Wednesday, March 17, 2004

nurturing civic discourse

I've been thinking about Carl Zimmer's fMRI article (see Thurs. post below) on the difference between "gut level" decisions and ones based on logical reasoning, and the problem that our guts are equally vociferous but much less trustworthy when in a new environment that they weren't designed for, and that, particularly in this new environment, my gut and your gut seem to want to go mano a mano. How do you successfully engage with people whose gut level decisions are different from yours, to make rational decisions as a community?

The straw Deborah Tannen "you just don't understand" response would be "you all need to make an effort to understand each other". Which would be fine, if we all did it, but as with men and women's conversation, the bulk of the effort made tends to be unilateral.

There's a very simple little book called "Getting to Yes" from the Harvard Negotiation project, that offers some guidance. Much of what the authors say boils down to "you and your counterpart need to get into a space where you're working together on a problem, where you're not seeing each other as enemies or competitors, where your viscera aren't fighting each other, where you're thinking rationally and creatively about possible solutions". And one of the things they say is, in order to get into that kind of constructive working relationship, if you can't agree on the issues, then you take a step back and try to agree together on the process for negotiating on the issues - the ground rules, as it were. In light of the fMRI work it make sense that this would help, because by taking that step back you're becoming less viscerally involved, you're able to think more calmly and clearly.

In the same vein - can't remember what "how to be a more mature human being" book I saw this in, a long time ago - when you're a parent faced with a child who's erupting emotionally, author said you should try to fire up Junior's logical brain by asking him questions that require that he actually think about what he's doing in order to answer, and that this shift (at least in the book, where author has the power to make all anecdotes come out successfully) calms him down into a more rational frame of mind.

In discussing politics, this would mean elevating the discussion to hypotheticals - what would make you seriously rethink your opinions, what are your values, and if your values were applied what kind of a world will result? e.g. if we shouldn't support a candidate who's against the kind of growth that created his neighborhood, how will good planning ever come to that area?

However there is a fly in the ointment, namely that while shifting the discussion to a more abstract level would work on the kind of personality that tends toward being reflective, in the case of many other personality types, those who are possessed by them would just run screaming for the hills (or screaming at your face) if you were to attempt this.

Actually, seeing as how we are in the hills up here, it could explain a lot.

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