Tag Archives: thinking

Till The Ground (From A Midwest Metaphor)

A Metaphor From The Midwest

harvesting-metaphor-3Once you have your field, the next step in preparing for the harvest is to till, or cultivate, the soil. This means preparing the soil for planting, which includes both plowing to break up the soil and fertilizing to add nutrients. Both of these help the seeds you subsequently plant to grow.

In our political field, trust – a respect and belief in the integrity, good intentions, and capabilities of others – is the soil that helps us grow and flourish as a society.  The trends discussed in our last post have depleted our communal trust.  Using the rubric of “trust taxes” and “trust dividends” described in Stephen Covey’s “Speed of Trust“, these trends have resulted in a destructive tax on the citizenry. This is evidenced through the growing number of citizens who view those not of their own political party as “the enemy”, the excessive defensive posturing and legal positioning by our political parties, and the general level of venom used in discussing differences of interest or information. All of these factors suggest a “trust tax” of 60% or more.  This is a very high burden.

So how might we use dialogue to remediate some of the damage that has been done? Below are three actions that can help break up the hard crust of fear and anger that has formed, followed by two that can help prepare the ground for new growth.

  1. Invite.  Invite others into dialogue. Simply choosing to use dialogue rather than debate – to move beyond the right/wrong, win/lose framing used in debate and actually explore the complexities of intersecting issues —  is a step towards building trust. By choosing dialogue you are moving from an “Us” v. “You” competitive dynamic into a more inclusive “we are in this together and will be stronger together” partnership and problem solving mode. You might begin by acknowledging differences in values or interests while also exploring similarities, by exploring the different questions being asked, or by comparing and evaluating the different sources of information that are being used.  An invitation can be as simple as asking questions like “How would we like it to be? Why?”  Although you can introduce dialogue in everyday conversation, there are also many resources and organized efforts you can connect to and invite others to join.  Two current efforts include the Kettering Foundation’s annual “A Public Voice” collaboration and the Better Angels “One America” bus tour.
  2. Align.  If you are going to invite others into dialogue, once you are there you need to act like you mean it.  The communication patterns that promote dialogue are the opposite of competing factions spitting “trigger words” at each other or ridiculing, rather than engaging with, other points of view. No one likes to be attacked, dismissed, or shamed. If you are going to sustain a dialogue, you will need to act in ways that show interest in, and care and concern for, the others in dialogue. This means aligning your comments with a focus on the relationship, not just the issue being discussed. You can also think about how to align your narratives and questions with stories of wisdom and the common good.
  3. Listen: Often we ‘listen’ simply to find the gap in the conversation in which we might insert our own views, or to harvest fragments of statements to use in our rejoinder. This is not what we mean by “Listen”.  Instead we mean listening in ways that attend to the speaker.  This includes reflecting back an understanding of the speaker’s emotions and concerns, and inviting further thoughts on what might help the speaker move forward.  This kind of reflective listening calms emotions and enhances the speaker’s ability to process new information.  It also strengthens relationships and builds trust by demonstrating respect for the speaker’s presence in the dialogue.
  4. Educate.  John Dewey once said, “Democracy must be reborn in every generation and education is its midwife.”  Oliver Wendell Holmes observed that “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.” As the last election showed, many citizens lack an understanding of how their government actually works, use very different sources of information, are unsure of their own ability to influence the decisions that are made, and might benefit from additional skills in the areas of communication and critical thinking.  Dialogue can help in all of these areas.  Note that in dialogue, education occurs through asking open-ended questions, sharing resources and experiences, and inviting reflection, not through lecturing or proselytizing.
  5. Commit.  Studies in different fields demonstrate that taking personal responsibility for one’s views and actions improves how information is processed, shared and evaluated. It also  builds trust.  This kind of commitment and willingness to be accountable for what one says and does is aligned with sincerity.  It is the opposite of the “bullshit” discussed in the last post. Taking responsibility for what you think and say, admitting what you don’t know, and inviting others to do the same, is the essence of effective dialogue.

Choose The Field (From A Midwest Metaphor)

A Metaphor From The Midwestharvesting-metaphor-2

When thinking ahead to the harvest, you first need to decide where you will plant the seeds you want to sow. To some extent you will be constrained by geography. As you assess the field you will also need to consider the suitability of the available land and climate for different types of plants. For example, it is easier to grow wheat and corn in the Midwest than rice or cotton. There are other questions to ask as well: has the quality of the soil been depleted by past crops? Has the soil been weakened from the use of fertilizers designed to boost short term growth? In planting, as in politics, overuse of any one technique generally leads to poor growth and diminishing returns at harvest time. Worse still, the soil may be poisoned by overuse of herbicides or pesticides.

As we consider our political field, there are also limits on what we might do. Our representative form of democracy sets some constraints as does the constitutional separation of powers among the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. There are different levels (local, state, or national) on which our political discussion is occurring. Certain issues and problems align with certain branches or levels of government more so than others. Each of these levels, though, informs and affects the others, and so their interactions must be studied and understood.

Regardless of the level at which our field is located, there are many past actions and trends that have depleted and poisoned our political soil. At least three of these could be remediated through dialogue.

The first trend that could be remediated is the categorizing of broad groups of individuals, whether by location, education, race, culture, or economics, into the “them” that threatens the “us”. This stereotyping has been an intentional focus of “wedge politics”, a strategy designed to maximize the returns (in votes and dollars) for both of the dominant political parties. The heated, polarizing, and partisan language used by many political leaders, which is repeated through social and other media, is as poisonous to our democracy as herbicides and pesticides  that leach into soil and water. Such language strangles the growth of new ideas, restricts our ability to consider facts that are different from our preconceptions, and makes it easier for us to deny the humanity, aspirations, interests, and needs of others. The dangers of “Themification” are summarized well in this Ted Talk by Dick Simon. We have moved away from the “united we stand, divided we fall” sentiments that grace many of our public spaces, towards a “what’s in it for me and my tribe” focus.  By doing so we have limited our ability to plan for and take pragmatic steps toward a future that might benefit us all.

The second poisonous trend that could be remediated through dialogue has been the rise of a passive notion of citizenship.  We elect our “gladiators” and sit back to cheer or jeer.  Too few of us engage in the the hard work of informing ourselves, working through the competing choices, or getting directly out into the arena. The media and political parties have been only too happy to lend their support to feeding this “blood sport” of politics by handicapping the players, and focusing much of their effort on raising money in order to “win” the most current “contest”. This approach has eroded both our individual and collective capacity for the critical  analysis that most complex problems require. Instead of identifying and engaging voters on the difficult trade-offs involved in finding solutions, the parties and media are more likely to present “slices” for consumption – dividing complex problems into a series of isolated issues.  These “slices” are often then supported with data that are incomplete or taken out of context, and are argued as if there were a single definitive “right” or “wrong” answer.  This way of presenting what are, in fact, complex issues is highly misleading.  Framing these issues in simplistic either/or terms also ignores the reality that the analysis of most complex issues requires reasoning within multiple systems (e.g. information, values, interest, experience, etc.) and some element of subjective judgment. These fundamental flaws in our collective reasoning are  rarely discussed and often go unnoticed. As we fail to consider the integrative effects and trade-offs across issues we miss opportunities both to identify and to work together to implement solutions for our common good.

The third poisonous trend is the rise of a “bullshit” and celebrity driven entertainment culture that has infected both our news and our ability to reason together.  What do we mean by a “bullshit culture”? In his best-selling book from 2005, “On Bullshit” , Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt attempted to provide a framework to describe communications made with no objective factual constraints or boundaries.  He characterized these as statements “unconstrained by a concern for the truth”, or “bullshit”.

Consider the following quotes:

The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides . . . is that the truth values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to support the truth nor to conceal it. ” (55)


A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers the statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all of these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man or the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (55-56)


[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” ( 61)

The leaching into our political sphere of a tolerance for, and even admiration of, bullshit as a means of discussing serious political issues, has further eroded our ability to think critically about and solve the problems we face as a country.  In a culture that often mistakes celebrity — conferred by the ability to entertain or simply attract publicity– for character or merit, this tolerance for bullshit as political speech is even more damaging.

So, what harvest do we want? Do we want a “government of, by, and for the people”? Do we even believe that is possible? Our current political soil neither nurtures the sense of community that many citizens say they want nor promotes pragmatic problem solving for the common good. Taken together, the above trends have led many to believe there is no way even to discern what that common good might be, and so feelings and affiliations take the place of hard facts and critical analysis in making decisions. If we aren’t willing to change or challenge these trends, we will continue to be disappointed in our political harvest.


We have a workbook that can help you assess civic health in your community, and other resources for building dialogues.

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.