In March, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found unconstitutional a “civility restraint” for public processes in the town of Southborough, Massachusetts. The Southborough Select Board’s policy stated that dialogue in public meetings “must be respectful and courteous, free of rude, personal or slanderous remarks. Inappropriate language and/or shouting will not be allowed.” This, the Court ruled, infringed upon constitutionally protected speech.
For those who facilitate and mediate public engagements, this case recalled a familiar range of challenges and issues. CBI mediators Ryan Golten, Elizabeth Cooper, and David Plumb traded their thoughts on the subject over email. Their exchange follows:
A reminder that in public processes (and in others as well), ground rules such as “be respectful” are at their best a way to appeal to our better angels, but they aren't actually enforceable and perhaps may be a way of quieting/discounting certain voices that don’t express themselves in a way we’d like.
That said, the bigger challenge of our times, I’d say, isn’t so much that people are being silenced, it’s that we’re getting angrier and less able to work through issues together—and nasty behavior is getting normalized.
There’s significant space between what’s “allowed”—and protected legally—and what we aim to foster and co-create with stakeholders as a container for productive dialogue or deliberation.
As facilitators, we spend time building understanding of “ground rules” and a shared expectation for how we treat each other in a process. We construct this container not only hoping everyone’s better angels step forward, but also hoping we make the case that creating mutual trust and respect among group members is worth everyone’s investment. We won’t get anywhere leaning on these “rules” for tone-policing. We want the group committed to a shared social contract because they see how a level of collaboration improves the process and their chances for a satisfactory outcome.
Asking everyone to be “respectful” often makes perfect sense as a proxy for listening well, not personalizing comments, and/or assuming good faith on the part of others. But when people are coming from different positions of power or have the lens or experience of feeling disrespected in the past, asking everyone in the room to be “courteous” or “respectful” can feel tone-deaf at best and convey a sense of judgment, exclusion, and/or a double-standard at worst.
I like how Elizabeth put it in terms of creating a “container,” or a tone and space of respect, in which people can speak thoughtfully and listen to one other, while not minimizing or castigating the strong feelings that may be in the room. Ground rules like “respect” can trigger such different feelings and experiences for folks. The point is to help people listen to one another, hear one another, and maintain an ability to disagree on the issues without villainizing those with opposing views.
This conversation drives home what skillful facilitation can provide: support for people to express themselves authentically, be heard by others, and listen attentively. That’s very different from enforcing decorum rules. We can promote this in how we design meetings and processes, how we coach participants, and how we react in the moment when we sense people are shutting down because of the way someone is talking or acting. A constructive exchange doesn’t have to be polite or warm and fuzzy. It needs to allow people to communicate and hear each other, sometimes in uncomfortable ways. Let’s hope we can meet this moment of angrier public discourse with a facilitation approach that doesn’t shut people down, but rather guides everyone towards a more effective exchange.
Whatever problem we are helping to resolve, I like to think we also aim to help folks see each other’s humanity—ensuring people feel seen, listened to, respected—without being the “decorum police.” I recently facilitated a meeting in which a straight-talking rancher I know offended one of the federal agency folks in the room with some pretty direct language. At least one participant had hoped I would come down hard on the speaker for what felt to him like disrespectful language, though the speaker didn’t intend it that way. My approach, instead, was to acknowledge the frustration all around, rephrase what I understood to be the gist of the concern, remind folks why the ground rules were important, and move on (and then watch and listen carefully to ensure folks still felt the container was being held). When the emotional stakes are higher, I also really like doing something our colleague Nate Lash articulated recently—instead of shaming someone for a potentially offensive comment, take a moment to express feelings it may conjure up for others, maybe pausing with a verbal ‘mmm’ to acknowledge the potential impact but without a lot of words. All of this is such a balancing act, especially now that we need more than ever to engage with each other despite pervasive feelings of judgment and polarization.
Channeling anger- and frustration-fueled discourse (that may be entirely “legitimate") into productive dialogue relies a lot on our work away from the table, as David pointed out. Our process design choices, work with participants to shape the scope of issues we consider, and preparation with them to inform how they show up and share their perspectives matter here. Especially when there are significant power differentials between participants, historical wrongs, or other sources of mistrust, as Ryan mentioned, we need to craft a process and agenda worth everyone’s while. If people don’t feel they have a real chance of influencing outcomes and making their circumstances better by participating, then they have very little incentive to participate at all—and if they do, acting as a “spoiler” might appear to be the most meaningful role they can play.