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Managing Anger in Public Discussion

IF public discussions provide participants with opportunities to discuss contrasting policy possibilities in neutral, non-partisan settings.  Because these possibilities are meant to be anticipatory of possible policy approaches that allow participants to “re-imagine” how society handles issues, our discussions are generally “hopeful”.

That does not mean that every participant agrees with each possibility (those possibilities are sometimes in opposition to each other), but they are usually pleased with the insights gained through discussion and encouraged by the expansion of their views of what might be possible. This fits with most of what we know about the satisfaction that comes with this sort of “civic learning”.

But what if the response to an expanded sense of the issues in a given area is deeper skepticism and anger? Is there anything constructive to be found in a discussion that takes a turn toward exposure of what participants see as fundamental flaws in how society is organized and operates? Is there “benefit” in participant identification of individuals and interests that gain from these arrangements?

My answer to those questions is “yes”.

Recently I facilitated a public discussion of colleague Jeff Prudhomme’s Helping America Talk report in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania. Most of the participants in that discussion were community college students struggling with part-time jobs and college costs. A couple of charismatic fellow students had recruited them to this discussion, but few had much in the way of discussion experience. One student summed initial attitudes up with the rhetorical question, “So, we’re talking about talking, right?”.

Jeff’s report has a number of extremely useful possibilities to launch discussion about public conversation. I have facilitated this report before and most groups naturally fall into a discussion flow of the topic and go beyond the report’s possibilities. This group, however, had numerous breaks in the discussion where cynicism and resentment was palpable.

Participants challenged each other with tough questions. Did we really believe that “those in charge” (loosely meaning almost all institutional leaders and those of great wealth) would encourage or even permit authentic public conversation? Don’t our patterns of media ownership and licensure work against public conversation? Aren’t our basic forms of public participation—like elections—fundamentally flawed and even rigged?

Most of the participants in this group came away with a sense that breaking the pattern of “management by elites” of public conversation was more important than specific remedies of access and transparency.

At first I thought the conversation took this tack because of the participation of two highly vocal young “tea party” backers. But in the course of the discussion I found populist anger of both Right and Left varieties.

IF discussions are facilitated in a dispassionate style, with emphasis on exploration of the topic rather than debate. Here I took a chance on exploring the resentments the discussion uncovered.  I had to shift from my usual approach of using personal capital to discourage outbursts to an acknowledgement of anger and probing beneath it.

I would not classify my style adaptations here an unqualified success. I have no formal training in using discussion as therapy. But I did hear directly from participants that they appreciated the opportunity to vent and my help in pushing them to look underneath the anger. It seems like there was a little learning about self in this exercise.

I do not want to over-generalize from this experience, but see some lessons for possible use in these times of divisive public discussions. Those of us who work as “discussion neutrals” may need to re-think our attitudes about how we describe a “good discussion”. For a significant part of the population “getting worked up” may be a significant part in generating the interest to engage.

There seem to be many facilitative challenges in engaging in these more direct discussion encounters. I am most interested in two of them. The first is how to maintain “safe space” for those not as prone toward the rough and tumble. The second is how to appropriately challenge factually inaccurate assertions in discussion.

In this most recent experience I found that acknowledging grievance as having a basis made it somewhat easier to challenge suspect assertions associated with the anger. I also found that raised voices did not necessarily mean that people were not listening. If something is worth discussing, it may also be worth “getting worked up” about.