The Open Topic Dialog: A Way to Cultivate Democracy

In San Francisco and Austria, recent successful experiments with the Open Topic Dialog format have been encouraging. You’re invited to experiment with this mechanism. 

These dialogs nurture democratic equality, democratic dialog, and respect for others’ equal value as a human being. The hope is that others will adopt this format as a way to enrich lives and prepare the soil for more effective, compassionate, grassroots movements. Following are the format’s guidelines:

Open Topic Dialog

A conversation group based on the “talking stick” principle. Enter a safe, respectful space, speak from the heart, and express what’s on your mind. It’s an opportunity to talk, listen, learn and brainstorm with others.

  • The person holding the “stick,” which may be any object, speaks for up to two minutes without interruption.
  • The speaker then passes the stick to someone who raises their hand, who responds to the previous speaker and then perhaps takes the discussion to another topic. 
  • Speakers can use their two minutes to ask a clarifying question (and may interrupt the answer).
  • The Timekeeper convenes the dialog, reviews the guidelines, selects the first speaker randomly if more than one person wants to speak first, sets a timer when each person begins speaking, facilitates the selection of the next Timekeeper, and adjourns the dialog. At the end of each dialog, the Timekeeper facilitates the selection of the Timekeeper for the next dialog — or continues to
  • that role. 
  • People with mobility difficulties can ask someone to give the stick to the next speaker. Everyone is encouraged to: 
  • be respectful and avoid personal attacks or name-calling; 
  • avoid going back and forth repeatedly with the same person, and;
  • call on people who haven’t spoken or spoken less and perhaps ask: Does anyone who hasn’t spoken wish to speak?

With this approach, the Dialog is horizontal, self-regulating, peer-to-peer, leaderless, and leaderfull. Everyone is a leader. Each Dialog can become self-perpetuating. Any group can easily learn and adopt the Dialog format.

Existing organizations can supplement their current activities by scheduling a Dialog to enable their members to get to better know each other, share whatever emerges, and perhaps explore issues related to their organization’s work that emerge spontaneously. When in the course of their normal business an organization becomes “stuck” with members not really listening to each other, it can be helpful to pause and conduct a Dialog, which can help members better appreciate different perspectives. Individuals who don’t belong to the same organization can invite friends and relatives to form a Dialog as a way for individuals with various perspectives to communicate and better understand each other.

There’s no pre-defined specific agenda. The focus is simply to “speak from the heart, and express what’s on your mind.” The only content that’s prohibited is “personal attacks or name-calling.” This open-ended focus encourages spontaneity and authenticity — and allows for unexpected issues to emerge, such as a timely current event or recent personal experience. The participants may, however, end up focusing on a specific topic.

This format enables participants to practice listening and respecting each other, which encourages the development of those skills. It’s not “therapy” and it’s not problem-solving. There’s no commitment to try to “fix” anything. Nevertheless, the Dialog may prove to be “therapeutic.” The talking stick gives everyone a voice — a chance to speak freely and be heard without interruption, which cultivates self-empowerment. 

Being asked to respond to the previous speaker encourages listening and dialog (an exchange of ideas on a topic). Nevertheless, participants are free to change the topic if they wish. Clarifying questions should be honest questions, not rhetorical or argumentative. Speakers are free to disagree respectfully. 

Each participant is equally responsible for the conduct of the group. The two-minute time limit helps assure everyone has a fair chance to participate. The Timekeeper is merely a functionary.  Anyone can perform that easy-to-perform role, which rotates from time to time. Each Dialog can determine the frequency and length of its meetings. It seems 5-12 is a good number of participants. A group of more than twelve can divide into two groups.

There’s no need to go through a time-consuming decision-making process to decide on what to talk about. There’s no decision-making process led by one person or a few persons. Everyone has an equal voice. There’s no trained facilitator. Anyone can initiate a Dialog, make copies of the guidelines, and serve as the first Timekeeper. 

According to the wikipedia, many aborignal tribes, especially Native Amerians, have used the talking stick as an “instrument of democracy”. According to the First People site:

The Talking Stick is used…when a council is called. It allows all council members to present their Sacred Point of View…. Only the person holding the stick is allowed to speak…. Every member of the meeting must listen closely… Indian children are taught to listen from age three forward; they are also taught to respect another’s viewpoint…. Since each piece of material used in the Talking Stick speaks of the personal Medicine of the stick owner, each stick will be different…. The Talking Stick is the tool that teaches each of us to honor the Sacred Point of View of every living creature.

The Open Topic Dialog is not based on this spiritual understanding, though we honor it. We express our gratitude to Native Americans for developing this tool, which we adapt. We encourage others to use it to conduct Open Topic Dialogs as a way to cultivate democracy.

Wade Lee Hudson
2/22/2020

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