ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Civility Is Not Enough

Yesterday we wrote about how a commitment to civility and more widespread use of the communication tools that mediators use can make a difference in our national politics.  Today we look at the importance of critical thinking.  Critical thinking requires ongoing and systematic analysis of how we are thinking so we can improve how we evaluate, use, and integrate different kinds of information.   This extends also to thinking about how we communicate our thoughts, and how we receive and process what we hear.  In a world of sound bites, competing and biased narratives, and positional maneuvering, critical thinking is “critical” to finding our way.

One resource I really like and have used in several dialogue contexts to help participants think about how and what they are communicating is the “Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools” booklet from The Foundation for Critical Thinking Thinker’s Guide Library.  As is noted in the very beginning of that booklet, without the effort to think critically, much of our thinking is “biased, distorted, uninformed, or downright prejudiced”.  As the authors go on to note, this is dangerous because “the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought.  Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life.”

The stages of critical thinking outlined in the booklet align well with the “data to wisdom continuum.”  Both tools can be used to help participants generate questions about where they are, what they know, and what they don’t know and would like to explore further.  Developing these types of questions helps people move from simply trading talking points, to more productive dialogue.  Another great resource to check out is  FlackCheck.org. Here you can review some of the common ways information is manipulated or distorted when reported through the media, illustrated with real life video examples.  Our post series on cognitive errors  also works well with this resource.

The educator John Dewey observed that “Democracy needs to be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife.”  As Dan Yankelovich has pointed out, our national problem solving capacity has eroded as our collective ability to think critically together has declined.  By integrating educational tools like those above into our dialogues we can help to restore that capacity.

ABA Mediation Week 2013 – Looking Back At Resolution 108

In 2011, the American Bar Association passed its Resolution 108, affirming civility as a foundation for democracy and the rule of law.  The accompanying report warned that the increasing levels of “acrimony and venom” and “polarizing diatribe”  in our political discourse endangered the quality of governmental decision-making and left “citizens frustrated, disillusioned, and reluctant to participate in democratic governance.”

And here we are, starting ABA Mediation Week 2013, in the midst of a shutdown of the federal government.  And this is accompanied by the fear of a possible default on our national debt.  Will reason and statesmanship prevail over distrust, misinformation and power-based gamesmanship?  We can hope that it will, and we can also each individually resolve to act to improve our national politics in the year to come by practicing and promoting the skills needed for more civil discourse.

Mediators and facilitators are well equipped to teach the tools that can help citizens actively question the information they receive; identify and focus on common interests;  reaffirm and apply commonly held values; and change the patterns of communication that lead to debate rather than productive dialogue.

In the words of the report accompanying ABA Resolution 108,

“Words matter.  How we treat each other matters.  In our public discourse, it is time to begin talking to each other with mutual respect, no matter how much we disagree.”

If enough of us commit to this principle, work to understand both those with whom we may not agree and the complexity of the issues before us, and demand that our elected officials do the same, we may be able to fix what is broken in our current system.

Celebrate ABA Mediation Week 2013

This year we are once again sponsoring an ABA Mediation Week event together with the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution at the University of Missouri School of Law and the Association of Missouri Mediators.  This will truly be a statewide event with on-line video streaming and opportunities to connect at 4 physical locations that will be linked through videoconferencing.   The program will kick-off with an open discussion on the impact of mediation on the community, business, families, and the legal profession.   The AMM’s annual meeting will follow.  The four locations are as follows:

Columbia 
University of Missouri-Columbia
Room 001 Bond Life Sciences Center
1201 Rollins Street
Columbia, MO 65211-7310
Phone re directions: 573-424-4254

Springfield
Mercy College of Nursing and Health Sciences of SBU
4431 S. Fremont Avenue
Springfield, MO 65804
Phone re directions: 417-820-7423

Kansas City
Cornerstones of Care
300 East 36th Street
Kansas City, MO 64111
Phone 816-508-1700

St. Louis
University of Missouri St. Louis
South Campus Computer Building 200A
1 University Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63121

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.