes, or d) not clearly communicated to the engaged stakeholders. Ask yourself: 

  • What hard or soft goals do you want to achieve? 

  • How does the purpose of this exchange fit into the broader political context? 

  • In what way is this relevant to the people in the room?

Pro tip: Start with one goal and build an exchange that is tailored to achieve that goal, then you can add extras to your process to also tailor to secondary goals—but never lose sight of your primary goal. 

Process

This is the how—how to engage and mobilize people to achieve the purpose of the convening. Think about:

  • What is needed and what has to happen for the goal of the convening to be reached? 

  • What type of interaction is required and at what stage? 

  • What is the ideal logical progression of sessions to help you build the necessary steps between A and B?

Pro tip: Kill your darlings. Keep your process as simple as it can be—there is no need to add icebreakers or other fancy process hacks unless they are specifically serving a purpose. If any bit of your process does not explicitly help you reach your convening’s goal, then scratch it. 

Keep in mind that designing a fit-for-purpose activity is a circular, reiterative effort. You will need to keep adapting and tweaking your process to ensure that the ultimate process design rule of thumb is respected and that people, purpose, and process are always aligned. 

Designing purposeful convening and dialogue spaces can dramatically change the outcome and effectiveness of political conversations. Understanding the need for better dialogue and more purposeful convening—and how to deliver these—has the potential to be a powerful new tool for policy work. 



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