Category Archives: In The Field

Community and Conflict: Prevention and Healing – An Interview with Bill Johnson for ABA Mediation Week

It’s ABA Mediation Week 2014, and the theme for this year is “Stories Mediators Tell:  From Rookie to Veteran – Exploring the Spectrum of Mediation”.  We are excited to be able as part of Mediation Week to share this interview with Bill Johnson who is a veteran at helping communities through conflict.  Bill was first trained as a mediator in 1985, and he incorporated that training into his work as the President and CEO of the Urban League of Rochester New York (1972-1993), and as the 64th Mayor of Rochester (1994-2005).  After several additional years (2006-2013) as the Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Urban Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology, he is heading a consulting firm focused on “bridging differences to build strong communities” — Strategic Community Intervention LLC.  If you are concerned about distrust and divides within our communities, listen to the following interview and find out what can be done to heal those divides, even after events like those that recently occurred in Ferguson, MO.  You can also download a summary of Bill’s thoughts and experiences here: SCI –Police and Communities Collaboration, 10-14.

Interview With Bill Johnson of SCI

Note: This video was filmed using VTC Stream.

Working Through Cognitive Errors – A Review

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.

Cognitive Errors – Even More

In this post we review four additional  cognitive errors  that occur in our political discussions.  These are:

Fairness fallacies: This error is present when individuals or groups resent others for not meeting their personal standards of what is fair or not fair, or become angry when “doing the right thing” is not rewarded. The fairness fallacy may sound like this: “It’s just not fair”  or “That’s just not right to treat people like that, I won’t even give that the dignity of a response” or “I was polite and asked them nicely and if they can’t respond to that then there’s no further use in even trying.”  As when responding to “shoulds”, the facilitator will want to acknowledge the underlying concern and emotion, and invite further exploration of what motivates the speaker.

Blaming: This error involves failing to take responsibility for one’s own actions or contributions to an issue and shifting it to others. It is one component in the narratives that form the basis for cold hate.  It can sound like this:  “They asked for this (even though we may have voted for it or initiated the request) so it’s their mess to fix.” And it can sound like this: “If they had done X then I wouldn’t have done Y so it’s their fault we’re in this mess.”  Here the facilitator might reflect the conclusion and the corresponding action of the speaker, presenting them as two equal parts of a puzzle to be solved:  “So you think it’s their fault. And you and many others voted for it.  Would you like to say more?”  Usually the speaker would like to say more, and will provide some additional data points.  The facilitator can list those and invite additional speakers to contribute.  When there is a list of five or more items, the facilitator can invite a review and also invite the group to think about next steps.

Emotional Reasoning: When we let feelings define our reality, we are engaging in “emotional reasoning”.  Emotional reasoning sounds like: “I know it because that’s how I feel”, or “that upsets me so much it just can’t be right”.  Emotions need to be acknowledged and accepted as neither right or wrong.  Participants also need to be allowed to process their  emotions.  Juxtaposing “data” or “rational arguments” with emotional reasoning is more likely to inflame the emotions and erode trust among participants than to help a group move forward.  One approach to use when emotional reasoning is prevalent is to summarize the different directions participants are coming from, assign “homework”, and take a break.  This can sound something like this:  “Ok, we have some strong feelings, some information that people would like to consider, and a range of questions people want to ask.  This may be a good time for a break, and over our break, think about how we might proceed when we return.”

Fallacy of Change: When people believe they can change someone else’s views or perceptions simply by wanting to enough or persisting long enough, they are indulging in the “fallacy of change.” You will hear people say things like: “We just have to keep at it and eventually the truth will prevail,” or “if we could just meet more often, we’ll eventually break through.”  In this instance a facilitator might ask where the differences have been, or what values or information have been shared, and then merge that discussion into the question of why others might continue to see an issue from a different perspective.  Following that, the facilitator might raise the question of where the dialogue might go if not into agreement with the speaker’s stated goal.

In our next, and final post in this series, we will summarize some of the facilitation approaches that are common in navigating the various errors we have reviewed in this series.

More on Cognitive Errors

There are several other cognitive errors that regularly appear in our political discussions, including those related to gun violence. These include the following:

Mind reading: Although there is little evidence that most of us can accurately read minds, many indulge in that exercise anyway.  Mind reading sounds like this: “I know what they’re thinking, they’re thinking X and that means we need to stick with Y.”  To mitigate mind reading a facilitator might say, “So you’re thinking Y, and are sure then that they would think X. What else might you be thinking?” Or one might ask “What concerns you most about X”?  “How might it be different if you thought they were thinking A or B?”  As participants begin to explore their different assumptions, new avenues for dialogue can open.

Control fallacies: “Control fallacies” include both the false belief that one has total control, or that one has no control.  The first preempts discussion (“we don’t need to work with them, their views won’t have any effect”) and the second chills it.  If nothing can be done, why even try?  This second form is shown  in statements like “Our gun culture is deeply embedded. Not much can be done.”  A facilitator can respond to this first by reflecting what is felt: “So you feel you have no influence, and its not really worth the effort. Do you want to say more about that?” After hearing and reflecting the response, the facilitator can invite hope: “If it were possible, where would you start?”

“Shoulds”: When one creates a rigid rule of judgment, not tied to any clear principle or generally accepted rule, and becomes angry when others behave in a way contrary to that rule, you are witnessing the cognitive trap of “shoulds”.  We have all heard this in conversations: “she should have known that”, the government “never should” or “always should”, or “he should have seen”.  The key to opening  further  discussion here is to gently explore what lies behind the “should” – is it a principle? a past conversation? anger over an unforeseen consequence?  Exploring the speaker’s assumptions or beliefs will often lead to new questions, and an opportunity to offer additional information that in turn opens the speaker’s perspective.

Being right: The view that one’s opinion is always right results in automatic rejection of any conflicting data or viewpoints.  Not surprisingly, this makes dialogue and reasoned analysis very difficult. Generically this might sound like “That data doesn’t even make sense to me. It‘s just not that way. I already told you the way it is.”  Directly confronting the speaker about this cognitive error, and piling  on more  data, will only lead to more resistance. It’s more likely to be effective to reframe the issue being discussed to incorporate a range of views.  As more information comes into the discussion, the facilitator can invite an exploration of the range of data present: What makes some information trustworthy and other not?  what information is missing that the participants would like to see?  What would the group propose as the next steps?

Global labeling: This cognitive error, which often appears in tandem with “being right”, involves generalizing one or two qualities of a group into a negative judgment of the entire group, while ignoring evidence or other factors to the contrary. This error is evident throughout our public life, in such statements as in “All Democrats are godless” or “All Republicans are heartless”.  “Global labeling” is a type of “us” v. “them” thinking that reflects very low levels of trust of those who have different views or experiences.  Sometimes humor can help a speaker move forward.  For example, referring to the statements above, a facilitator might say something like: “really, all? No [group label, e.g. Democrat/Republican] is [state mirror positive attribute of insult used, e.g., faithful/compassionate].”  Humor should not be used though if the speaker is emotional, or if  global labeling is used in conjunction with other cognitive errors, as the use of humor could easily be viewed as an alignment with the “others” and against the speaker.  An alternative (and safer approach) would be to indirectly acknowledge the error and focus on what the speaker’s statement says about values or direction.  For example, the facilitator might say:” ‘all’ is a strong word and we may, given time, be able to think of some exceptions..  Faith/compassion is a strong value for you.  Would you like to say more about that here?”  Note the use of “we” in the first part of that response both reassures the speaker that he is accepted while signaling to the group that the global labeling is not accepted.  The shift to the word “you” in the next sentence invites the speaker to stay involved.

Cognitive Errors – Catastrophizing and Personalization

Continuing our series on cognitive errors, we review two in this post that often lead to flare-ups of incivility.  These are  catastrophizing and personalization.

Catastrophizing is evidenced by a dramatic anticipation of disaster and corresponding defensive reaction. For example,

+”They’re preparing for armed rebellion and ready to destroy our country” or

+”The ultimate goal of the liberals is a gun free America and ultimately the elimination of our Constitutional rights that America fought so hard to get.” (comment on MSNBC blog post, 4/16/2013).

This can be coupled with Personalization, which involves taking a general discussion and interpreting it as a personal attack, or assuming that behavior that could have more than one explanation is clearly intended as an insult.  Personalization will sound something like this:

  • “So you are saying that me and my family mean nothing . . .”

  • “All those statistics and other things are just another way for them to say we’re stupid, and we’re not . . .  I’m not going to sit here and be subjected to that. ”

Personalization heightens both the fear and defensiveness that accompany Catastrophizing, and when co-occurring can introduce “righteous anger” into the mix (e.g.,  “how dare they . . .”).

When you hear catastrophizing or personalization it is important to first support the speaker by reflecting what is being said at a deeper level.  For example, a facilitator might say, “that’s a frightening prospect for you”, or “so that sounded like a personal attack to you.”  After this reflective acknowledgment, the speaker will need some time to process and respond before the facilitator turns back to the group.  When ready, the facilitator can then open the discussion in various ways.  For example, the facilitator might invite previous speakers to address intent, or ask the group to explore the potential outcomes of various proposals or actions.  As with the cognitive errors addressed earlier, use of open-ended questions, and letting the group help shape the direction of the discussion, are also important factors in establishing a more civil dialogue when catastrophizing and personalization are present.

Cognitive Errors – Polarized Thinking

Polarized Thinking is a cognitive error that is a close cousin to over-generalization and filtering.  This error is very common in our political culture.  “Polarized thinking”  involves forcing complex issues into “either/or” pairings.  This forced pairing then encourages debate between which of the paired options is better and discourages exploration of the information, experiences, or values behind those options.  The forced pairing also constrains both the  generation of new options and the discussion of the options in between the the forced pair.

Polarized thinking sounds like this:  “We must declare that there are no shades of gray in American freedom. It’s black and white, all or nothing. You’re either with us or against us.”  (2002 quote attributed to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA  in Washington Post article “True Believers” by Achenbach, Higham and Horowtiz, reprinted in the Columbia Daily Tribune 1/27/2013), or this:  “What”s more important – our children or an ‘A’ grade from the gun lobby?”  (quote attributed to President Obama, in MSNBC blog post “How to Get an F from the NRA”, 4/16/2013).  

So what can you do when you hear polarized thinking? Sometimes a speaker will moderate a polarizing statement if the statement is gently reflected back, emphasizing the polarizing elements (“so as you see it right now it’s all or nothing, us v. them, and nothing in between?”).  If the speaker does offer a modification (e.g., “well yes, at least on this issue”, “it is as long as they insist on . . .”) the opening suggested by the modification can be noted, and returned to later in the discussion.

A facilitator can also note and explore the fact that “us v. them” phrasing indicates a lack of trust or identity with others in the conversation.  For example, the facilitator might say “so you see this as us v. them, right v. wrong, with no possibility of working together?” After a response the facilitator might then ask something like, “and what are some of the differences that reflect where we might place ourselves on the “us or them” continuum?” or “what are some of the things that separate “us” and “them”?”  The list of responses can then be discussed and refined by the group.

We have facilitated some difficult dialogues where this approach led to very productive discussion about the “labels” each group was using, why they were used, and why various labels were offensive to those to whom they were applied. The group closed out the session listing words to use and words to avoid, and identifying a set of questions they might explore when they met again.  The group referred to the list at future sessions to minimize attempts at further polarization.  Ultimately the group was able to resolve the issues that had brought them together in a way that all could live with.

When speakers are polarized,  it can also be helpful to use  invitational questions.  Invitational questions invite the group to explore and choose options for continuing the conversation.  Examples of invitational questions include, “what might we discuss next?” or “if it’s us v. them, where do you see the discussion going next?”, or “are there experiences or other information you might share that would help others to understand about why you feel so strongly about this issue?”  Again, you would want to get input from several speakers, and summarize the range of thoughts provided.  After reviewing you would again ask the group to help define the next step.

If you have planned for multiple sessions, you might at this point consider assigning  the group “homework” that will help them think about what they have heard and how the issue might be approached in future sessions.  It will be easier to think of a productive “homework” assignment  if you have evaluated potential areas of impasse and how those might be approached, before you meet with a group. In any assignment though it is important to reflect the actual discussions that have incurred within the group and use open questions.  When the group reconvenes, a review of the homework can be used to re-engage the group in discussion.

Cognitive Errors – Overgeneralization and Filtering

We continue our series on cognitive errors today with a discussion of over-generalization and filtering.

Over-generalization involves using one piece of data, or just a few data points to form broad conclusions.   This thinking pattern is well represented in discussions on gun violence.  Here are a few examples:

+Background checks are “useless” because “criminals will never submit to them.” (quote attributed to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, multiple media sources)

+  “Armed guards didn’t work at Columbine and they aren’t the solution now.” (Patrick Murphy, MSNBC blog, 4/16/13)

+“If people want to kill you, you can’t stop them. Even a fork can be deadly.” (comment reported by Kristoff, New York Times, 12/20/12)

+“Less guns, less gun violence seems to make good sense to me. More guns, more gun violence, so more guns and yet more gun violence.” (comment on Murphy MSNBC blog post, 4/16/13)

+“[T]he only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” (NRA spokesman comment quoted by Murphy MSNBC blog post, 4/16/23)

+ “But the fact is still the same – that guns don’t kill people.”  (comment in TribTalk, Columbia Daily Tribune, 2/12/13)

Over-generalization often appears in conjunction with Filtering, which occurs when we focus only on the negative facts (or less frequently, only on the positive facts) and ignore the rest.   “Filtering” is often expressed as unwillingness to engage.  For example, “Look, they believe this, and you just can’t ever work with them.”

Over-generalization and filtering both serve the rhetorical purpose of emphasizing and highlighting a point in ways that are difficult to challenge.  Both also serve a related emotional purpose as well – they signal that the speaker believes strongly in a particular point,  and wants others to back off.  Over-generalization and filtering are both more common as discussions get heated.  Both drive participants away from rather than toward greater understanding.  As a facilitator, when you hear individuals begin to trade strong overstatements, or spit competing “facts” at each other, you need to act to defuse the negative emotions that are building and invite (encourage) the participants to do something more than trade platforms.

One way to do this is to acknowledge what is going on without pinpointing any one participant, while introducing another context.  The facilitator can point out what is happening by saying something like:  “You each feel strongly on these issues and are presenting examples that illustrate the point you want to have heard.  And those points include . . . ” (here the facilitator would include a translation of the range of points, for example – “that guns are related to violence and also that guns are related to staying safe; many of you are concerned about lessening crime and violence across our community”). To introduce a shift in context, the facilitator would then follow-up with a question like:   “What information about crime in our community would help inform our discussion?”

To help shift context and refocus a discussion, the facilitator can frame a question around any of the five sources of conflict.   Sometimes it’s a good idea to offer the participants more than one question and let them choose the direction to go in.  In the example just given, the context shift was focused on information.  The context-shifting question could also focus on relationships – “ideally, what do we want for our community?”, or values – “what are the principles or values that underlie your concerns?”, or structure – “how might this issue be best approached, at the individual, local, state or federal level and why?”, or interests – “safety and freedom are both interests that have been identified so far, what are some of the other interests involved and what are the differences and overlap in how we are defining those interests?”

As another example of reflecting and shifting, the facilitator might list several of the examples and statements that have been offered (again making sure to use those that reflect the range of views), and then ask participants to explore them further by asking open-ended questions like the following: “in what ways do ‘more guns’ mean more violence or less crime? what examples are we hearing that challenge or confirm these various views? what data or information do we have (or could we look for) that would help us explore these examples further?  what concepts or theories (or assumptions or values) lie behind our choice of these examples? in what ways are those similar or different?”

Although using open-ended questions like these can help to counteract both over-generalization and filtering, if participants are to be effectively engaged, these questions must be asked gently and without pressure for the group to move in a particular direction.   If participants don’t trust the facilitator to hear their thoughts, questions and concerns, they will disengage or actively oppose the process.    The actual questions asked by the facilitator will of course depend on the dialogue and its participants.  However, whatever questions are asked, they must be framed in a way that invites further input from all.  This means no stereotyping, no direct challenges from the facilitator to an individual speaker, and no negative judging of one set of examples over another in framing the questions.  It does not mean though that there are no boundaries or that anything goes.  Good planning, and discussion of boundaries at the outset, are also important foundational components of civil dialogue.