What happens when the visitors assume you’re doing consultation, not just talking?

I had a bit of a chilling realization recently watching a facilitated dialogue between a uniformed staff member and a visitor. It was clear to me that the interpreter was using dialogue as an interpretive tool: they wanted to lead a dialogue to help the visitors unpack their thoughts and feelings on the subject at hand. But here’s what occurred to me: the visitors actually thought they were being consulted by a government official on a contentious subject.

The idea floored me. Why do we never talk about this?

It’s only two-way if you’re actually listening to what they tell you.

I have trained a lot of beginner interpreters in my day. One of the first things we teach front-line staff is that when they wear the uniform, they’re no longer seen as an individual but a representative. You can’t stand there in uniform and give your personal opinion, we tell our new staff, because it will be perceived as your organization’s point of view. When a visitor comes up and tells you that the washrooms need cleaning or they’re unhappy about a particular service, they’re not doing it to get sympathy from a friendly person on the street. They’re doing it to get a response from the agency that your uniform represents.

So why wouldn’t they assume the same thing about the things they tell you in dialogic programs? We call in two-way interpretation, after all.

Two-way interpretation, in which visitors help define the experience and in which visitors contribute their thoughts and feelings to the overall communication, is very much in vogue at the moment and in general I think it is a positive thing. We have been talking at our visitors for too long; it’s time we let them speak and in the process of speaking make meaning of our places and our stories.

We know that leading these dialogues can deepen the visitors’ learning and understanding in the way that traditional interpretation can’t. The process of unpacking one’s own feelings helps visitors to remember and understand a heritage site’s stories. This is the power of dialogic interpretation. It can place heritage in a new and constructive light in the hearts and minds of visitors.

We know that dialogue enhances meaning-making.

But here’s an issue I have with it: when visitors share their thoughts and feelings with you, they may assume that you are listening to them and perhaps documenting what they have to say. Not you the individual; you the organization, as represented by you in uniform.

When a visitor tells you, for example, that they have strong feelings about the choices we all make about power, privilege, and history, they may walk away from that conversation thinking they have had some kind of influence, however small, on public policy making. They have, from their point of view, just been part of a public consultation.

When a visitor speaks in a dialogic program about everyone’s responsibilities to wilderness and wild places, and you the person in uniform sit there nodding your head, might they not walk away thinking, HOPING that they have made a difference in shaping public policy? That you, the facilitator of this consultation, will pass their thoughts upward? Why wouldn’t they think that?

And might they not feel terribly disillusioned if you tell them after the fact that no, it wasn’t consultation; nobody was actually recording what they had to say. Nobody actually cared, in fact—they were just asking the visitor for the visitor’s own good.

Isn’t that, from the visitor’s point of view, the height of condescension?

There’s a difference between agency and the feeling of agency. One is meaningful, the other is illusory.

Are you making it clear to your participants that you are not, in fact, doing consultation? Are you being transparent when you ask them how they feel about, say, the importance of wilderness in their lives, that you are just asking for the sake of getting them thinking? That you don’t, actually, have any intention of communicating what they tell you to your superiors in the organization? Because I’m not so sure they understand that.

We lead dialogue on some pretty lively and contentious subjects: our responsibilities toward Truth and Reconciliation; our position in relation to privilege and power; our understanding of home and heritage and how it fits into our lives; our responsibilities toward wildlife and nature, and so on. And your visitors know very well that our organizations have power to influence society’s evolution on these questions. You’re not just a random person at a social gathering asking their opinion; you are a representative of a policy-making organization.

You are the organization in that moment.

So please make sure your visitors understand what a facilitated dialogue is all about. Be honest with them. Honesty and trust are at the essence of our relationship with our visitors. Set the ground rules; tell them this isn’t consultation, it’s dialogue to aid in meaning-making. It’s part of their experience, and it’s not for public policy shaping. Let them decide if they want to participate based on a full understanding of what the interaction is really about.

I think that’s the least we can do.

Meanwhile, at our end, I think we could do a bit of soul-searching about why our agencies are asking us to do this kind of programming. I don’t want to sound cynical; I do think that our agencies understand that dialogic interpretation is a powerful tool for facilitating connections between people and place. I would like to think that their hearts are in the right place.

But when they ask us, their representatives, to facilitate dialogue on questions over which our agencies have power to actually effect change, we need to ask ourselves if we are not only complicit in inaction but actively distracting our visitors from fully being conscious of our agencies’ inaction.

Are you complicit in inaction?

Many of us work for agencies that have power to effect meaningful change in Indigenous relations, treaty-making, truth and reconciliation. Many of us work for agencies who could be taking action on Confederate monuments and monuments to colonial oppressors.

Many, if not most of us, work for agencies who could be much more proactive in protecting heritage sites and wild places, and making them more accessible to the public.

When organizations who could effect meaningful change instead encourage people like you and me to facilitate stimulating but ultimately dead-end conversations about it, are we being manipulated, to some extent? Are we weapons of mass distraction? And are we complicit in our organizations’ chronic inaction?

As an interpreter and facilitator of dialogue, what are your responsibilities to pass on the ideas, feelings, needs, and wishes of your visitors to the people in power who, arguably, really need to hear them?

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