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Let's Talk about Civic Engagement

What Does a Discussion Look Like?

Let's TalkFor some of us, that’s a harder question to answer than we want to admit. Our national public discourse hasn’t been very good at real discussion lately. Even on TV news shows that claim to be “discussing” issues, too often what you hear isn’t a discussion — what you hear is people talking over and shouting past each other. Even without having a clear definition of a discussion, I don’t think most people view that scenario as fitting the bill.

We often have the same trouble in local governance settings. Elected and appointed officials, staff, and the public come into “discussions” about proposed projects or plans, with their own predetermined agendas, their own sticks in the ground. Everyone states their position, everyone “tells” everyone else why they are right.

Basic problem #1: Chances are, no one is listening to your lecture. At best, they’re planning out what they are going to say next to defuse or undermine what you said. In at least some cases, they’re zoned out, with their brains off on something else.

We’ve all been subjected to these situations. But we’ve all also been part of enriching, eye-opening discussions (hopefully on your commission, but certainly in other areas of your life!). Why don’t we have more of those kinds of discussions in the public setting? More importantly, why are we vaguely amazed when a reasonable, constructive discussion breaks out?

graphic of two people discussing ideas

Think for a minute about what makes a good discussion different from what we typically get in a public meeting:

  • A discussion is interactive. We listen to each other, paying attention to what the other person is saying. Afterward, what we say responds to what they just said. In a discussion, ignoring the other person’s point or talking over them is considered bad behavior.
  • Discussions evolve. New ideas develop as a result of the interaction. As understanding of the issue increases, people learn things that they did not know before. Indeed, people’s ideas or opinions may even change!
  • When good discussions occur, it’s because the participants have tacitly agreed to follow some standard rules of etiquette: listen to the other person; wait your turn; give the other person the benefit of the doubt; play nice. When these rules aren’t obeyed, discussions grind to a halt in a hurry.

Why do we so seldom have discussions in public meetings? I think the answer is deceptively simple: we don’t design the processes we use to get those results.

When I taught in a middle-school classroom years ago, the best method I could have come up with to flunk 85% of the kids in a class would have been to hand them a textbook and tell them to prepare for a test next Monday. One or two “brainiacs” might have been able to pull it off, but most of those in the class need guidance. They need direction. They need a structure.

Cartoon of drill sergeantWe have to design our process to get the quality of results we want, not just leave it to chance. That doesn’t mean that we need to put on a drill sergeant’s uniform, and bark out orders. Any teacher who has survived a couple of years in the classroom can tell you how badly that works. But it does mean that we have to change what we are doing and how we are doing it to get the kind of results we want.

One of the best teachers I ever saw in action was the one my son had for first grade. Even though I had taught upper grades, elementary school looked like chaos to me — lots of small creatures with no attention span, emotions at the surface, impulsive, with minimal mastery of basic social rules:

Melissa’s classroom, to me, was astonishing: she used a steady stream of highly planned, highly organized, carefully thought-out systems to not only keep the room under control, but actually help the kids learn things.

Finished with your math a little before the rest of your group? Cartoon of child reading a bookThey all knew the next step was to put the sheet in their red folder, get their reading book off its assigned place on the shelf, go to the story corner and read until the rest of the group was done and the teacher was ready for the next activity. No confusion, no “what do I do now?,” no wandering around, no poking a friend in the ear, no squabbles. Most importantly, no disruptions of the fragile learning process.

Kids could concentrate, teacher could concentrate. The framework created by the routine enabled a high quality result.

What would happen if we structured our planning processes to put the power and the responsibility for creating plans directly in the hands of our residents — and structured the activities they did to create social pressure in support of good discussion? What if we responded to protests with an invitation (and an implicit responsibility) for the protester to join the team trying to find a solution? What if we required a real, meaningful, well-governed discussion to occur before the designer’s pen goes to paper?

How would that change our planning processes? How would that change our communities?

What do you think?

photo of Della RuckerDella Rucker, AICP, CEcD, is the Principal of Wise Economy Workshop, a consulting firm that assists local governments and nonprofit organizations with the information and processes for making wise planning and economic development decisions.

Rucker is also Managing Editor of EngagingCities and author of the recent book The Local Economy Revolution: What’s Changed and How You Can Help — portions of which will be serialized here on during 2014.