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Building civil discourse, not civil discord: Seven actions leaders can take

No leader wants to call the police on community members. When conversations break down, resulting in violence or the threat of it, leaders rightly ask: What could we have done differently to prevent this situation? I define “violence” as any form of physical aggression as well as threats, intimidation and online aggression. Media reports are focused on campuses as cautionary tales, either academic like Columbia University or corporate like Google, but tumultuous situations are playing out at libraries, city council chambers and school board meetings.

Often as individuals, we give so much power to what we think will happen next, and if we believe a situation is destined to become violent, it’s often a hopeless self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of planning for the worst-case scenario, we need to have faith that the best-case scenario is still possible, even in times of great perceived division. I say “perceived” because while our country is undoubtedly divided on salient issues, Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents hold views they consider “extreme.” This creates a more hateful, fearful and polarized landscape.

So, what can you do about it?

Research shows that people learn norms from role models in their community, family or company. Consider who listens to you. Are you your family’s or friend group’s go-to trusted advice-giver of your family or friend group? Do you run an organization or volunteer at local events? Do you share cultural identities? These are all potential opportunities for you to make a difference.

Further, consider whether you oversee civic spaces where you can lower the temperature and have a reasonable dialogue. It’s not just the voting booth; civic spaces are diverse. The United Nations defines civic spaces as “the environment that enables people and groups — to participate meaningfully in the political, economic, social and cultural life of their societies.” These are places set aside for people to come together, express their point of view and increase understanding — they range from city plazas to campus greens to conference rooms and coffee shops to polling places to the proverbial water cooler. If you oversee civic spaces, formal or informal, you have a chance to hear what’s on people’s minds.

You may wonder or even assume, though, that now isn’t the time or the place for these conversations. Instead, I posit that we need to have these conversations, one way or the other. Leaders, especially those who oversee civic spaces, need to be very good at having tough conversations, and they need to be brave. Based on my learning from groups like BedrockOver ZeroHorizons ProjectProtect Democracy, Sustained Dialogue Initiative,  Search for Common Ground and more, here are seven ideas on ways to have productive, effective conversations and take action to steer situations toward civil discourse.

Recognize and address tension. Don’t avoid what’s percolating because it might boil over; at the same time, be careful not to be dismissive or deny it. Rather than asking, “What does this have to do with our bottom line or our [insert your relevant situation]?” consider, what is on the minds of your staff, students and community members. What is upsetting them or you?

Author and expert negotiator William Ury writes, “The problem is this: We are not going to get rid of conflict — nor should we. But we can change the way we see conflict and the way we choose to live with it. Conflict can make us think small. We reduce the whole thing to a win-lose battle between us and them. Often, the bigger the conflict, the smaller we think.”

It’s easy to make assumptions about why people are thinking and behaving the way they are. Check those, and then make space to explore for understanding so you can do what you and your community members love most — innovating, learning and connecting, sharing knowledge or changing the world.

Create space for alternatives. Violence is an action, and so is nonviolence. There are many things to do in the space between violence and agreement. One action you can easily take is to focus on building relationships rather than transactions. Keep in mind that encouraging “civility” can be tricky because “civility” can become coded language and weaponized against minority groups who are advocating for themselves. Practice calling in and calling forward, rather than calling out.

Start by establishing ground rules for how to engage, setting expectations for respect and understanding. And draw on your own values to remind people this is who you each are.

In her book “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” Amanda Ripley provides this example: “Simon Greer, the organizer who had brought them together, laid down three ground rules. ‘We’re going to take seriously the things everyone holds dear,’ he said. ‘We’re not going to try to convince each other we’re wrong.’ And finally, ‘We’re going to be curious.’” Ripley then asks: “I wonder, looking at this list, what a political debate might look like with these same ground rules?”

Get help as you need it. You may not have the right position or skills to moderate effectively the spaces, and that’s OK. There are a lot of great resources that can help you build alternative processes and expand the toolkit. For example, the association for community mediation, the Sustained Dialogue Institute and American Association of Colleges and Universities all have programs that can provide this kind of practical how-tos.

Send the right signals and show the way. Right now, campus coverage, and spokespeople who are feeding that coverage, are overly focused on the outliers creating havoc and violence, such as the recent circumstances at UCLA. But rather than showing what you’re against, it’s important to show what you’re for. Normalize the work of dialogue and exchange in civic spaces and role model the ground rules you’re trying to set.

Before you start speaking, though, center yourself so you are starting from a place of calm focus. Listen to the experiences, feelings, and needs of the people involved — don’t just think about how you’re going to respond but really listen. Acknowledge their feelings and experience and highlight any shared values such as passion for the discussion topic or a desire for a positive outcome. Respond in a way that lowers tensions. For example, if they’re shouting, you could say, “I can’t understand you when you’re shouting, and I’d like to hear what you’re saying. Will you stand over here with me so I can hear you better?”

Remember not to reinforce violence and threats of it. Explicitly say that there is no justification to resort to violence. And don’t resort to violence yourself because that may break trust if you are hypocritical. It’s critical to act with integrity.

Next, choose your words carefully. Avoid using words that stoke fear and anxiety (such as “it was a battlefield out there”), and avoid making sweeping statements. For example, “all of these kinds of people were involved” making it seem normal for that population. Instead, redirect attention to those working things out.

Further, showcase community members who are working through conflict rather than focusing exclusively on violent outliers, and make your circle of recognition as wide as possible.

If violence happens, be accurate in describing it to keep from overblowing it and then condemning it.

Remember that even though taking these actions might cause you anxiety or even a little fear, your role modeling goes a long way, and you should feel proud that you are carrying through with your commitment to decreasing violence and encouraging discourse. As an additional resource, check out Over Zero’s guide outlining the top do’s and don’ts for leaders during contentious times.  

Empathize with the community. One of the best ways to cool down tensions is to listen. In High Conflict…, Ripley writes, “Most of us do not feel heard much of the time. That’s because most people don’t know how to listen. We jump to conclusions. We think we understand when we don’t. We tee up our next point, before the other person has finished talking.”

It’s important to empathize with targets of violence, but don’t automatically assume they want you to publicly stand up for them. Approach them privately and ask how you can best show your support, being mindful that your de-escalation expertise does not outweigh their lived experience.

Polarization researcher Peter Coleman found that when people were asked about a personally negative experience they’d had with a group they didn’t agree with, most people didn’t actually have one. They were mostly forming negative perceptions without any direct interactions with the persons they disagreed with. By asking “what is your personal experience that gives you concerns or hope on this issue,” you move them away from parroting information ecosystems and considering their own authentic opinion.

Disrupt the outrage cycle by building your personal de-escalation skills. Many media conglomerates are incentivized by the outrage cycle. Outrage generates views, comments and profits in a way that peace doesn’t. Don’t get sucked into language that puts you on high alert and be cautious of stories that depict two diametrically opposed sides. More often than not, there are a slew of people with opinions falling in between the extremes — they just don’t make for good television.

You can disrupt the outrage cycle by pointing that out. If you’re a reporter, don’t focus on the protestors outside a library for drag queen happy hour; focus on parents bringing their kids to the event. If you’re a source, consider whether your comments are normalizing violence, what language you use, and what you’re highlighting.

One critical way you can do this is through empowering positive stories. Spotlight those trying to work things out. Empower and give them as many resources as possible so they can tell different and more compelling stories about civil discourse rather than civil discord. For example, this New York Times article describes how two leading — and disagreeing  — academics learned to productively collaborate to further both their research. Focus the attention of the chattering class and media on behind-the-scenes work where many people are trying to understand and come to a resolution.

Don’t fall for disinformation or amplify it. There have been many instances where outside actors — from media to partisan politicians and online conflict entrepreneurs — have co-opted community discourse to instead push hot-button issues. This includes bad actors fueling disinformation. Be ready to call out this behavior as blatantly opportunistic, and make sure you’re not just thinking about this through the lens of crisis communications. Instead, be ready to counter disinformation with proven strategies like starving the disinformation of oxygen (i.e., not spreading it, even to respond to made up ideas like “rural rage”), inoculating communities against it, and revealing who is behind the disinformation and their true motivations.

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Make violence backfire. Ignoring violence won’t make it magically disappear. Leaders and community members need to set the norm that violence has a social cost. The Horizons Project recommends the Backfire model, which focuses on strategic offensive maneuvers that create a high cost for engaging in violent behaviors. Here’s how it works: First, reveal the injustice and don’t let others minimize it. Second, validate the target of the injustice, whether an employee facing doxing or a community member and clearly state the treatment of them is wrong. Third, reframe the event as what it is: an injustice. Fourth, redirect your attention to mobilizing support for the victim and your cause through unofficial channels like an independent investigation rather than official channels where perpetrators of violence will draw things out. Last, resist intimidation and bribes to be silent; those will undermine the trust you are trying to build within your community and your ability to effectively role model good nonviolent behavior.

For those facing protests now and deciding how to productively respond, use these tips. For those looking at the lay of the land and what to do to get ahead of potentially volatile situations, take these steps to plan for the best-case scenario rather than finding yourself facing the worst.

Kristen Grimm is the founder of Best-Case Scenario, a project of Spitfire Strategies, to maintain safe and sound civic spaces.

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 23, 2024 at 09:48 am and is filed under Brand identity and strategy, Communication planning and Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.