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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 its 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. KDNK’s Hattison Rensberry recently interviewed Carcasson, in order to learn more about how polarized communities can problem solve through finding common ground.

"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.

Carcasson: I almost try to avoid kind of the notion that there's just two sides. Uh, 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. Um, so we're tapping more into the us versus trying to, to bridge the us versus them, right? There are a lot of, you know, great national organizations, Braver Angels being one, that focuses much more on this bridging, um, of how do we get reds and blues together, uh, and 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.

Rensberry: 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? That 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, you know, 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. So 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, right, 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, right? They're not set up for compromise or not even really set up to listen to the other side, right? Most, most election strategies are kind of how do I mobilize my side and, and maybe some people in the middle. You know, we do some work like on referendum issues, and what we try to do there is really ask people, you know, 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 being for and against things, and then kind of reporting those out in a way so that people, when they engage it, you know, 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, right? It's not like it's 100 percent one side or the other, that all these referendum issues have some upside, have some downside. You know, 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, 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 sort of 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, that serves. But 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, you know, there's a lot of bells and whistles involved in terms of having small groups and how we frame the issue and having some ground rules and having a facilitator. So when people are really emotional. We don't see emotion as a bad thing, right? We see emotion often as fuel. Emotion is something that can turn into something very productive in terms of finding ways to change society. So we just have to kind of design these processes 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 Uh, right to kind of talk. So 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 kind of going through some training processes where we go into other classes and run these forums and we videotape them and they have to kind of, you know, evaluate how they're doing. And the problem they run into those is the lack of emotion, right? 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 of like, what happens if people are emotional and they realize, I want people to be emotional, right? I want people to care because that again, that's fuel that we can redirect and 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, you know, because the person that wants the microphone in front of 100 people is probably seeing the world through a particular lens. And, you know, they want that microphone and they want to kind of emote into it. But when it's a table of seven people working each other, you know, it helps us redirect that energy in a more productive way, right? 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: Um, the individuals that may be a little less, yeah, performative is probably the right, the right word for those specific personalities.

Carcasson: The most polarized, you know, because they're so sure that they're right, right? So, so they're going to be, in so many of our public process, like the public hearing style or the one on 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 kind of voices. When we have these things in circles and a chance to have a real conversation, you have people that show up that they don't have to have a strong opinion, right? 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 like to talk about that, that what I try to do is design processes to avoid triggering the worst of human nature and tap into the best, right? And the best of human nature is that we're really creative problem solvers when put in a good situation to do that. So I think that the best way to engage people is, is kind of upriver a little bit, right? You know, like when, when there's a problem, people agree it's a problem. They might disagree on why it's a problem, certainly disagree 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. Um, 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, or, 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, you know, they support that or they don't support that. And that's just a very limited conversation. That's, that's gonna spark, you know, 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. You know, so we, we often have a pretty strong negativity bias to those kind of meetings. So I try to avoid the yes, no, I try to avoid a meeting about a specific solution. And let's have these broader conversations, uh, 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 just sort of 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, or, 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. So how can you proactively, again, try to fill in those blanks? Um, have conversations with people that might think differently than you, you know, ask them kind of what you're missing here, what, what, what their reasons for it and not asking them so you can refute them or attack them. Right, but, you know, going into that conversation with a goal of learning versus the goal of winning. So that just kind of allows you to check your priors, right, allows you to kind of make sure that, that your decision isn't just kind of based on, uh, you know, the, the, the, the assumptions you made kind of early on the process, uh, and you can make a better decision overall.

Rensberry: Sure, yeah, the same way that like 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, and polarization, and we want kind of 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, and it's easier for us to kind of develop norms to avoid that. So that's what we're trying to do. As we understand the social psychology and brain science, how do we kind of work with our community to take a lot of the power away from that? Cause 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. So what we're trying to do what I see the role of journalists and certainly in my role as a delivered practitioner and a facilitator is to do the opposite is 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: Uh, yeah, 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, don't have as many of them, but, but sometimes on certain issues you, you would have that, right? But it's part of, it is part of a two party system where all the incentives are just to win, right? So that starts justifying strategies that, that certainly work in the short term to win elections. Yeah. It just also, at the same time, happens to undermine our ability to work together to address our shared problems better."

More information on Carcasson's research can be found at:
CPD.COLOstate.edu

Hattison Rensberry has a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design and Drawing, but has worked for newsrooms in various capacities since 2019.
She also provides Editorial Design for the Sopris Sun.