After the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, leading figures in both politics and media worried aloud that we are losing our ability to respectfully debate. They argued, from various standpoints, that public discourse has devolved over the last two decades, toward simplistic and divisive characterizations of parties, ideas, and issues.
A variety of specific explanations have been advanced for the broader trend. Political scientists point to the gerrymandering of voting districts as a polarizing force in politics. Former officials and civic watchdogs decry the enormous amounts of time that elected officials spend raising money and pandering to special interests, rather than legislating with broader constituencies in mind. Social psychologists note the fragmentation of media into niches that divide us along social and political lines. Historians and educators lament a “dumbed-down” culture in which people lack the knowledge necessary to effectively advocate for their interests. It seems reasonable to concede that each of these trends has helped create a more cynical and polarized public.
What is the remedy? Appealing to the better angels of our nature? Reforming campaign finance and districting laws? Holding “teach-ins” to better educate citizens on major policy issues?
Even if large-scale reforms and public campaigns were forthcoming, it is by no means certain that they could put the genie of incivility back in the bottle.
Assume instead that a more polarized and distrustful atmosphere is likely to prevail for some time, even with efforts and exhortations from national figures and groups. What can be done to restore civil debate on a smaller, more incremental scale, at local and regional levels? How can situations be restructured to produce less polarized and more productive conversations, decisions, and policies?
One school of thought, pioneered by Marshall Rosenberg and others, has been to encourage nonviolent communication – honest and compassionate dialogue that allows different parties to better understand the feelings and perceptions of their counterparts. This approach posits that when people work hard to identify and empathize with the needs and feelings of others, civility and harmony are more likely to be achieved. Psychological interventions that include public apology or reparations, and that allow people to feel heard and understood, can produce very powerful and even cathartic experiences for participants (the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa being one example).
But several lines of research suggest that unless these processes generate practical options that meet parties’ important long-term interests, they are not likely to catalyze a change in feelings and attitudes.
As far back as 1954, in what are now known as the “Robbers Cave” experiments, Muzafer and Carolyn Sherif discovered that working together to achieve a shared goal (e.g. obtain drinking water) was more effective at reconciling hostile groups than attempts to increase social interactions and mutual understanding. More recently, Adam Galinsky and his students found, experimentally, that perspective-taking increases the chances of value creation in a negotiation, but empathizing decreases them. John Gottman unexpectedly found that active listening by spouses was uncorrelated with marital satisfaction and stability – as was expression of anger. Brad Bushman, Craig Anderson, and others have found that allowing people to vent anger actually increases hostile feelings, directly contradicting a long-held belief in “therapeutic catharthis.” These experimental findings suggest that changing the situation may be a better strategy for dealing with feelings than setting up “listening sessions” and making other moves to reduce conflict by promoting greater empathy.
When done well, consensus building and other forms of assisted negotiations can play a critical role in producing joint gains that can dramatically improve attitudes and perceptions among parties. Bringing polarized parties to the table to engage in joint problem solving involves multiple “moves” by facilitators and process designers. Three of the most important are:
1. Reframing conflict in terms of concrete questions to be answered. Conflict situations are typically defined differently by the parties involved. “This is about one more greedy developer trying to exploit the land,” says one group, “and the issue is whether we’re going to let that happen or not!” Meanwhile in the developer’s office, the issue is “whether the county’s economic future is going to be held hostage by a few tree-hugging extremists.” Until the conflict space is defined in a way that all parties can accept, it is hard to promote civil debate. A facilitator, after carefully assessing interests in private conversations with the parties, might propose an agenda that seeks to answer five initial questions: What are the threats to natural and historical resources that a proposed development might pose? What could be done to reduce them? What are the tangible and immediate benefits to the county or town of permitting the development? How can the facility be designed to meet local interests and concerns? And finally, how might citizens help to monitor facility operations to ensure that the developer honors his or her commitments? Simply reframing the conflict in terms of key questions that are more neutral with respect to the parties’ interests can set the stage for a less hostile and more focused conversation.
2. Joint fact-finding. As media fragment, people increasingly enter into conflicts with wildly disparate starting assumptions. At a basic level, they cannot agree on “the facts”. Joint fact-finding involves bringing in a trusted, impartial third party to identify questions that the parties at the table want to ask together, and to provide technical assistance and information in response. Such assistance can help the parties to sort through data, forecasts, assumptions, and types of risk. While the parties are in many cases unlikely to converge on a single set of facts or estimates, such efforts can move them “into the same ballpark,” clarify the precise nature of disagreements, and make negotiations possible.
3. Ground rules for communications and the media. Trust can be lost very quickly when one party (mis)characterizes what another has said, or raises questions about motives, integrity, or honesty. It is critical in contentious disputes for the parties to develop and adhere to communication ground rules. Those rules set expectations for behaviors at the table (e.g. not interrupting) but also for how the conversation will be talked about outside the room, to other parties. Sometimes the facilitator can serve as a spokesperson for the group, providing a press release that all parties agree to and answer questions on behalf of the group as a whole.
Think globally and act locally sits uncomfortably between hopeful mantra and tired cliché. But unless and until there are major political or technological changes, national political divisions and rhetorical incivility are likely to persist. The three moves described above can help to create “safe havens” for joint problem solving, changing conflict situations in ways that can – at least locally – promote more civil discourse.
Hal Movius is Principal and Director of Training and Consulting Services at CBI.