Remember the 2009 “town hall” meetings that were held around the country? Those uncivil exchanges were examples of what happens when dialogue is not well planned. Structuring an effective public engagement process requires careful analysis and thought. If the public is simply invited in to “just talk” or share their thoughts, you are likely to end up with a meeting where people talk at each other and lock into partisan positions rather than with each other in a way that helps them learn about and begin to move through a complex issue.
In November 2008, Public Agenda Chairman Daniel Yankelovich gave a speech at the Drucker School of Management in which he analyzed how and why our “civic problem solving” capacity has eroded, and how the symptoms of this erosion, which include growing public mistrust, polarization instead of cooperation, and leadership pandering, might be addressed. He labeled his proposed approach the “New Pragmatism” as he urged the restoration of pragmatism as “a traditional American habit of thought”. A focus on the practical, a willingness to experiment to gain more information on whether a proposed course of action will work, and an openness to compromise and incremental solutions, are characteristics of this “pragmatic thought”.
When considering how to best engage members of the public on an issue it is a good practice to first analyze their familiarity with an issue, how they approach conflict, and what additional skills and information might help to promote civil dialogue. In his speech, Yankleovich also introduced a new analytic tool, called “The Learning Curve“, which will be the subject of our next post. Over the next few weeks we will use the learning curve and other tools to look at how different dialogue structures can be used to build skills, introduce needed information, and encourage the kind of pragmatic thinking communities need to move through complex issues.