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.”

Defining the Line Between Spin & Sin

For spokespeople to be effective, it’s vital that they understand the nuances between lies, deception and spin.

In her book LYING: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok defines deception as that which occurs when “we communicate messages meant to mislead … meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe.” To her, lying is “any intentionally deceptive message which is stated.”
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In other words, to lie, you must make some form of statement; you cannot lie by simply omitting facts. If you omit facts to create a false impression, you are practicing a form of deception.

During my 33-year career, I have seen very few media training consultants or public relations practitioners counsel clients to lie or intentionally deceive the world when they face stakeholder groups or reporters. However, I have witnessed many situations in which the client (as spokesperson) has spun an issue or not been forthcoming with the truth. (Ignoring the question and talking about “what’s really important” is a perfect case in point.)

Defining Spin

In a presentation to the American Political Association a few years ago, political scientist John J. Mearsheimer provided a definition of spin that I have used many times because it clearly delineates spin from both lying and deception. According to Mr. Mearsheimer, spin occurs when someone links together facts in a way that attempts to portray an individual or organization in the best possible light.

Chances are, if you’ve ever sent out a résumé, you have practiced a form of spin. Spin involves downplaying or ignoring certain facts that would create a negative perception, and emphasizing those that create a positive perception. The emphasis is on making the individual or organization look as good as possible by focusing attention on the positives.

The thin line between spin and sin lies somewhere between the creation of a true impression and a false impression, resulting from which decisions or facts are included, which facts are omitted, and how the facts are structured.

In other words, if the facts are true and the impression left by those facts is true, the overall approach is ethical.

However, if the facts are true but the impression left by the selection or organization of those facts is false or misleading, the precise location of the ethical line needs to be discussed or reviewed by all those involved. If we leave this impression, are we opening ourselves to criticism?

If the facts are untrue, and people in the organization know them to be untrue, the organization is lying.

Spin is not necessarily a form of deception, provided that the story created by the facts is not intended to mislead and the facts underlying the story are true. But the line between spin and sin is definitely crossed when there is no conscious effort to portray an accurate or truthful version of the story.

Asking Questions—the Only Protection

The only protection someone has against deception, lies or spin is asking questions. By definition, this makes the skill of answering questions extremely important if an organization’s spokespeople hope to maintain high moral ground during situations of real or perceived hostility.

By asking questions, stakeholders and journalists can determine which facts are highlighted and which are ignored, and whether the person answering questions is engaging in some form of deception, lie or spin. This is why interviews, not just résumés, are important to the hiring process.

From a formal perspective, this is what happens when prosecutors and defense attorneys (or plaintiffs and defendants) square off against each other in a court of law. This is also what happens in the court of public opinion when reporters ask spokespeople about the actions, activities, opinions and behaviours of the organizations they represent.

And, in an information-driven world, this makes the skill of answering questions clearly and concisely absolutely critical, and pause-answer-stop the foundation on which the line between spin and sin can be constructed and maintained.



Ex-Senators Coach is a Polarization Pro

After a disappointing hockey season for the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League head coach Dave Cameron was fired. During his subsequent media exchange with the owner, Cameron proved to be a polarization pro.
Ottawa Senators logo

In announcing the firing, Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Senators, made pointed remarks about Cameron's coaching style.

“It was inconsistency and some stupidity,” said Melnyk, pointing to Cameron’s decision to start rookie goalie Matt O’Connor in home opener Oct. 8.

“I go back to the very first game. You put in the second goalie. What was that about? On opening night and the guy gets clobbered. It’s not fair to him, not fair to the fans. Just a lot of little tiny mistakes that all of a sudden escalate and get serious and get in people’s heads.”

A natural reaction to polarization is to meet the opposition head-on. Imagine John Tortorella, head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets and previous head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, reacting to the comment if it was made toward him. He likely would have used colourful language to tell Melnyk that until he learns to skate and shoot a puck his opinion on the matter is irrelevant.

Instead, Cameron took a more effective approach to handling polarization. He remained logical and professional, using Melnyk’s open hostility to pull people to a more reasoned perspective.

“He can evaluate me all he wants, my coaching, he can fire me, I understand all that," Cameron said in a news conference on April 14, 2016.

"There's no reason for being hurtful. We're human beings, at the end of the day.”

About 25 years ago, I developed a “Managing Polarization” model to help my clients navigate their way through issues effectively.

Polarization arises as a result of issues, and the dictionary defines an issue as "an unresolved problem with the potential of escalating into a dispute." When someone "takes issue" with an individual or organization, they are mapping out the boundaries of that dispute.

Theoretically, the opinions toward any issue can be mapped along a spectrum that goes from openly hostile at one end to openly supportive at the other. Those with no opinion can be found somewhere in the middle.

As you move toward the outer edges of this spectrum to openly hostile or openly supportive, you move from a logical perspective to an emotional perspective.

When dealing with a group or individual who is openly hostile in an emotional way, it is essential to remain in the supportive but logical side of the spectrum. Allow others to explore your logic by answering questions and keeping your answers short. The more questions you answer, the more transparent you will be. By being objective, you allow their hostility to push people toward your perspective.

Dave Cameron is a case in point. He faced negative opinions from the organization and fans. It is no secret that the Ottawa Senators did not have a particularly successful season and a lot of the blame ends up with the coach. Even if you agree with Melnyk’s opinion, as a human being it is difficult to take his side when he is on the openly hostile end of the spectrum and belittling another human being.

Cameron implemented the Polarization Model flawlessly. He is truly a polarization pro.