In this final post in our series on cognitive errors , we provide a general summary of some of the key approaches that facilitators or others might use to keep dialogues on difficult issues going even when cognitive errors threaten to shut down those dialogues.
What facilitators should not do is point out that something is a cognitive error! We already had one reader express concern at the use of the phrase “cognitive error”, reacting to the phrase as if we were judging right or wrong on a particular argument. The phrase “cognitive error” is a term from the field of psychology, although “cognitive distortion” is also used. As we explained at the outset of this series, a “cognitive error” is a thinking pattern that distorts the processing of facts, emotion, and other information. In this sense “error” is similar to the term as it is used in baseball: A defensive misplay. When cognitive errors appear in dialogue, they are often defensive in nature. They also make the discussion more difficult and frustrating for others. Whatever the term, this series has looked at approaches facilitators or others can take to avoid an impasse and keep the discussion moving when it threatens to stall. Here are some of the key points:
In order to feel safe enough to participate effectively, process new information, and consider new ideas, people need acknowledgement of their thoughts and acceptance of their fears, concerns, and efforts. In difficult conversations then it is important for facilitators to be gentle with the individual speakers, avoid direct confrontation, invite participation, and reflect, reframe, or shift perspective in the ways we have discussed. As Fisher and Ury urged in their groundbreaking book “Getting to Yes”, we need to “separate the person from the problem.”
A facilitator can also ask about data and information relevant to the conversation, share new data, summarize the information received, and invite reflection. Before summarizing and inviting reflection, it is useful to have a list of five or more points. Having a longer list helps to avoid participants falling into a debate over one or two points. With a sufficient number of points to reflect upon, a facilitator can use open ended questions aligned the “data to wisdom continuum” to encourage evaluation, and the consideration of new perspectives. Another way to encourage dialogue when participants are losing hope is to shift from the present and ask questions like “If it were . . .”, or “What if . . ./would that make a difference?” As those questions are explored people are often willing to start looking at the issue of what might move us closer to an acceptable next step.
We have also found that both providing “choice points” for the group (example: “we can stop now or pick up another topic or continue/what would you prefer?”) and breaks combined with “h0mework” (reflections to write, process questions to think about, information to reflect on or obtain) is very helpful for moving through difficult issues. This means that you must plan for multiple sessions from the outset.
The above also means that for the most part you assume the goodwill of every participant. We are not naive, and know that there are those who deliberately disrupt dialogues. In our experience though, the intentionally disruptive are in the minority. How to handle those is a subject for another post. Many more show up because they are genuinely concerned and want to be heard. If you assume goodwill, acknowledge and accept all contributions, and help the group navigate through cognitive errors and other sticking points, they will start to hear each other and consider new approaches. When that occurs, dialogue serves to rebuild the sense of community among the participants and effective and sustainable solutions to difficult issues can emerge with surprising speed.