Some conflict is like a latent staph infection in a body that otherwise seems healthy – waiting to flare up and dangerous when it does. Well-meaning efforts to engage the public can founder in the face of such a flare-up. We have seen this happen to public officials who proudly announce a new economic development effort expecting to be praised for working to create jobs, and are instead attacked for hiding information, playing favorites, and engaging in conspiracies. We have seen this happen to public officials who schedule “town hall meetings” and are surprised with angry venting and personal attacks. And we have seen many times when the underlying conflict is so deeply rooted that no one shows up to scheduled meetings, dismissing them as mere “window dressing” intended to manipulate a gullible public into believing they actually matter. How can you know whether your effort is at risk before you begin?
You can start to assess this risk by analyzing issues or arguments that arise repeatedly within your community. Group these into broad areas, like development, law enforcement, resource allocation, etc. Then analyze whether certain themes are repeated in how these issues are framed, and what groups tend to appear within each area. Do those themes suggest the conflict involves deeper differences than differences over interests or information? For example, is there a clash of values, or arguments regarding the “justice” or “fairness” of governance systems? How intense are the conflicts? One measure of intensity is the inflammatory nature of the language used and the tendency to characterize others as “enemies” or “fools”. Efforts to engage on issues related to areas where conflicts are recurrent, deeply rooted, and intense are more likely to see flare-ups and require careful planning on when, how, or even whether to engage.
If you are interested in systematically assessing your community’s resilience in the face of conflict and its readiness for productive collaboration, we have developed a workbook that will help you do so. For more information, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.