Creating Dialogue: Yarmouth Tries Creative Problem Solving
(from Maine Townsman, May 1997)
By Jo Josephson

"In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal." The Study Circle Handbook.

If there is anything that gets the juices flowing in a community, it’s property taxes and the budget. Is there anything else? And that’s okay. Because discussion, and yes, even disagreement are what drive the engine of democracy. What’s not okay is when disagreement leads to polarization. Because if disagreements are the engine of local government, polarization is what stalls it.

So how does one nurture discussion and yes disagreement, while making sure it does not lead to polarization of a board, council, or community?

One breaks from tradition. One stops debating with the hope of winning and begins having a dialogue, with the hopes of finding common ground. All in the name of keeping the wheels of democracy moving forward.

That’s what the folks in Yarmouth (pop. 7,954) did recently, when faced with declining revenues from its largest taxpayer and the resultant growing divisiveness over the spending of the diminishing dollars.

This article attempts to reconstruct the "Yarmouth experience" in dialogue as a means for introducing TOWNSMAN readers to the new kid on the block in collaborative problem solving: The Study Circle or Roundtable.

Yarmouth: Overview

They called it the "Yarmouth Roundtable: Cabin-fever Conversations on the Budget". It was initiated by the citizenry and fueled with background information generated by the town manager and school superintendent, volunteer facilitators, and in-kind services. It attracted about 150 citizens over a period of four weeks in the winter of 1995 just before the budget process was to begin, during a time of growing divisiveness in the community over taxes.

By the time the "Conversations" were concluded, there was a greater respect for different opinions, a greater trust in government, a greater understanding of the different options for solving tax problems, and the anti-tax, anti-government forces had been diffused, say those who participated.

But more important, the citizens had gone beyond taxes and the budget and had begun to grapple with the bigger question: How to handle community unity and commercial growth in the face of declining revenues from the town's largest taxpayers? Or as Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper framed it: What is our tolerance here for change?

Yarmouth: Background

At the time the roundtable discussions were initiated, Yarmouth was in the midst of a long battle with Central Maine Power over the valuation of the company’s power plant on Cousin’s Island. The town had assessed the Wyman Station, Maine’s largest power plant, at $450 million; the company said it was worth only $118 million. The appeal was before the state Board of Property Tax Review. If the company prevailed the company’s tax bill would be cut in half from approximately $6 million to $3 million a year, according to Tupper.

Facing a potential rise of ten mills in it’s tax rate, from the current $13.80 per $1,000 to $23.00 per $1,000, facing the prospect of changing from a low tax community to a high tax community, facing the prospect of significant tax increase or significant budget cuts, civil discourse in the community was beginning to unravel, recalls resident Melisa Webster.

"Things started becoming nasty; there were lots of rumors; there was lots of misinformation; there was a lot of divisiveness in the community," Webster told the TOWNSMAN. And she added, "People running for the school committee were asked are you a cutter or are you a spender; there was no concern about educational issues."

Fresh from her experience as a facilitator with the Maine Sunday Telegram’s Reader Roundtables, Webster hooked up with school committee candidate Pamelia Adams, who had run on a platform of communication and dialogue. The two agreed that Yarmouth was ripe for a "roundtable experience".

Yarmouth: Roundtable Experience

Roundtable experience? To talk about Yarmouth’s roundtable experience, one begins by noting the relatively new kid on the block in the arena of consensus building, mediation, and conflict resolution: The Roundtable Center in Portland (see Resources). It provided Yarmouth with a list of facilitators it had trained to help guide Yarmouth’s citizens through the roundtable or study circle experience.

But more important it provided the community with a new approach to problem-solving in which citizens interested in a common topic gather in small study groups, known as roundtables or study circles, to share their experiences, knowledge and opinions with each other over a period of weeks, in the name of seeking "common ground", i.e., areas of general agreement.

Diversity and Dialogue

Webster notes that there was a strong and successful effort to recruit the most active critics of the budget. If they had not been included, Webster told the TOWNSMAN, "We would have been singing to the choir." To state that the diversity of participants is a key factor in the experience, would not be an overstatement.

It is also important to stress that what sets the roundtable experience apart from other so-called discussion groups, is that those participating in it engage in "dialogue", where finding common ground is the goal, and not in "debate", where winning is the goal.

Neutral Faciliatators and Written Material

The roundtables or study circles are facilitated by a non-expert, neutral person - in Yarmouth’s case it was someone who did not live in the community. It is their job, says Webster, to provide for a safe environment, conducive to open dialogue (see sidebar).

In addition to a neutral facilitator, the roundtable experience also depends on written material that provides the framework for the discussions.

Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper figures that along with the tax assessor, he developed a total of eight background papers for the project, including papers on Yarmouth’s revaluation process (Yarmouth was undergoing its first in 12 years), the history of the town budget, the history of CMP’s share in the tax mix, as well as a comparison of Yarmouth’s level of services with those offered by other towns with similar valuations and similar incomes.

The school superintendent also developed several papers, as did the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission. Neither Tupper nor Kenneth Murphy, the school superintendent, participated in the study circles, although they were members of a diverse steering committee.

As Tupper saw it, the materials were perceived as "unbiased" as they were not being provided in the context of a budget meeting. "We were not there to sell anything," Tupper told the TOWNSMAN.

Assumptions

Dialogue. It reveals assumptions that require reevaluation, according to "The Study Circles Handbook", a publication of the Study Circle Resource Center, which pioneered the concept of study circles in this county.

In Yarmouth, the assumptions - things that are taken for granted - that emerged from the roundtable dialogue and that were explored were as follows:

 • Yarmouth as a town would currently have what it has today without CMP.

 • If CMP had never come to Yarmouth we would not have what we have today and would not be what we are today.

 • Some neighbors are willing to pay more taxes for education because: money is no object, as parents they will stretch for their kids, they believe school leadership knows what constitutes good education, although family income is tight, to underfund education would harm or handicap the children, a desire to bring a higher level of excellence to the public schools that is equivalent or close to that of a private school education.

 • Some neighbors are unwilling to pay more taxes for education, perhaps because they don’t have enough money; they have enough money but have no kids in school, think education is getting too fancy and subsequently too expensive, have other priorities than education, believe that the system is mismanaged, full of waste and inefficiencies, have very large tax bills, privatization of education would be more effective.

Yarmouth: Outcome

Webster reports that as a result of the roundtables, "We don’t have the same kind of bitter debates in public; there is a greater understanding of the budget process - of all the pieces; there are people asking more questions; and two of the roundtable participants wound up running for the school committee. Webster also notes that as a result of the roundtable experience, "We might be able to come to some understanding of what is the best path forward for the town."

As Webster sees it, it is easy to get into a we-they situation. But when we have a dialogue, we find that we are not so far apart. However, when all is said and done, for Webster, the bottom line of Yarmouth’s roundtable experience was that those participating came to understand and respect different positions.

Town Manager Nat Tupper, says he believes that aside from diffusing a group that was anti-taxes and anti-government, one of the outcomes is that citizens are going to be more receptive to broadening the tax base. "The roundtable experience enabled them to wrestle with questions about community unity, growth and commercial development," says Tupper.

"It’s easy to say you want to remain a residential community, that you want no commercial development when one taxpayer (CMP) pays 60 percent of the bills," says Tupper. The roundtable experience forced people to ask themselves: "What is our tolerance for development here?"

For the short run, Tupper says it was a very positive experience. "People were able to ask questions and get very thorough answers. No one was selling anything."

And as to what the participants thought? Many said they had not only learned a lot about the budget process and the different options for resolving the tax problem, they also suggested that the process be continued on a routine basis.

The author would like to thank Matt Leighninger of the Study Circles Resource Center for the background information provided in his article "Cabin fever Conversation" kindles dialogue in Yarmouth Maine" that appeared in the Spring issue of the SCRC’s quarterly publication, Focus on Study Circles.

SIDEBAR: A Comparison of Dialogue and Debate

 Dialogue is collaborative; two or more sides work together toward common understanding.

 Debate is oppositional; two sides oppose each other and attempt to prove each other wrong.

 In dialogue, finding common ground is the goal.

 In debate, winning is the goal.

 In dialogue, one listens to the other side(s) in order to understand, find meaning, and find agreement.

 In debate, one listens to the other side in order to find flaws and to counter its arguments.

 Dialogue enlarges and possibly changes a participant’s point of view.

 Debate affirms a participant’s own point of view.

 Dialogue reveals assumptions for reevaluation.

 Debate defends assumptions as truth.

 Dialogue causes introspection on one’s own position.

 Debate causes critique of the other position.

 Dialogue opens the possibility of reaching a better solution than any of the original solutions.

 Debate defends one’s own positions as the best solution and excludes other solutions.

 Dialogue creates an open-minded attitude; an openness to being wrong and an openness to change.

 Debate creates a closed-minded attitude, a determination to be right.

 In dialogue, one submits one’s best thinking, knowing that other peoples’ reflections will help improve it rather than destroy it.

 In debate, one submits one’s best thinking and defends it against challenge to show that it is right.

 Dialogue calls for temporarily suspending one’s beliefs.

 Debate calls for investing wholeheartedly in one’s beliefs.

 In dialogue, one searches for basic agreements.

 In debate, one searches for glaring differences.

 In dialogue, one searches for strengths in the other positions.

 In debate, one searches for flaws and weaknesses in the other position.

 Dialogue involves a real concern for the other person and seeks to not alienate or offend.

 Debate involves a countering of the other position without focusing on feelings or relationship and often belittles or deprecates the other person.Dialogue assumes that many people have pieces of the answer and that together they can put them into a workable solution.

 Debate assumes that there is a right answer and that someone has it.

 Dialogue remains open-ended.

 Debate implies a conclusion.

Adapted from a paper prepared by Shelley Berman, which was based on discussions of the Dialogue Group of the Boston Chapter of Educators for Social Responsibility (ESR). For more information on ESR’s programs and resources using dialogue as a tool for dealing with controversial issues, call the national ESR office at (617) 492-1764.

Excerpted from The Study Circle Handbook. Reprinted with permission from Topsfield Foundation, Inc., Study Circles Resource Center, PO Box 203, Pomfret, CT 06258 (860) 928-2616.

SIDEBAR: Some Tips on Facilitating A Group Discussion

 Your job has less to do with talking and more to do with listening. It also has to do with modeling respect. It is your job to support the group to achieve results and to help the group feel good about the process that got them the results.

 Listen with your eyes and your ears. Always look directly at the person speaking. Use your "third eye" to take in what else is going on in the group. Who has spoken? Who hasn’t spoken? Are there people who look angry? Are there side conversations going on? Is there someone who looks like they wish to speak?

 Did you know that only seven percent of what a person says when they are talking come from the words they are speaking? While 38 percent comes from the tone of their voice and 55 percent comes from their "body language"? You can learn a lot from how people are sitting. Be sure to check out the "message". A person sitting with crossed arms does not necessarily mean they are angry. It may mean they are bored.

 Come with one or two ground rules of your own and ask the group to come up with the rest. Let them know you are there to support the group by assisting them in reinforcing the rules they have agreed upon. Try to avoid targeting individuals who violate the rules. Point out the breach in a general way or glance at them, or go over and stand by them (this is a good idea when there is a side conversation going on).

 Be respectful of people who tend to dominate the conversation. Thank them for their opinions. Tell them they have great ideas. Then say, "Let’s hear from someone we haven’t heard from yet."

 When everyone in a group doesn’t have the opportunity to participate, not only do you lose out on their ideas, you lose out on their commitment to, and their future participation in the group. Some may just need "quiet time" to jump into the conversation. Or you may approach them one-on-one and say: "You have a lot of valuable information to contribute; how can I help contribute to the conversation?

The author wishes to thank Nancy Ansheles for providing the above in the course of a telephone interview. Ansheles has been a facilitator for the past ten years. She is associated with the Roundtable Center in Portland and runs her own company: Catalyst and Co. in So. Portland.

SIDEBAR: Resources

The Roundtable Center was established in October 1995 to create opportunities for Mainers to discover how the process of dialogue can be a powerful tool for problem solving. It can offer skilled support through all stages of the process from the creation of a study circle to the final recommendations of a focused outcome. For more information, contact Kate O’Neill at the Center’s office at 89 Spring St., Portland, ME 04101.

The Study Circles Resource Center, a non-profit organization established in 1990 in Connecticut and funded solely by the Topsfield Foundation, is dedicated to "advancing deliberative democracy and improving the quality of public life in the United States. For more information, contact Molly Barrett at the Study Circle Resource Center, P.O. Box 203, Pomfret, CT 06258 or call 860-928-2616. Its publication: "The Study Circle Handbook: A Manual for Study Circle Discussion Leaders, Organizers and Participants" is available for $2, plus $2 for postage and handling.