The Conversational Commons

The phrase “the commons” refers to domains and resources that belong to or affect the whole of a community. The “conversational commons” then embraces everything that supports or makes possible the enjoyable and productive conversations of a community — notably including the health and productivity of professions that specialize in serving quality conversation, e.g., conveners and facilitators, mediators and negotiators, diplomats and public engagement professionals, and so on.

A legitimate and important function of professional organizations like the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD), the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2), and the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) is (and could be more) the development of the conversational commons — the whole field of activities and resources within which these professionals do their work in service to their communities.

Elements of the conversational commons worthy of our attention include things like the following:

  • Conversational standards, values, and guidelines, such as the Core Principles of Public Engagement
  • Conversational methodologies being known, available and productively used
  • Conversational data, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom — research, databases, know-how, and clear articulations of deep dynamics
  • Capacity for conversation — at the grassroots level, in and among groups and organizations, in officials and leaders, and in communities and societies as a whole
  • Widespread recognition of the value and uses of conversation, including a culture that values it and demands quality dialogue and deliberation wherever it is needed
  • Funding for quality conversations and for research on the subject
  • Cultural qualities that support healthy expressiveness, including respect, listening, emotionality, rationality, and the arts
  • Media that honor, model, encourage, and empower quality conversation, from talk shows to chat rooms to social media to detailed reporting on citizen deliberations and community conversations
  • Conversational traditions, rituals, and institutions — particularly those that improve social capital (especially across cultural divides) and those that shape public decision-making
  • Enough competent people filling necessary conversational “helper roles” like facilitator, mediator, host, etc. 
  • Language and other media for exploring shared meaning — and the ability to translate among media or realms of meaning 
  • Opportunity times and spaces for conversation — from architectural nooks and free community spaces, to cafes and conferences; from listening booths and online forums to citizen deliberations and stakeholder dialogues; and all the rest… 

How often should we be reflecting on questions like these:

  • To what extent are those of us in the conversational professions focused on our own professional development and networking, and to what extent are we focused on working together to create, nurture, and develop the larger social context within which we are all working?
  • To what extent are we seeking funding for our own projects, compared to working together to help major players in the field of philanthropy realize the opportunities and leverage provided by funding conversational efforts?
  • To what extent are we spreading our knowledge at the grassroots so that more and more ordinary citizens know conversational basics and rationales and therefore demand quality conversation in their communities, their work places, and their political lives? 
  • How might we invest more time, care, attention, and resources in the development of our conversational commons?
  • What difference would a healthy and expanding conversational commons make in our lives and in the world we live in? 

(This post is also being posted to the NCDD blog.)

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