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Productive problem-solving with CSU Professor Martín Carcasson

Courtesy of CSU

Communities throughout the country are feeling the crush of polarizing politics, whether it's in a local forum or a family dinner. Martín Carcasson, a professor in Colorado State University’s Communication Studies Department, specializes in community building through problem-solving and conversations fostered in his Center for Public Deliberation. We recently interviewed Carcasson, in order to learn more about how polarized communities can problem solve through finding common ground.

A transcript of the interview follows. It was edited for clarity.

Martin Carcasson: You know, unfortunately, we like these simple stories. We like to see the world through this us versus them lens. So particularly when it is kind of two sides, and that's one of the problems, right? Our national political system, being a two-party system, kind of naturally taps into this and triggers this negative aspect of human nature and pushes that kind of us versus them narrative. So actually, a lot of my work, which is more focused on local, it's not so much that I try to bring both sides together.
I almost try to avoid kind of the notion that there are just two sides. I want to bring people together so that their primary identity coming together is more, I don't know, a resident of Fort Collins or Larimer County or Northern Colorado. We're tapping more into the us vs. trying to bridge the us vs. them, right? There are a lot of great national organizations, Braver Angels being one, that focus much more on this bridging of how we get reds and blues together. That's really kind of important work. But my work in the local community is more kind of avoiding those partisan labels and trying to activate more of a local kind of identity.
Hattison Rensberry (KDNK): What's a tool that people can use when going into a situation that might be polarizing that they can use to evaluate this situation and get better results, maybe with someone who they don't necessarily think they would agree with?
Carcasson: I think the primary thing going into those kinds of situations, once you understand how your brain works and how their brain's working, right? You realize that if your goal of a conversation with someone that you know you disagree with is really to try to win them over, to convert them, to convince them that they're wrong. You're rarely going to reach that goal, right? A lot of the strategies that you think would work of showing them evidence and examples and so forth are probably going to backfire. So my primary advice in those situations, instead of going in with the goal of winning, go in with the goal of learning, of learning a little bit more about their perspective of figuring out where they're kind of coming from. Filling in blanks in your perspective.

Our brains are really good at seeing the upside of our perspective and the downside of the opposing perspective. So we have kind of two big blank spots in terms of the downside of ours and the upside of theirs. Go into that conversation with the goal of learning and kind of filling in some of those blanks. And then, long term, the impact that it has is when you take someone seriously when you ask them good questions when you really want to learn, It actually sets up the possibility later of potentially changing their mind, both in terms of understanding really what they believe in, so it gives you more to work with, but also setting up more of a trusting relationship that if you listen to them, they're much more likely to listen to you and you start switching kind of from this adversarial environment where our brains aren't working to a much kind of better place.

Rensberry: What are some benefits or some drawbacks that you've seen from people attempting these methods in these hyperlocal situations?
Carcasson: It's tough doing my work in the context of elections because elections are kind of zero-sum winner-take-all all. They're not set up for compromise or not even really set up to listen to the other side. Most election strategies are kind of how do I mobilize my side and, maybe some people in the middle. We do some work like on referendum issues, and what we try to do there is really ask people, not necessarily just sort of, you know, are you for or against this referendum issue, but more the reasons why, so we can really kind of dig into the reasons people have been for and against things, and then kind of reporting those out in a way so that people when they engage it, they might support something. But reading some of the reasons why people oppose it, hopefully, they kind of see, hey, you know, reasonable people can think that way.

It's not like it's 100 percent one side or the other that all these referendum issues have some upside have some downside. Different people will kind of rank the importance of specific things in there. The more we can kind of get it away from just, you know, good versus evil, a right side and a wrong side, to know different people have different reasons. People have different values. They rank them differently. Reasonable people can kind of disagree. Then we start kind of creating a little bit more of an, uh, the environment that we need to be able to have the conversations, to address our shared problems better.
Rensberry: Currently in our valley, there's a lot of people who are going to bat for issues that they're really passionate about. Have you seen these strategies work in communities where there is a lot of passion and a lot of emotional charge in these issues? Have you found that people can find ways to make some? Productive progress that serves? I think that we need to be more aware of the fact that we're working with a wider range of people.

Carcasson: Yeah, I think so. When you bring people together in particular ways, there are a lot of bells and whistles involved in terms of having small groups and how we frame the issue, having some ground rules, and having a facilitator. When people are really emotional. We don't see emotion as a bad thing. We see emotion often as fuel. Emotion is something that can turn into something very productive in terms of finding ways to change society. We just have to kind of design these processes so that we could hopefully redirect that emotion in a more positive way. When people are often kind of get emotional and overly emotional, which can be problematic, is when they don't feel that they're being heard, that they don't feel that they have a right to talk. When it's clear that people are listening to you and clear that people are taking you seriously, we often see the more positive side of emotion. And it's funny, my students right now are going through some training processes where we go into other classes and run these forums, and we videotape them, and they have to evaluate how they're doing. And the problem they run into is the lack of emotion. Because we get to pick the topic. The students are there because they're required to be happy. At the beginning of the training, the students are always kind of worried about what happens if people are emotional, and they realize, I want people to be emotional. I want people to care because that, again, that's fuel that we can redirect in positive ways to spark a really good conversation.

Rensberry: Carcasson spoke about how some public engagement formats might not be ideal.

Carcasson: Yeah, I never hand off the microphone in front of 100 people because the person who wants the microphone in front of 100 people is probably seeing the world through a particular lens. And they want that microphone, and they want to emote into it. But when it's a table of seven people working with each other, it helps us redirect that energy in a more productive way. It's more of a conversation, more of a give and take and talking through something versus kind of that performance, holding the microphone in front of a large group.

Rensberry: The individuals that may be a little less performative is probably the right word for those specific personalities.
Carcasson: The most polarized because they're so sure that they're right, right? So, they're going to be, in so many of our public processes, like the public hearing style, or the one at a time on a microphone at a city council or a school board, kind of rewards that, rewards a person walking up and having kind of the, the really strong opinion. But, you know, the kind of conversation we need to have is actually kind of pushing back, accepting the tradeoffs, and working through kind of these pros and cons that there's often not a place in our conventional public engagement kind of efforts for those kinds of voices. When we have these things in circles and a chance to have a real conversation, you have people who show up that they don't have to have a strong opinion. You know, they're there more to kind of work an issue versus just to express themselves and you're getting a much better conversation.
Rensberry: What sorts of events and meetings would you recommend to get the best results in these sorts of situations for people who really want to come together on an issue and find common ground enough to make progress for both sides?

Carcasson: I try to do is design processes to avoid triggering the worst of human nature and tap into the best. And the best of human nature is that we're really creative problem solvers when put in a good situation to do that. I think that the best way to engage people is kind of upriver a little bit. You know, when there's a problem, people agree it's a problem. They might disagree on why it's a problem and certainly disagree on what we should do about it. But when you're starting with that common ground of, hey, we need to come together to kind of deal with this issue. And then tapping into human creativity is when you're kind of more open ended about what we should do. The broad question I like to ask in my process is, hey, what should we do about it? This right in that that brings in the we, it has a broad range of actors, and it lets people be creative and coming up with new ways of doing things, you know, too often, whether it's an election or even it's kind of an ordinance or, you know, city council making a decision.

It's narrowed to one specific solution to a problem, and all people can say is they support that or they don't support that. And that's just a very limited conversation. That's, that's gonna spark typically bad conversations. And actually, we know from the research that it's much more likely for the people against that to show up. The people that for it, you know, they might read about it in the newspaper or online and say, Ooh, that's a good idea, and they go on with their day, right? The people that read it and don't like it are like, oh, you know, they want to show up and fight it. We often have a pretty strong negativity bias toward those kinds of meetings. I try to avoid the yes or no. I try to avoid a meeting about a specific solution. And let's have these broader conversations, helping the kind of public come together to help us define a problem. And then also allow them to be creative about the ways that we might be able to take on that problem.

Rensberry: One more thing, would you mind listing off the bullet points real quick of a few different things that they can do to make the most informed decision they can.

Carcasson: If you're going in kind of knowing, especially if there's one of the issues or even people that are running, uh, that you have a kind of inherent bias for, just know that your brain is going to be looking for the reasons to vote for them and to vote against the other side. How can you proactively try to fill in those blanks? Have conversations with people who might think differently than you. Ask them what you're missing here and what their reasons are for it, and not asking them so you can refute them or attack them. Going into that conversation with a goal of learning versus the goal of winning. That allows you to check your priors; allows you to make sure that your decision isn't just based on the assumptions you made early on in the process. You can make a better decision overall.

Rensberry: Sure, the same way that a journalist would go into a conversation with an interviewee and make sure that it's in good faith.

Carcasson: Unfortunately, our brains are much more wired for outrage and polarization. We want simple stories, but we also realize that once we get that, once we know that our brains are wired in that way, it's easier for us to control that. It's easier for us to develop norms to avoid that. So that's what we're trying to do. As we understand social psychology and brain science, how do we work with our community to take a lot of the power away from that? Unfortunately there are other actors out there that are taking advantage of that right there that are selling us the simple stories that are the outrage, industrial complex, and these conflict entrepreneurs that try to take advantage of human nature and profit off making us angry. I see the role of journalists, and certainly in my role as a delivered practitioner and a facilitator, is to do the opposite. To use our knowledge of social psychology to avoid triggering that and actually tap into better parts of our brain.

Rensberry: Would you say that those conflict entrepreneurs exist on both sides of most issues that you've seen?

Carcasson: I think so. And certainly, they’re much more powerful in national politics and, you know, some of the kind of partisan media and so forth. Luckily, you know, local communities don't have as many of them. But sometimes, on certain issues, you would have that. But it's part of a two-party system where all the incentives are just to win. That starts justifying strategies that certainly work in the short term to win elections. At the same time, it happens to undermine our ability to work together to address our shared problems better.
Learn more about Carcasson's research at the CSU Center for Public Deliberation.

Hattison Rensberry
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