Cleaning Up Toxic Public Discourse for Meaningful Engagement

group od people yelling at each other

With over 1500 registrants, it’s clear that our recent record-breaking webinar – Cleaning Up Toxic Public Discourse for Meaningful Engagement – hit on an important and timely topic for planning and engagement professionals. 

We were honored to host James Hoggan, bestselling author of ‘I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up’ and ‘Do the Right Thing: PR Tips for a Skeptical Public.’ James is a leading voice in how to understand the nature of today’s toxic public engagement environment.  

James carried the first half of the session, focusing on the causes of the current state of public discourse. He offered some inspiring advice to practitioners based on his extensive research, including interviews with thought leaders from the Dalai Lama to sociologist Bruno Latour.  

When facing a public square polluted with polarized discourse, James suggested that we need to improve in three areas.

  1. Deep listening. James emphasized that ‘compassion’ and ‘deep listening’ are very essential tools to address angry people and toxic behaviours. If we want people to hear our point of view, we first have to be able to hear theirs. James recalled his interview with scientist Peter Senge who noted, “the quality of any intervention is based on the inner qualities of the intervener.” The best way to calm an angry person is to remain calm, hear them, and show empathy by repeating back their feelings and values.
  2. Emotional dialogue. James warned that data and statistics are not persuasive. We know from cognitive psychology that the human mind processes information using stories that stir up feelings and values. In a fight, facts always lose to emotions. And so James advised that leaders and public figures need to effectively participate in ‘emotional dialogue.’
  3. Stories of us. James also encouraged us to become ‘story tellers.’ For example, an emotional story about how a specific likable person or family is struggling today and how a proposed plan could change their future can help paint a compelling story, bringing an important statistic to life. Public meeting participants will forget the statistic but remember and be moved by the story.

Following his talk, I outlined a set of very practical strategies and tactics to help planners and public engagement professionals design and implement public involvement programs that are less vulnerable to disruptions and go beyond the vocal minority to engage the more moderate and positive voices in the community.  

We rounded off the webinar with a live Q&A session. Participants were clearly highly engaged. There were common recurring themes with their many questions, which clearly points to a need for more information and training on how to deal with angry or disruptive participants specifically at public meetings. We’re happy to oblige.  

As discussed in the webinar, public meetings for projects will always tend to attract the most motivated – this generally means the most opposed. Public meetings are also highly vulnerable to cooptation by vocal individuals. There are several techniques described in chapter 9 our “100 Community Engagement Ideas” guidebook to help create public meetings that are less vulnerable along with some methods for dealing with disruptive participants.

Below are some of the methods we’ve found to be most effective when faced with a vocal opposition! 

  1. Be honest and clear about what’s on the table for discussion and where you are in the process.
  2. Consider conducting a broad and inclusive online survey about priorities prior to the public meeting process. This can allow you to summarize what was learned about top priorities from a broader demographic than is likely to be represented at the meeting. It will help set the tone that there are many points of view to consider beyond the ones represented in the room.
  3. Drop the mic! Instead of the traditional room with a line of people at the microphone, try dividing people into discussion tables where they are encouraged to share ideas and hear from neighbors.
  4. Start the meeting with a clear set of rules and request self regulation and respect for all participants.
  5. Speak directly to the challenging decisions to be made and demonstrate that you understand that there are multiple perspectives and that it’s not easy.
  6. Ensure that people feel heard. Repeat back what you heard to make sure you got it right even if you don’t agree. You can even take notes on a flip chart.
  7. For people who dominate the dialog despite requests to share the time with others, invite them to a one on one side bar discussion either at the meeting or after.

In addition to creating better structured public meetings and using best practice facilitation skills the following strategies can help as well.

  1. Use a fast and fun online engagement platform to allow people to weigh in quickly on their own schedules. These surveys can dramatically lower the barrier to participation to open the process to more moderate or positive voices. It’s critical that these surveys offer private experiences with no open forum or commenting to allow people to participate without fear of reprisal or intimidation.
  2. Embed education into your engagement experience, as made possible with interactive and visual surveys. By educating people about the planning options, pros and cons of alternatives, trade-offs, and constraints, you can widen the perspective of people who may not feel knowledgeable on the issues or who are too focused on a single issue to appreciate that there are multiple priorities simultaneously. A recent case in point was revealed in this webinar with Truckee Meadows RPC where they describe how they went from vocal resistance to infill to widespread support by cleverly educating people about the pros and cons of alternatives in an interactive survey.
  3. Monitor demographics of the participants carefully and seek out missing voices to broaden the engagement. Too often the vocal minority represents only a narrow cross section of the community.
  4. Use “go to them” strategies to engage with people who are attending another community event or even passers by in public places, thereby increasing the chances of engaging average people and a broader demographic. This can be as simple as setting up a table at a community gathering of any kind. This strategy can be highly cost effective compared with organizing your own sessions. In addition, by picking and choosing your events carefully, it’s possible to target difficult to reach or underrepresented populations. 

We hope this webinar recording and these additional tips will help you clean up toxic public discourse and create more meaningful engagement in your outreach projects. Checkout additional success stories from our case studies for more inspiration. 

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