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How to hold challenging and honest discussions: A conversation with the Dispute Resolution Center of MN

On Thursday, January 11th, Executive Director Jackie Hayes sat down with Catherine Keating, Manager of Programs and Services at the Dispute Resolution Center of MN, and with CFPA Managing Director (and freelance theater director) Jennie Ward, about their ongoing project pairing staged readings of challenging plays with facilitated small group conversations built to encourage self-reflection. Their model will be featured in CFPA’s first event in the ReClaim series, this Saturday, January 20th, at 7:30 pm.

Jackie Hayes: Tell me a little bit about the Dispute Resolution Center (DRC.) 

Catherine Keating: At the DRC, we focus on community mediation and restorative justice processes/restorative practices. We train the peacemakers we see in the community to be able to help resolve conflicts and to empower people to solve their own conflicts. We also directly facilitate some of those conversations. Restorative practices are based around relationship and bridging relationships that have gone awry one way or another. There are a number of principles of restorative justice that differ depending on which practitioners you study, but all restorative justice is largely centered around this idea that some kind of harm has happened. Through these conversations, we help people facilitate their awakening and awareness of the ways in which they interact with society: the ways in which they might harm others, or be complicit in harm; or the way that they may have been harmed themselves.

In this partnership that Jennie and I have built, in the previous events we held, we focused largely on

Catherine Keating, DRC Manager of Programs and Services

using the reading as a way to help people of privilege – especially white privilege – to reflect on that privilege and to use story to spark a better understanding of someone else’s experience, whether people of a different color or gender or whatever. We strive to build an understanding of intersectionality.

JH: What is it about witnessing or participating in a script reading that invites discussion in a different way than just sitting in a circle and trying to do it?

CK: That’s a question that we are exploring a lot at DRC right now, not only in this project. How does art help us to connect with our emotions in a different way? How can we use art to foster a space where self-reflection happens? Art can be a beautiful medium to draw that out of people. The play-reading offers a chance for empathy with characters who have different experiences than you, learning about other people’s experiences at a slight distance.

Jennie Ward, CFPA Managing Director

Jennie Ward: It lowers the personal stakes in interesting ways. 

JH: By its nature, you’re stepping out of yourself. You’re either entering an imaginative space or you are empathising or getting out of [your head]; does that separation between the self and others allow for some critical distance?

CK: Yes. When we guide groups through questions, that imaginative distance deepens people’s ability to get more real and vulnerable, and invites some internal processing of yourself.

JH: How do you shape the post-reading conversation time? Is it inquiry-based? How do you navigate complicated and difficult moments?

CK: Our volunteers are adept at facilitating difficult conversations, and it is largely inquiry-based. We build a template for each event that is provided to each facilitator, with a curated list of questions to focus the conversation. Our volunteers are trained in a number of different tools and techniques to handle difficult conversations. Most importantly, our facilitators are comfortable with discomfort. If the facilitator is not getting jazzed and hyped and upset, and is able to deal calmly with what’s being held in that space, the participants often follow suit. One tenet of mediation and restorative practices is for the facilitator to put challenging questions back into the group instead of trying to answer themselves. Another technique is to say the hard thing that needs to be said, in question form.

JW: In watching these circles, I see a lot of modeling. More than people getting angry or difficult, I’ve seen people just being too polite. The facilitator can speak honestly and vulnerably themselves, showing everyone that it is ok to say the thing that they are really experiencing in that moment. Rather than saying “I think that you should . . . “, they model the same kind of thing. It’s skill building. None of us are born knowing how to have uncomfortable conversations.

JH: At least not healthy uncomfortable conversations!

CK: One of the tools that we use a lot in mediation is to reflect back what someone has said – sometimes you can even just repeat their exact words. It helps sometimes for people to hear their own words. It validates them, simply by saying the words that they said. Or you can reframe their words. Occasionally, you can take what somebody has said and reframe it so that someone else in the circle might be able to hear it differently. Oftentimes that’s the beauty of the facilitator in the room, they are able to build bridges between people like that.

JH: I imagine in any facilitated circle like this, facilitators pretty quickly run up against shame. Does the small group size help this, create less public anxiety/shame stuff?

CK: Absolutely. People are generally more comfortable sharing things in a smaller group. Not everybody, but generally. We also start off each conversation with some basic guidelines for interacting. We honor the space and everything that is said in the group is confidential and it stays in the room. The guidelines help to build some trust before going into the conversation.

JH: My guess is that some folks are going to want to talk about THE PLAY, in an artistic context . . . You don’t want to “forbid” talk about whether or not a certain character was developed enough, etc  . . . how do you navigate that?

CK: People are going to need a chance to get that off their chests. We create space for it, but a short limited space, in these small groups. So we’ll say, we’re going to spend the first five minutes talking about the artistic merits of the story. Let that out, and then we can move on.

JW: It’s actually really helpful that the artists do not usually participate in the conversations. They just leave the room; they’re done. Their job is to present the story. And it allows the audience the freedom to speak their minds about the play without worrying that they’re going to be wrong, or that they’re going to offend the creators. The fear is, I’m not perceptive enough to have gotten the true intent and the person who made the thing is going to say, “Oh but what I really meant was . . . “ and then I feel stupid. Another fear is: I say something and then someone feels sad, their feelings are hurt because I told them they did a bad job. So you eliminate that, and people are much freer. It’s a layer of distance that helps people work in a different way. No matter how brave your artists are, no matter how down for real feedback they are, there are no words the artist could say to an audience after presenting work that would make the audience genuinely able to be honest with them. That’s just – audiences are well-trained to be polite and appreciative. Which is great, but not what these events are about.

CK: It’s a chance to build trust over time. We ease into the depth of the questions. Starting with what can be more lighthearted: what did you observe, what are the artistic merits, nothing personal.

JW: “We just had a common experience. Let’s engage on that common experience.” And then it diversifies.

JH: What if somebody is super triggered and or has a meltdown? What if something personal is evoked and there’s some real serious mental health care needed? Are your facilitators ready for that?

CK: Our facilitators are either civil mediation trained or they’re circle trained. They have practice and experience in dealing with those sorts of situations. Many of our facilitators have been doing different processes with us for years and have many different tools under their belts that help them to navigate a situation like that. Even less dramatic situations, like if someone raises their voice, we have tools to de-escalate that. I’m confident that the volunteers that we put in these situations are able to navigate that.

JW: The fact that it’s a facilitator team, too, helps. If somebody genuinely needs to tap out and deal with somebody one-on-one, we can shift and adjust.

CK: Also, people know what they’re getting into. Our previous audiences have been, to some degree, ready to reflect on their privilege.

JH: I think it’s completely brilliant to blend these things. I’m dying of curiosity and totally excited about what will emerge.

JW: Fascinating conversations happen, people really go to interesting places. Mostly they’re incredibly open and generous with each other and willing to be vulnerable. There have been a couple of times when I’ve felt like, “ooo, I wish I could be in that car ride home.” I want to hear the conversation that happens after this conversation. I wonder if . . . . I hope that there will be another conversation, because that’s the whole reason why we’re here. It’s not even really about the conversation that happens in our room, it’s not even really about that moment. It’s about building skills and capacity and modeling, so that these conversations can happen in the car on the way home; tomorrow with your cubicle-mate at work; when you go see your great-aunt’s second cousin’s neighbor; so that it can move outward in that way.

JH: How do you close these conversations out? How do you send people out with a charge to be generative about what it is that they just experienced?

CK: The first event we did together was in a church community; people knew each other and were going to see each other next week, working together, praying together. We didn’t do as much of the next steps, further resources for you to read or watch or learn, because it was built in. After the second event, we finished the conversation with a closing round, we helped people to close out the conversation, and then talked about being able to take it forward and out into your daily life. For this event, we will provide people with a pre-made sheet of resources: different things that you can do, things that you can read, to continue these conversations, so that this sparks something, but this is not the end.

JH: I assume there are opportunities for training and volunteering with the DRC!

CK: Yes! I’m really excited to see how this one goes. We have some volunteers on our roster that are really interested in going to mediation in court, and that looks much more like a legal process than a restorative justice circle. For this event, we are curating a panel of volunteers that are more focused on the restorative processes.

Join us, Saturday, January 20th, 7:30 pm at CFPA Mpls!