“From Public Hearing to Community Dialogue”

“From Public Hearing to Community Dialogue”

Tricia Winslow, Mediator, Gunnison

“You can't always get what you want.
But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need”

~Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

As this year's Headwaters theme implies, unresolved conflict threatens our ability to achieve Wallace Stegner's notion of “building a society to match the scenery.” We are challenged to “explain ourselves to each other” in the words of Thomas Jefferson and as discussed last year by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Water, growth, public lands, open space, trails the list goes on of issues which are influenced by deeply held personal values. Many of us living in the Headwaters region have personally witnessed the great difficulty presented by such disagreements.

Governmental agencies and public officials, as appointed community leaders, find themselves in the often-awkward role of designing some sort of process to “handle” an issue. Money and time are always in short supply so the same old public meetings occur over and over again. George Sibley asks, “Do we cultivate the kind of leadership we need to move past conflict toward consensus? Or do we get the leadership we deserve; do we need to expect more of ourselves in finding the way to the kind of agreement that would permit positive action?

I believe we need to expect more of ourselves, as well as our leaders, in creating actions to solve the problems arising in our communities. Let's work together to move beyond the standard “public hearing” and learn to really listen. Create a balanced discussion. An informed debate. Ask genuine questions. Engage each other in a mutual exchange. The kind of conversations we don't see much of these days. The key to this type of meeting is the use of a third party neutral, a skilled intermediary who can facilitate a new conversation. What might this look like you ask?

A public hearing is designed for local officials to take input on a specific issue. The setting is rather formal and the Mayor or County Commissioner moderates the speaking. The focus of the discussion is to generate information necessary for the elected body to make a decision. Communication flow is one-way, from the speaker directly to the officials. Sometimes, questions are asked. Written comments can be submitted.

The process of a “community dialogue” would look quite different. The use of a neutral to moderate and facilitate allows all participants to focus on the conversation. The meeting is structured to encourage understanding and a genuine exchange of ideas, rather than being centered on the problem at hand. The facilitator may meet ahead of time with stakeholders to hear various positions and help individuals prepare for the discussion. When participants have the opportunity to speak and be heard the increased understanding often results in a shift towards consensus.

The meeting will take place in a community center or library, rather than the Council Chambers or Courthouse. A comfortable, relaxed setting is created with refreshments available. It's important to create a safe environment so that all points of view can be expressed and heard. Ground rules for behavior are discussed and agreed upon by the group. The neutral has several roles; that of facilitating the conversation, so that all are allowed to speak, and working to ensure that true listening is occurring. Maintaining “ground rules” and re-framing inflammatory remarks so they can be heard. Keeping the conversation on track. Arranging for the presentation of factual information. Offering options for decision-making. Suggesting areas of agreement. S/he may act as a convener diplomatically creating a working group.

The process of dialogue empowers people to create their own solutions. Often community members know what it takes to resolve the problem. It just takes time to work through the emotions surrounding hot issues and peel back the layers to reveal the substantive pieces. Time spent up front allowing people to speak their heart and deeply listen to others generally pays off in some type of arrangement that everyone can live with. It's been said that a clearly defined problem is on its way to solution. With some time and expertise, the problem becomes a catalyst around which community building can occur.

Tricia Winslow earned an Advanced Study Certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution from the University of Denver. She has a private mediation practice in Gunnison, Colorado and works closely with the newly formed Alliance for Community & Restorative Justice project. You may also find her at Savage Library on the WSC campus where she serves as the Circulation/Public Services librarian. Tricia lives west of town with her spouse, Greg, a dog “Mesa” and a cat named “Dakota”.

National Resources:

  • Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR)
    202.667.9700 http://www.acresolution.org
    A merged organization of the Academy of Family Mediators, Conflict Resolution Education Network and the Society of Professionals in Dispute Resolution

  • United States Postal Service – REDRESS
    Resolve Employment Disputes, Reach Equitable Solutions Swiftly
    REDRESS is a voluntary alternative dispute resolution program offered to employees nationwide as part of the Postal Service's equal employment opportunity (EEO) complaint process. REDRESS is generally offered to employees at the informal counseling stage of the EEO process. REDRESS II may be offered as part of the formal complaint process.
    REDRESS is recognized as one of the country's leading conflict management programs. The Postal Service has received positive feedback from employees, supervisors, and their representatives, and the program has resulted in the resolution of many disputes without the need for litigation.

  • Project for Public Conversations
    617.923.1216 Http://publicconversations.org
    The mission of PPC is to foster a more inclusive, empathic and collaborative society by promoting constructive conversations and relationships among those who have differing values, world views, and positions about divisive public issues.

  • Mediation Information and Referral Center

  • A Proposal to Listen for Peace & Security
    A grassroots movement of people, organizations and coalitions for lasting peace through forums of skilled, compassionate listening.

Colorado Resources

  • Colorado Council of Mediators (CCMO)
    800.864.4317 http://www.coloradomediation.org
    The mission of CCMO is to promote the development and excellence of the mediation profession, to promote the use and understanding of mediation as an alternative means of dispute resolution, to improve public understanding of the need for and uses of mediation and to improve business conditions for mediators in Colorado.

  • Boulder County Civic Forum
    303.442.0436 http://www.bococivicforum.org
    The Boulder County Civic Forum (formerly the Boulder County Healthy Communities Initiative) promotes healthy decision-making that will sustain the environmental quality, livability, and economic vibrancy of the Boulder County region.

  • The Colorado Forum on Community & Restorative Justice
    720.904.2322 httpp://ww.coloradorestorativejustice.org
    The Colorado Forum on Community & Restorative Justice exists to foster understanding and implementation of restorative community justice principles and values. We collaborate with communities, organizations, foundations, the criminal justice system and state leadership to work for safe and healthy communities.


Dukes, E. Franklin, Marina A. Piscolish & John B. Stephens. (2000). Reaching For Higher Ground in Conflict Resolution. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Ury, William. (1999). The Third Side. New York, Penguin Books. Previously published as Getting to Peace.