Managing Polarization in Public Consultation

angry crowd polarization 3During a presentation to the International Association for Public Participation (IAP2) North American conference in Denver this past September, I had the pleasure of introducing participants to the polarization model, a strategic tool that helps my clients manage polarization, and the real or perceived hostility that often accompanies it, while being interviewed by journalists and during all forms of public consultation.

“Polarization arises because of issues,” I explained during the session. “And the dictionary defines an issue as an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute.”

Theoretically, every response to any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile on the left side to openly supportive on the right, with no opinion somewhere in the middle.

“When someone takes issue with a perspective, especially during a public meeting, they are making statements or asking questions that feel emotionally charged,” I outlined during the session. “What’s the natural instinct of the person on the receiving end?”

Often, the person answering attempts to change the opinion of the person strongly expressing an opposing opinion. The goal is to bring that person, willingly or unwillingly, to the supportive side of the spectrum.

This can lead to a tug-of-war. When that happens, nothing gets resolved. No opinions are changed.

Whether opposed or supportive (and there are often many more opposed than supportive), everyone walks out of the meeting not having changed their opinion. Worse yet, they may move away from the logical toward the emotional end of the spectrum.

This is polarization.

media training polarization model
However, research shows that the further you go from the middle to the outer edges on each side of the spectrum, the more you go from a logical to an emotional perspective.

There are only three opinions about any issue. Positive, negative, and none. And there are only three things you can do with these opinions.

You can reinforce a positive opinion. You can neutralize a negative opinion—not necessarily change it but neutralize it. Or you can form a latent or unformed position.

When issues arise, there is little or no need to form opinions; the issue has taken care of that task because issues formulate opinions. To manage polarization effectively, therefore, two things need to happen. First, the organization’s perspective needs to be reasonable, rational, ethical and supportable. If it is, it’s defensible.

Second, the organization can best defend its perspective by answering questions about it, not reacting to statements or sending even more information to the audience in the hope that somehow they’ll overcome their emotional anxiety and understand what is attempting to be done.

If someone makes a statement that seems to drag the discussion to the left side of the spectrum, the receiver of that statement has two choices. He or she can politely ask the person to ask a question, or he or she can turn the statement into one or more questions, and ask and answer them succinctly.

And when it comes to questions, the more the merrier. This means that the person answering questions should be clear and concise in doing so.

“I actually believe most questions can be answered in ten words or less,” I explained during the session. “Answer the question and stop talking. If there’s even the remotest hint of polarization in the room, you won’t have to wait long for another question.”

Supports Transparency
Indeed, clear and concise answers to questions actually support the concept of transparency, which is important to any form of public consultation, essential to building trust, and increasingly critical in a wired world where everyone with a smartphone can feed into traditional and social media. By definition, consultation means listening, and I’ve long believed that the best way to demonstrate listening skills is to answer questions clearly and concisely.

“You can’t answer someone’s question effectively if you’re not actually listening,” I explained to participants. “But, more importantly, my working definition of transparency is ‘ask me anything, I have nothing to hide.’

“In a tense environment, answering questions enables the organization to demonstrate transparency, which allows those who have an opposing opinion, but a logical perspective, make their own minds up about what the organization is attempting to achieve.”

If done effectively, this approach can change opinions to the point that those who came in with an opposed but logical perspective may very well change their opinions, if for no other reason than they become disillusioned with those who are opposed and emotional.

The Skill of Answering Questions
Finally, I provided insight into how IAP2 practitioners can guide their organization to answer questions effectively.

I’ve long believed that the skill of answering questions is the least developed skill in human interpersonal communication. To improve that skill, three words are important: pause, answer, stop.

When you are asked a question, pause and think. Not only is it polite, but it enables you to find the best answer for the question, which is almost always the shortest possible answer.

Answer the question that was asked, and only the question that was asked. And, as soon as you’ve answered the question, stop talking and wait for more questions.

If the organization’s logic is reasonable, rational, sustainable and defensible, pause-answer-stop enables the audience to explore that logic and come to their own conclusion.

“This approach leads to opinion change, which I’ve seen and demonstrated hundreds of times during my career,” I concluded during my Denver presentation. “At the very least, it leads to better outcomes than an emotional tug-of-war every single time.”

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Media training consultant Eri Bergman in Toronto
Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, FCPRS is the world’s most credentialed and experienced media training consultant. He has helped organizations manage polarization during volatile times and during a host of public consultation processes, everything from environmental cleanups to organizational change.

Contact Eric if your organization needs assistance with managing polarization effectively.