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  • jeffreystec

How to handle hot public controversies

At the height of the transsexual bathroom controversy in public schools, board meetings were vitriolic and polarizing. A board member I know was uncertain about how to resolve the issue and uncomfortable asking questions at a public hearing, which could lead to her being unfairly labeled transphobic despite being OK with non-heteronormative identities and lifestyles (“live and let live,” she told me).

She asked if I could design and facilitate a civil conversation that would help the board and superintendent understand the student perspective. Because only a few trans students were available, we invited students from the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) (these students’ parents could also attend but had a limited role). We also held the meeting in executive session to keep hateful people from disrupting the meeting.

Importantly, we framed the gathering as a conversation for understanding rather than a debate; by focusing on personal experience instead of policy points, we would be more likely to build empathy among participants. To increase vulnerability, we held conversations in groups of three, with two students in every group to equalize the power imbalance.

At the outset of the conversation (after a welcome from the board chair), everyone committed to the following principles: assume good faith in everyone; don't compare your best to someone else's worst; seek first to understand; and stay in the room despite differences. Then we moved into our small group conversations, each of which was followed by a 5-10 minute debrief of what was most important about that discussion:

Conversation 1. Introduce yourself and explain why it was important for you to be here.

Conversation 2. Students were asked to share a personal story that embodied the challenges trans students experience at school. District leaders were asked to empathize with and be curious about these stories by a) checking to see if they understood what was important to the student, and b) asking follow-up questions to learn more about the students’ experience.

Conversation 3. Leaders were then given time to ask questions of students that would help them better understand the situation. We emphasized that if leaders asked about the bathroom issue, that they refrain from debate and only seek to understand the student perspective.

After we debriefed the third small group conversation, I asked the parents to share what struck them about what they witnessed, then closed the meeting by going around the room to ask students and district leaders “what they were taking with them from their experience.”

So how did it go? First, everyone relaxed half-way through the first small group conversation when they realized people were going to be kind. For 90 minutes, questions generated emotional stories that touched everyone: leaders sensed how identity affects every moment of a student’s day; students realized that district leaders had their own challenges and worries. Students and parents left the meeting more confident that board members respected the needs of trans students, while board members got heartfelt answers to their "dumb questions." Some even wanted to use the conversation as a launch of an ongoing team that could work together on trans issues over time.

In the end, the board endured another public hearing, but when trans-advocates offered sympathetic testimony, everyone became more respectful. Exactly how the board handled the bathroom issue is ultimately not very important. What mattered is that the community found a way to come together and resolve an issue through empathy and understanding, and both sides moved on with nary a bathroom controversy since.

NOTE: in this case study we saw the power of story and empathy to resolve a heated debate; next week I will explore how we can use argument organization -- what I call "needs mapping" -- to complement emotional with rational understanding.

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