The drum beat of pandemic news is accelerating and feels increasingly part of our daily lives. Both of my kids’ schools have now closed for the foreseeable future, every event I had planned to attend in the coming weeks is cancelled, and my inbox is bulging with earnest emails from every airline, hotel, or other company that has my contact information.

Meanwhile, I’m supposed to be designing and planning for the public participation that will be an essential component of Maine’s initiative to develop and catalyze broadly supported climate action. Our plan of crisscrossing the state with 19 meetings has become out of step with the emerging reality of life under Coronavirus.

The urgency of “social distancing” is creating a challenge for the work we do at the Consensus Building Institute – helping groups of people collaborate, develop innovative ideas together, and resolve disputes. Sure, helpful online tools that provide a platform for working virtually together have been around for several years – and we use them every day.  Yet, my experience clearly shows that pulling people physically together, shoulder-to-shoulder, has been an important ingredient when working through tough issues and achieving breakthrough collaboration. It’s how we helped overcome years of mistrust between communities in Nigeria’s Niger Delta and a multinational company; it’s how we helped Chileans develop and mobilize around a new energy policy that earned the country the nickname “A Solar Saudi Arabia”; and it’s how we had envisioned helping Maine show leadership around climate resiliency and emissions reductions.

Thankfully, my colleagues at CBI are embracing the challenge. We’re “upping our game” on virtual interaction, aiming to find and combine existing tools that allow us to recreate many of the positive aspects of in-person, constructive dialogue. 

We recognize that in virtual engagement, some very real and powerful things may be lost – human warmth and physical connection through handshakes, the language of non-verbal communication, the small conversations and breaks at lunch, breaking bread together, and the feel of what it is like to be in community together in one room, tackling tough issues.  It has prompted me to reflect on what really makes a difference during in-person interaction so that we can find workable alternatives. For instance:

  • How can we create a space for active listening and acknowledgement so that people truly feel heard?
  • How do we tap into the warmth of human connection, which helps us stitch together a sense of togetherness, even amid differences? 
  • How do we gather around a shared problem and feel the creative energy that comes from working on something together?   

Getting answers to these questions will serve us well, even after the threat from this particular virus recedes.    

Already, my colleagues have put together a tip sheet for online meetings, as well as ideas on some specific online tools. Expect to hear more from us in the coming days and weeks.

Better virtual dialogue and public participation I believe will lead to more ways for people to interact constructively around decisions that impact their lives. In fact, we may end up flipping this entire dilemma on its head: online tools may open up channels and opportunities for dialogue that outperform in-person strategies.

That sounds like a rare bit of good news.