Last night, I attended a “Listen…and be Heard” session hosted by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (yes, I am Episcopalian). The session was very productive as a member of the diocese – I went feeling nervous and left feeling very respected and respectful. I also went into it intrigued by the process, and I think it could be used by public history and preservation communities when dealing with difficult issues.
Here’s how it worked: everyone showed up and was given a name tag with a little number on it. The number was for our small groups, which came later. The small groups didn’t end up quite as mixed as they might have, despite the fact that if you came in a clump they tried to give everyone a different number. I think so many people walked in solo that it affected the random-mixing nature.
Anyway, there was coffee and cookies as we waited for the session to begin. Eventually (well, at the scheduled start time), we all gathered in the sanctuary where the Bishop addressed the crowd. We opened with a prayer, and then he talked a little about how the process of the listening sessions was developed, and about what the session were and were not. A priest who is part of the administration of the Diocese (I cannot recall her name) gave us some instructions. She said that anyone whose group was in an area with other groups and where they might have trouble hearing should come see her and they would be switched to one in a quieter location, which I thought was an excellent concession to the older members of the crowd. Then we broke into our small groups.
The groups were 10 participants, 1 moderator and a notetaker. The moderator was a volunteer from the community who read the instructions and the questions. The notetaker was an employee of the Diocese who spoke only to clarify questions that the moderator could not answer or to ask for someone to repeat a phrase. Every word we said was recorded, but not our names, ages, or home parishes; these reports will be given to the Bishop, who will read them all.
We were asked to respond to three questions. The questions are standardized, but were not released ahead of time, and we were asked not to share them afterwards, so that people would respond honestly. The best part was that each person was to speak, but no interruptions or questions or dialog were allowed. You had to use “I believe” statements. You could respond to someone who had spoken before you, but everyone had to engage respectfully. We were not only being asked to speak, but to actively listen to the words of the others in our small groups. Once you had finished speaking, you were asked to write a word or phrase that summed up your response on a piece of newsprint. At the end of the sessions, all the papers were posted (with masking tape) on the walls of the parish hall for everyone to read.
My group was, by luck of the draw, fairly homogenous. A friend of mine, however, was the only person of her (our) opinion in her group. She said it was a little awkward, but that she still felt respected and respectful in the group, for all that they disagreed. The listening sessions are designed to foster respectful discourse, even over very sensitive topics.
My one complaint is that there wasn’t a focused time to see the comments people had written. As groups finished, they drifted back to the sanctuary, but there were groups still meeting in the parish hall, where the papers were posted. My group actually finished last, because we tried to make sure that the shy people had a chance to speak, even if it meant waiting in silence while they composed their thoughts. Once all the groups were finished, we gathered again in the sanctuary where the Bishop thanked us, a few pieces of housekeeping were taken care of, and a final prayer was said. By that point, it was late enough that many people just left, rather than staying to read and consider the posted comments.
Overall, I think it could be a useful system for preservation or public/local history groups trying to work through a contentious issue in their community. Everyone is allowed to speak without interruption or fear of questioning, and respect for all opinions is emphasized. The posters help create a place to start a second phase of dialog, while the anonymously recorded comments give organizers a deep insight into the opinions of the community. If anyone is interested in trying such a session, I encourage them to contact the Diocese for more information.