The 411: Public Conversations Project works at a local, national and global level to encourage positive community conversations on a broad range of polarizing topics, including same-sex marriage, gender, sexual orientation and women’s issues.
When talking with people or watching politicians discuss sensitive subjects on TV, what starts as a friendly conversation often turns into a shouting match, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
With Public Conversations Project, people with different identities, beliefs and values can learn to voice how they feel in a respectful and honest way.
Providing dialogue facilitation, training, consultation and coaching, Public Conversations helps reduce stereotypes and polarization while building trust and collaboration within communities.
For the past 26 years, Public Conversations’ practitioners have worked on a wide range of issues, including same-sex marriage, abortion, sexual orientation, women’s rights, gender and more.
The bread and butter of what these practitioners do is addressing a breakdown in constructive communication and providing a solution that creates communication skills that make action and understanding possible.
“We don’t go in assuming people need to change where they stand on an issue, but rather we develop skills for listening and understanding each other better in order to figure out how to coexist around an issue, which they may not ever agree on,” said Executive Director Parisa Parsa.
We spoke with Parsa as well as John Sarrouf, Director of Program Development and Strategic Partnerships, to learn more about how Public Conversations has perfected its approach over the years.
Partnering with communities
One of the great things about Public Conversations is the team doesn’t talk at you — they genuinely believe in collaborating and training people to facilitate productive conversations for themselves and keep that momentum going in future discussions.
“We listen deeply about what their hopes are and what their concerns are, and we really think about how we could help them structure a new conversation that will change the relationships and then change the community,” Sarrouf said.
Perhaps the biggest change can be seen in faith communities, where topics like same-sex marriage and sexual orientation often leave people extremely divided. Public Conversations offers support to both sides and encourages alternative ways to have those talks.
“People come away both moved by each other’s deep concern for each other, so that you maintain that sense of community, but also really feeling like they know something more about a different perspective than their own,” he said.
Living with and accepting our differences
The main goal of Public Conversations is to show people that they can vocalize their opinions while still creating a productive society together, even if personal and political beliefs don’t always align.
Sarrouf used the example of how the implementation of immigration policies can divide communities.
“Just because a legal issue may have been settled that doesn’t mean the relationship and our sense of being able to talk about this openly and caringly has gone away,” he said. “That’s where we feel our work is — in helping refocus people or at least giving them the sense that they can care about what they care about deeply and passionately, but also care about relationships and the community so that lives aren’t hurt in significant ways.”
From Parsa’s perspective, listening helps us break down stereotypes and assumptions and allows us to be who we truly are without the need for categorical boxes, which often leave no room for growth.
“Underneath it all, we’re all looking to connect, to be the full people we want to be, and most of us don’t fit in one of the poles of the divisive issues of our time,” she said. “We might lean one way or another, have more affinity with one way than another, but most of us are actually fairly mixed, and having the time and space to unpack that, to be in the fullness of ourselves and our experiences, actually opens up this whole new world for us to move around in.”
From certainty to curiosity to caring
With 26 years under its belt, Public Conversations looks forward to another talkative 26 years.
“We’re looking to expand the places that we are working, especially in the arenas of human resources, higher education, especially around Title 9 and sexual assault, religious communities and international work,” Parsa said. “We’re looking to increase our exposure in those arenas, but also to share the word of the work that’s already been done and expose people to our practice through our open enrollment trainings and customization trainings in organizations that want to build a stronger culture of dialogue internally.”
Sarrouf added that in a world that is more polarized than ever, it’s common for people to stay out of the dialogue for fear of unrelenting backlash, so ultimately the folks at Public Conversations hope to take people from a place of anger and unwavering certainty to a place of curiosity and then to a place of caring.
“That’s only achieved through people coming together and hearing each other and their stories and being able to ask questions — honest, genuine questions — where people are able to learn from one another,” he said. “I think people are hungry for a new way to engage each other, to be together, to be neighbors, to work on problems together, and when they have a difficult conversation, they want to leave that conversation feeling energized rather than discouraged,” he said.
To learn more about Public Conversations Project and access their free resources, visit www.publicconversations.org.