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Guest Post: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up

August 6, 2016 Leave a comment

davebiggsDave Biggs, Chief Engagement Officer, MetroQuest
Dave Biggs is an internationally-recognized speaker, author and public engagement strategist focusing on best practices to supercharge community participation for planning projects.

James Hoggan has influenced my work for two decades. I find myself quoting his work in many of my public speaking engagements and the lessons he has articulated have shaped MetroQuest and the best practices listed in our guidebook in numerous ways. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to sit down with Hoggan to discuss his new book, “I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up.” After years of research that included interviewing some of the world’s most profound thinkers on democracy, conflict and consensus-building, Hoggan has cleverly articulated not only what’s wrong with public discourse but also what must be done to fix it. Here’s our conversation.

biggs-hoggan-interview

Image from book launch event courtesy Hoggan & Associates

My interview with Author James Hoggan: ‘I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up’, Published by New Society, May 2016

Dave Biggs: You named your book ‘I’m Right and You’re an Idiot.’ What does that title mean to you?

James Hoggan: The title I’m Right and You’re an Idiot describes today’s warlike approach to public debate. It’s a style of communication that polarizes public conversations and prevents us from dealing with the serious problems stalking everyone on earth.

It is an ironic title, chosen because it epitomizes the kind of attack rhetoric we hear so often today. It reflects the opposite of the real message of the book, which was best said by peace activist and Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who told me to: “Speak the truth not to punish.”

Dave Biggs: It’s clear that you covered a great deal of ground in researching this book. Tell me about that journey? What motivated you to go to such lengths?

James Hoggan: I was driven by curiosity about how we might create the space for higher-quality public conversations. What passes for public discourse these days is little more than antagonistic name-calling, where each side accuses the other of bad faith.

This bitter combativeness has replaced healthy debate, during which passionate opposition and science can shape constructive mind-changing conversations without creating polarized gridlock or deep animosity.

I am interested in why are we listening to each other shout rather than hearing what the evidence is trying to tell us about problems such as climate change.

How have we come to a time when facts don’t matter and how can we begin the journey back to where they do?

No single person has the answers to these complex questions but collectively the experts I interviewed offer incredible wisdom. Many of the thought leaders I spoke to have spent their entire professional lives working to find answers to these tough change resistance questions.

Dave Biggs: Many of our readers are involved in community engagement for planning projects and, as they can attest, it can get quite heated. You describe public discourse as increasingly “toxic” and “polarized.” What do those terms mean to you? Is the situation getting worse? What’s driving it?

James Hoggan: Today’s public square is a toxic mix of ad hominem attacks, tribalism and unyielding advocacy. It’s a kind of pollution that sabotages public discourse and discredits the passion and outrage at the heart of healthy public debate, because it polarizes people and stops them thinking clearly.

Fear is what propels toxic discourse and it is happening on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America and Europe. Sadly, facts do not compete well when leaders whip up primal feelings around fear, whether it’s about immigration, jobs or economic woes.

Rather than confronting the substance of an argument itself, people tend to attack the motives of opponents and stir up hostility towards groups that hold differing opinions.

This dangerous habit of attacking the character of those who disagree with us, rather than focusing on specific issues, distracts the public from what’s really going on.

Accusing opponents of corrupt motives is a highly confrontational technique that deflects attention and makes it easy to dismiss well-founded criticism. This aggressive approach to public debate leaves little room for the middle ground and as Debra Tannen wrote, “When extremes define the issues, problems seem insoluble and citizens become alienated from the political process.”

Dave Biggs: I’ve started a series called “Fiasco Files” to see what can be learned from the wreckage of public engagement disasters. Have you looked at specific case studies where things went off the rails? Does your book point to common mistakes and how to avoid them?

James Hoggan: One of the best example of a fiasco in Canada was in 2012 when the oil & gas industry and Conservative government campaigned to convince Canadians that British Columbians who opposed pipelines and tankers on the west coast were extremists working for American business interests.

A tremendous amount of information was provided, by both government and industry, regarding Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion, Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline project and TransCanada’s Keystone XL and Energy East.

Despite armies of PR people and volumes of communication materials, the mismanagement of communication around these proposed oil sands developments became textbook examples of how not to achieve social license.

When it comes to public opinion, there’s a common belief among proponents that providing facts is the best way to sell a story. But in the oil sands case, when the companies and government failed to achieve their goals, they resorted to a combative, underhanded style of advocacy.

The Prime Minister’s Office called opponents “foreign funded radicals.” The Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Natural Resources accused environmental charities of criminal activity.

Senator Don Platt said ‘where would …environmentalists draw the line on who they receive money from. Would they take money from the Al-Qaeda, the Hamas or the Taliban…’

This highly polarizing strategy backfired badly as opposition to pipelines grew and community groups and First Nations became better organized. It failed because the government and industry started with a mistaken assumption that anyone who disagreed with them was either misinformed, unreasonable or even a wrongdoer.

Despite assurances from oil and pipeline companies that these projects will create jobs, are safe and will respect the environment, the public continues to see the benefits as small and the risks as unacceptably high.

It’s not that information doesn’t matter, but a growing body of research on how people develop perceptions of risk shows that facts and statistics alone do not change people’s concerns about what is risky. Emotions play a huge part.

University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic has studied the various social and cultural factors that lead to disputes and disagreements about risk, and says the problem lies in the diverse ways in which “experts” and the public view risk.

Experts look at risk as a calculation of probability and consequence. The public takes a more personal approach; their perceptions are around personal control, voluntariness, children and future generations, trust, equity, benefits and consequences.

Slovic says the mistake experts (and the companies and governments they represent) make is viewing themselves as objective and the public as subjective.

They perceive the public as being too emotional and having irrational fear. The public’s attitude is then dismissed as laypeople getting the facts wrong and not understanding the evidence.

“Laypeople sometimes lack certain information about hazards,” Slovic says. “However their basic conceptualization of risk is much richer than that of experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments.”

This is where a company’s decision to “educate” the public to adopt its point of view can really backfire. People aren’t sitting around waiting to be told what to think. In fact, few of us like being told what to think.

Communicators need to be sensitive to this broader concept of risk. Facts aren’t just facts. They aren’t as objective as we assume they are. Facts and risk are subjective for both experts and the public. They are a blend of values, biases and ideology.

The hypodermic needle theory of communication, where we believe we can simply inject information to cure people of their misunderstandings, doesn’t work. Neither does demonizing opponents or polarizing people.

Dave Biggs: I’m always on the lookout for emerging best practices in community engagement. Government agencies are hungry for strategies to improve the dialogue in face to face events as well as online. What lessons can you share to help them broaden the dialogue to a wider demographic and collect meaningful and constructive public input to inform their decision making?

James Hoggan: We often don’t even get the basics right. Learning to engage in emotional dialogue is a good place to start.

 

Curtailing the growth of unyielding one-sidedness begins with the assumption that people who disagree with us have good intentions. They aren’t idiots or evil.

It is important to recognize that in a time when mistrust and polarization have soared to all-time highs, conversations aimed at injecting information into people in order to cure them of their misunderstanding will fail.

The power of emotion is a critical consideration. No matter how good you think your argument is, regardless of how provable your facts, if the public feels its liberty, right to fair treatment or livelihood is threatened, you’re losing the battle to dread.

Opposition is often based on feelings of dread that citizens have about the impact a project could have on their way of life, a mistrust of the companies behind it and skepticism around government regulators charged with oversight.

Fear can grow despite a steady stream of facts and expensive PR campaigns from proponents claiming their projects are built to minimize risk.

Opponents often don’t accept the proponents’ facts, but are instead driven by what Paul Slovic calls the “dread factor” — the prime predictor of a strong reaction to risk.

According to Slovic, risk resides in us mostly as a “gut feeling” rather than the outcome of analytical calculations. The most powerful of these feelings is dread and it is linked with a sense of having no control in a situation, inequality (where others get the benefit, while they get saddled with the risk) and how catastrophic a risk is seen to be.

His research shows that reliance on feelings as our guide to risk causes us, when we see risk as high, to also believe the benefit is low. The opposite is true if we come to believe the benefit is high, we tend to see risk as low.

Misunderstanding the “dread factor” and the possibly legitimate concerns that fuel it, intensifies the problem of unyielding one-sidedness that we see in so many public disputes.

It is also difficult to be seen as authentic in an argument if you don’t understand what Slovic calls the “whisper of emotion.” This is the emotional meaning; the good or bad feelings and gut instinct that can help people make decisions. Sometimes these feelings are misguided, but they are usually a sophisticated compass that directs us through life efficiently and accurately.

We need to be more conscious of emotional dialogue because this is where most risk communication fails. And we need to recognize it needs to be a two-way process where both sides have something worthwhile to contribute.

If you hold your views lightly and remember you could be wrong, people are more likely to trust you and be more receptive. It’s about communicating trust, by having an open mind, open heart and an open will.

Reposted with permission from Metroquest, July 5, 2016

President’s Message – Leah Jaramillo

August 5, 2016 1 comment

Leah JaramilloA few weeks ago, I spent a truly enjoyable evening with friends honoring the great work of the Human Rights Campaign in Utah. Just hours later, I woke to find that the worst mass shooting in US history had occurred in a gay nightclub, Pulse, in Orlando. As more information became available, I began to wonder how the specifics of this event could change the kind of conversations we’ve been having about terrorism, gun-control, religion and human rights in this country. So far, I’ve experienced a range of emotion – sadness, surprise, anger, outrage, confusion, a sense of loss for the victims and their families, hope for the future, and finally determination to make things better.

A hopeful moment in the dialogue surrounding this tragedy surprisingly came from Utah Republican Lieutenant Governor Spencer J. Cox who apologized to the gay community for “not treating them with the kindness, dignity, and respect – the love – that they deserved.” Statements like this give me hope that change is beginning. But, as a P2 practitioner, I believe that all people should be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect – period. Statements like the Lt. Governor’s are appreciated, but I believe what is really needed is a call to action; a call to conversation; a call for the public to participate in decisions affecting Americans.

The issues raised by this tragedy are many, complicated, and intertwined. It is clear to me that some things have to change. Mister (Fred) Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” Let us, as P2 practitioners, begin to help by getting involved in these difficult conversations, planning inclusive processes, and engaging Americans in difficult topics to open the way prevent future tragedies.

I’m asking each of you to find out what your communities are talking about related to this event and these issues, engage where you can, and share with the IAP2 USA community via our social media feeds, blog, and newsletter. If nothing is happening in your community, let’s help start the conversation. Let’s support our vision to make the U.S. a country where public participation is deeply embedded and widely applied …to improve the quality of our democracy.

President’s Message – Leah Jaramillo

April 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Leah JaramilloI was always told that it was not polite to talk about politics with anyone except family, and even that can be questionable. But, to me elections and voting have always seemed to be the most fundamental processes by which Americans participate in our Democracy (or not).

Given the tenor of recent GOP debates and political rallies, I can only say that the need for well-planned and executed public participation opportunities are growing at an exponential rate. The American public feels entitled to share their opinions on just about any topic and via any platform. Today you can find videos, memes, and posts voicing just about any stance you could think of. But how do we make sense of this information? How does it become more than noise? I firmly believe that IAP2 members have the skills and passion to lead more meaningful conversations about issues that affect people.

I am pleased to be a member of this organization, which can and is helping people lead better processes to build community. We can be the leaders of processes that bring civility back into public discourse and help to unify communities. There are so many new opportunities for public participation across our nation, not just in politics but in the way we interact with others in our communities. Now is a time to reflect inwards in order to build together.

There is no better time to recognize best practices in our field, celebrate and learn from one another. The Core Values Awards committee recently announced new project categories and a new application process. Let’s build on our practice together. Please consider submitting a successful process you have led or been affiliated with for a Core Values Award by June 10. (Applicant Kit)

If you have ideas or suggestions for the Board don’t hesitate to contact us at info@iap2usa.org

Schedule tight? Looking for a break? Recharge your P2 batteries and extend your stay!

December 9, 2015 Leave a comment

sunWhether you’re within driving distance or a short flight away, these one-day training options may be just the ticket for your busy schedule! The 2016 Skill Symposium offers one, two and three-day workshops designed to meet your professional development needs.

What’s more – if you can work it in – extend your stay! Bring the family to sunny San Diego for the weekend to take advantage of the special conference rate – $139.00/nightavailable through the weekend!

rejuvenate

Engaging with Influence
Increase your influence with key decision-makers!

Join IAP2 Licensed Foundations trainer Michelle Feenan from Queensland, Australia and New Zealand’s Anne Pattillo, an international leader in the art of engagement and participation, in this one-day exploration of how to build your professional credibility and increase the uptake of your professional advice.

You will have the opportunity to:

  • Build your understanding of the professional standards for ethical practice
  • Build your credibility for genuine engagement
  • Work with status practice new approaches to be influential by tailoring your approach to the decision-making style of the key people in your network
  • Practice the six critical engagement conversations build accountability and commitment

Add Engaging with Influence to your public participation toolbox to create sustainable results.

Engaging with Influence | 2016 Skills Symposium | #Top

Engagement Evaluation
Learn how to embed evaluation into your public participation and engagement projects or initiatives.

Join Anne Pattillo, workshop co-designer with participatory evaluation expert Dr. Jess Dart, and IAP2 Licensed Foundations trainer Michelle Feenan from Queensland, Australia in this one-day exploration of the principles and tools to design an evaluation of public participation and engagement projects or initiatives.

You will have the opportunity to:

  • Understand how to scope an engagement evaluation and design an evaluation framework
  • Understand the role of key evaluation questions and explore ethical considerations for data collection
  • Learn a set of practical steps to select appropriate methods for evaluation
  • Practice using a range of methods to describe and measure effectiveness
  • Identify common pitfalls in data analysis
  • Create a skeleton evaluation plan for a real project

Add Engagement Evaluation to your public participation toolbox to create sustainable results.

Engagement Evaluation | 2016 Skills Symposium | #Top

Digital Engagement in P2
Learn how to use information and communications technologies to support your public participation practice!

Join Tim Bonnemann, IAP2 USA board member and founder, president and CEO of Intellitics, Inc. in this lively presentation of how to effectively use technology to drive participatory processes and outcomes.

You will have the opportunity to:

  • Know when and why to use digital tools to widen, deepen or strengthen public participation
  • Identify the points in the design of a public participation process when decisions about the use of digital technologies should be made
  • Use worksheets and other design aids (to be handed out at the workshop or made available online) that inventory the factors to consider in assessing benefits to organizations of use of digital engagement in specific situations, and in choosing, adapting or designing digital tools and processes
  • Identify common pitfalls and challenges and develop mitigation strategies
  • Know where to find high quality information
  • Know how to make the case for digital engagement to peers and superiors

Add Digital Engagement to your public participation toolbox to create sustainable results.

Digital Engagement | 2016 Skills Symposium | #Top

More Tools!
Fill your toolbox with 4 new, innovative and effective community involvement techniques: Conversation Toolkit, Socratic Circle, Ideas Fair and Culturally Sensitive approaches to Community Involvement.

Join Dialogue Partners’ Stephani Roy McCallum, IAP2 Licensed trainer and lead developer of IAP2’s Emotion, Outrage and Public Participation course, and Erin Pote, teacher, facilitator, and community builder, in this one-day exploration of new tools you can add to your toolbox.

You will have the opportunity to:

  • Experience a participatory and interactive session that outlines 4 new tools for Community Involvement
  • Test the tools and express concerns, ideas and perspectives in a supported way
  • Identify how and when to use the tools in their processes
    Connect with a tool that will be useful in their work
  • Understand the tools and how they would be useful in different projects and with different stakeholders

Add Conversation Toolkit, Socratic Circle, Ideas Fair and Culturally Sensitive approaches to Community Involvement to your public participation toolbox to create sustainable results.

More Tools! | 2016 Skills Symposium | #Top

Happy Birthday, NCDD!

Today, the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) turns ten years old. Happy birthday!

From NCDD’s about page:

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD) is a network of over 1,600 innovators who bring people together across divides to discuss, decide, and take action together effectively on today’s toughest issues. NCDD serves as a gathering place, a resource center, a news source, and a facilitative leader for this vital community of practice.

In a post last night, Sandy Heierbacher, director and co-founder of NCDD, recalled some of the organization’s history and milestones.

Many of our members here at IAP2 USA are also members of NCDD, and the two organizations have worked closely together in the past. For example, members of NCDD, IAP2 and the Co-Intelligence Institute led a collaboration in early 2009 that involved many organizations in our field in crafting a shared set of Core Principles for Public Engagement to help guide the Obama administration’s Open Government efforts in the area of public participation. More recently, both organizations have regularly coordinated their efforts to contribute to the conversations around the Open Government Partnership and other related activities.

We very much value this close relationship and were happy to welcome Sandy as an IAP2 USA member last Fall. In February, following an earlier Board decision, IAP2 USA became an organizational member of NCDD.

If you haven’t done so already, make sure to check out NCDD’s vast collection of resources and mark your calendar for their upcoming 2012 conference, October 12-14 in Seattle, WA.

On behalf of the entire Board of IAP2 USA: Happy birthday, NCDD! Here’s to a successful next ten years!