Back to the May-Jun 2022 issue

Your Residents Are Talking. Are You Listening?

By Morgan Holle

public hearing attendeesIt’s another public hearing. As an elected city official, you listen as one resident after another comes to the podium. One after another, they give passionate appeals about a heated topic.

The rules don’t allow you to respond directly to the speakers — which might be just as well because most don’t seem interested in discussion. All you can do is wait them out and resume the meeting’s agenda, so you can conclude the night’s business.

These meetings “are what I call a 19th-century design,” says Bill Doherty, co-founder of Braver Angels, a citizen-led nonprofit organization working to bridge political divides. “At best, [residents] speak their minds but do not feel heard. At worst, people perform for the crowd.”

Other ways to communicate

city council members at meetingEver wish there were a better way? Sure, you know there are reasons, some of them statutory, for listening to constituents without a direct response. Their input is critical to decide a number of issues — issues like ordinances, tax rates, and conditional use permits.

This is the human element of governance, the lives behind the traffic numbers and zoning maps. And yet there are dozens of questions you might ask the speakers, and as many ways you could respond to comments.

Public hearings may not go away, but there are other ways to communicate with constituents.

“When people are not being listened to, all they want to do is yell,” says Kim Martinson, a Minnesota state coordinator of Braver Angels. “How do we help [city leaders] have a conversation versus a confrontation?”

It is critical “to create meeting designs where public officials can show that they are listening by taking notes, asking clarifying questions, and then responding to what people are saying.” — Bill Doherty, Co-founder of Braver AngelsBraver Angels was formed in 2016 to counter widespread political polarization emerging from that year’s presidential election. The organization has hosted over 1,000 free workshops, debates, and other conversations in which participants with strong political disagreements learn to listen and speak to one another with respect.

Doherty, chief workshop designer of Braver Angels, also teaches and practices marriage and family therapy as a professor at the University of Minnesota. He has modeled the Braver Angels events after the skills and structures he uses when counseling couples and families.

Braver Angels teaches communication skills that public officials at all levels can use to work through disagreements. To meet the challenges of nonpartisan city officials, who are sometimes caught between sides in party politics, the focus is on the roots of conflicts rather than political platforms.

Building trust

Some have emphasized information as a key to resolving contentious issues. People will think more clearly if they know the facts — or so the argument goes. But Doherty believes polarization in our communities begins with residents’ growing distrust of each other and institutions, including city governments.

“This is not mainly about lack of knowledge, it’s about relationships and trust,” Doherty says. Because people get their facts from those they trust, city leaders need to build trust with residents to effectively communicate with them.

It is critical, Doherty says, “to create meeting designs where public officials can show that they are listening by taking notes, asking clarifying questions, and then responding to what people are saying, especially in smaller group settings.”

Braver Angels introduced a meeting format last year that includes all of these elements. It is called a Town Hall and includes elected officials and residents, but its similarities with the free-for-all forums of the same name stop there.

The meeting centers around a single pre-selected subject that residents discuss in small, mixed groups during the first hour. In the second hour, a moderator facilitates a discussion between the residents and elected officials, typically local representatives.

Another alternative Braver Angels has developed, called Constituent Conversations, brings together a diverse group of residents and elected officials to listen to each other talk about two issues. Moderators ask participants, including the officials, to share how their life experiences influence their views.

Ways to lower the temperature

The important thing is “remembering to listen to learn, listen to really hear what the other person is saying and needing.” — JoAnn Ward, former State Representative

The Town Hall and Constituent Conversations are great ways to help build trust. But what about when you’re in the heat of the moment? If a conversation becomes heated, you can lower the emotional temperature and keep the conversation productive by using the LAPP method. Named after David Lapp, another Braver Angels co-founder, the LAPP method involves doing the following:

  • Listen. Ask for the other person’s perspective and listen carefully to the response, paying special attention to the person’s values and emotions. When there are strong emotions, there is a deeper story.
  • Acknowledge what you are hearing and agree with whatever you can. One way to acknowledge is to paraphrase what the other person has said (“What I hear you saying is…”) and then seeking confirmation (“Did I get that right?”). This step challenges you to truly listen while showing the other person that you are paying attention. You will probably want to follow up with additional questions, listening to and acknowledging each reply. In this way, you clarify what the speaker has said or explore its meaning.
  • Pivot. Signal a shift in your part of the conversation, like giving a turn signal before changing lanes. Pivoting offers context for why you are introducing another perspective. Be personal here, using statements that start with “I.” You may pivot by saying something like, “I see this issue differently. Can I share some of my perspective?”
  • Perspective. Offer your viewpoint, focusing on your experience, values, or concerns about the subject. This isn’t a critique of the other person or their views.

Curiosity is also key to understanding other viewpoints, says Monica Guzman, Braver Angels director of digital and storytelling, who gave a TED Talk in November called “How Curiosity Will Save Us.”

Guzman suggests starting with the following questions, which can improve one’s understanding in almost any conflict:

  1. How did you come to believe what you believe?
  2. What are your concerns? What do you hope for?

The way you respond to pushback can also affect how heated the discussion gets. Residents may disagree with your perspective or question your facts. Even when you attempt to keep the peace between several parties, someone may object and accuse you of playing favorites.

Braver Angels trainers recommend that you first connect with the objecting party, listening to and acknowledging the objection. Then you share more of your perspective, perhaps to clarify your previous statement.

Finally, you can reassure the objecting party that you share their core values or beliefs (if that is the case). There are usually some basic things you can agree on, such as keeping your community safe, even if you don’t always agree on how to do that.

Other tips for difficult moments:

  • Stay focused on the topic.
  • Don’t answer baiting questions; just restate your viewpoint.
  • Don’t return provocative statements in kind.
  • Agree to disagree.

Sometimes it’s best to exit the conversation if it has become too intense or destructive. Make sure to do this in a lowkey way. No door slamming or yelling.

You might say, “I’m just giving you a sense of where I’m coming from. We don’t have to agree. Maybe we should just move on.” Or try humor: “Well, we really solved that one, didn’t we?” Or concern: “I don’t want to keep going and cause bad feelings between us.”

Applying the skills

JoAnn Ward and Lucy Gerold, moderators of Braver Angels workshops, have practically made careers out of difficult conversations.

Ward is a former Minnesota state representative, restorative justice advocate, and schoolteacher. Gerold served as commander of leadership and organizational development with the Minneapolis Police Department, where she led community policing efforts and civilian/ police collaboration.

Ward calls herself “conflict averse.” Yet she says she has learned that conflict is unavoidable and can be managed to achieve better outcomes.

She shared this lesson with other lawmakers when she founded the Minnesota Legislative Civility Caucus in January 2015. Caucus members, Democrats and Republicans from the state House and Senate, continue to participate in activities to foster relationships and cooperation, including jointly supported bills.

“The systematic and structured approach to the skills would have been very helpful in difficult conversations in all of my previous roles,” says Ward, who became a moderator for Braver Angels in 2019 after retiring from the Legislature. “Braver Angels provides that structure and the opportunities to reflect on and practice the skills for handling conflict in a constructive manner.”

Seeking to understand other viewpoints

While Gerold practiced communication skills every day as a police officer and trainer, she said Braver Angels has sharpened those skills, teaching her to “seek to understand, not to convince others of my viewpoint.”

“A conflict doesn’t have to be a conflict. It’s an opportunity to understand and seek common ground.” —LUCY GEROLD, former Commander of LeadershipP, Minneapolis Police Department

She said that facts and logic don’t dissolve social barriers: “You have to be truly curious and sincerely interested in what others think to do it.”

Like Doherty, Gerold believes that underlying conflict is “usually an emotional issue, not an intellectual one.” She says that resolution comes from understanding the values that drive our politics.

“A conflict doesn’t have to be a conflict. It’s an opportunity to understand and seek common ground,” Gerold said. “There’s always a story there, there’s something behind the conflict.”

The important thing, Ward agrees, is “remembering to listen to learn, listen to really hear what the other person is saying and needing.”

Morgan Holle is a volunteer organizer with Braver Angels and co-lead of the organization’s Greater Minneapolis Alliance.