Category Archives: In The Field

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.

Navigating Cognitive Errors

In this series of posts we look at what you as a a facilitator can do to prevent “cognitive errors”  from derailing dialogues.  What is a “cognitive error”?  It’s a thinking pattern that distorts the processing of facts, emotions and other information.  Cognitive errors are often behind impasses or angry “flare-ups” in discussion.

Cognitive errors we will be reviewing in future posts include:

Where applicable, and as a supplement to our recent article on dialogue and gun violence , we illustrate this series with quotations taken from various press reports and blog posts on the issue of gun violence.

This series is part of our ongoing exploration of frameworks that can help you better navigate conflict. We invite you to also review our series on Sternberg’s Taxonomy of Hate, and the series on understanding the different levels and sources of conflict.  These posts will also help you think about why certain issues become highly politicized and difficult to work through, so as to better plan for effective facilitation.  We also invite you to use our workbook as a tool for analyzing conflict and planning effective dialogue.

Planning For Civil Discourse About Gun Violence

As we noted in our last post, political parties and citizens alike remain deeply divided on what might be done to reduce gun violence. There is however growing support for reducing that violence. Doing so will require more  substantive and civil dialogue that is sustained over time.

In February we were selected by the National Institute for Civil Discourse to write an essay on how to navigate this difficult dialogue. A review of why dialogue on this issue is so difficult can be found in our last post. Below are some of our recommendations on how to plan for dialogue on gun violence.

  • At its base level “civility” means communicating in ways that reflect mutual respect, care and concern, and that support joint action and effort.  Leaders can model communication patterns that respect rather than attack those with whom they disagree.  Leaders can also demonstrate an understanding of (or make an effort to understand) views that differ from their own.  What we need is less partisanship and more listening and reflection. You can read more about the dangers of extreme partisanship and the role of civility in navigating difficult policy issues here.
  • Those seeking dialogue need to frame issues in ways that invite and allow the underlying fears, distrust, and differences in values, information and experience that derail most discussions on gun violence to be addressed. This means starting at a level other than positional debate on, or evaluation of, specific policy proposals.
  • Transparency regarding information development and evaluation is another key element in building trust in a dialogue process. Although dialogue participants need access to clear, consistent, understandable and honest data, they also need to be invited to discuss what makes data understandable and honest.
  • When dialogue is difficult, leaders need to allow the necessary time and space for reflection and also provide participants with choices on how and when to engage as they proceed to work through the issue.
  • Starting dialogues on gun violence at the local and regional levels around questions that reflect a common concern – such as “how do we want our communities to be?” —  can also help to mitigate fear and distrust and set a good foundation for a broader national dialogue.
  • Leaders can further promote civil discourse by using “stories of wisdom.”   These are narratives that emphasize the common good, accept the fact that differences exist, and reflect the hope that a path forward will be found.  Stories of wisdom help dialogue participants to navigate differences in experience, interests, values, and information.

You can download our complete essay, “Aim Higher, Dig Deeper” as a pdf here.  This essay was prepared for and with funding by the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse, as part of a collection of essays on supporting a national conversation about gun violence. The collection has also been posted on the NICD blog.