Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

Observations across Transpartisan Organizations from David Nevins

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the fourth post in the series detailing the experiences of David Nevins, who has been involved with numerous organizations active in the work of bringing people together across political divides, and who also has founded the Nevins Democracy Leaders program at Penn State University, which provides an education in transpartisanship leadership for promising students.

What specific programs do you work with? Briefly describe how you got to where you are.

As a businessman from Pennsylvania for almost 40 years, who never was involved in politics until 4years ago, I’ve become frustrated with the unbridled lack of civility, crippling partisanship and dysfunctional gridlock that is preventing our country from solving the serious problems we face on a daily basis.

For this reason about four years ago, I became involved with an organization called No Labels. No Labels is a bipartisan movement of 600,000 Democrats, Republicans and independents dedicated to the simple proposition that common sense solutions to our national challenges exist, and our government should be able to address and resolve those challenges successfully. I served on the Executive Board of No Labels for two years.

About two years ago, as a Society of Fellow at the Aspen Institute, I focused my efforts on supporting the Aspen Rodel Fellowship in Public Leadership, a program designed to support political leaders committed to sustaining the vision of a political system based on thoughtful and civil bipartisan dialogue.

More recently, I became involved and support Next Generation, a program of the National Institute of Civil Discourse that works with state legislators to cultivate a culture where discourse and collaboration typify public policy development.

I am now leading an effort as a co-founder and Executive Team member of The Bridge Alliance to build a shared identity, raise visibility, strengthen and expand the numbers of organizations and individuals dedicated to collaborative civic problem solving and collaborative policy innovation in the United States.

Currently I also am the co-creator and benefactor of the Nevins Democracy Leaders program, a program within The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, based in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State University  The Nevins Democracy Leadership program that I am the benefactor of and have helped to design and create will institute the following programs with the inception of the program in the fall of 2015:

a) For one­ or ­two semesters, the Penn State students selected for the program will participate in collaborative dialogues amongst themselves (and with guest lecturers) to learn the skills of civil political discourse and critical thinking necessary for a problem solving approach to governance.

b) Every Leader will gain practical experience (for a summer, semester, or full year) working as an intern with an organization committed to improving American politics.

c) Each year, Leaders who have returned from their internships will share their experiences with the new cohort of students joining the program.

d) In the coursework and various events leading up to their internship, Nevins Leaders will analyze and discuss historical texts and contemporary commentaries on topics such as democracy and leadership. We will identify a small core of courses beyond Rhetoric and Civic Life that can help prepare Leaders for their internships, though Leaders will not be obliged to take those additional courses.

e) Prospective and future Leaders will also have the opportunity to hear from past years’ Leaders, who will give presentations and participate in discussions on their experience. An effort will also be made to bring in inspiring speakers, perhaps as part of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s ongoing speaker series, who can bring to students their practical experiences in community building, politics, and democracy.

What has worked well in the programs/events that you have been involved with? From your experience, what advice would you give others?

As to specific advise as far as things to do to replicate the successes of the programs I have been involved with,  I would suggest a high level of collaboration with the stakeholders you are working with. I believe that enhancing communications, knowledge sharing, and general collaborative techniques helps the leaders of the programs I am involved with refine and improve the programs they are leading.

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, reducing the perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), showing examples of positive relationships , showing examples of cross-group unexpected agreement or disagreement , reducing certainty of individual beliefs

Additionally, the importance of understanding the mission one has established is the key to success of any program. It is easy to get distracted by the chaos and uncertainty involved with a new project or movement, and thus the importance of defining and staying focused on one’s mission cannot be overstated as one of the most important factors for the achievement of success.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

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How Dialogue and Listening lead to Common Ground from Project Citizen’s Suzanne Soule

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the third post in the series detailing the experiences of Suzanne Soule, who worked as the Director of Research for the Center for Civic Education for over a decade.

What is the organization/group that you worked with? What is it’s history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships?

I worked as director of research for the Center for Civic Education for a little over a decade. We worked with youth in the United States and Emerging Democracies to try to get them to be engaged citizens, through programs like We the People and Project Citizen.

What specific programs/events/curriculum do you run? Briefly describe what it is you do.

Most of the students in these countries did a program called Project Citizen. Despite all the talk about uncivil discourse in the US, we are a lot further along than these emerging democracies. We at least have a forum and a conversation, whereas in a lot of these places, there is no forum and people may just walk out of the room, when confronted with conflicting opinions.  Most of the best lessons for resolving inter-group divisions could be learned from our work with post-war emerging democracies. We did research in Boznia/Herzegovina, Palestine, and other emerging democracies that had a history of totalitarianism that had issues with transparency and corruption. In these places, there is not a history of open dialogue, so there was a lot to be learned in creating such a space.

Young people would conduct research on a problem in their community that they chose and propose a solution based on their research to elected officials.  In a place like China, they may also go to the media and increase pressure on officials. We partnered with local organizations as there is a lot more autonomy at the local level for change, within emerging democracies as well as places like China.  This wouldn’t have worked without the local partners as you can’t do these things from the outside.

Students vote on which problem they should address. There would be winners and losers and some students would end up on a project that they didn’t necessarily care about. The teachers worked to give them a reasonable role in the project as there is often a difficult moment where their chosen issue has lost, but in all the years I worked on Project Citizen, I’ve never noticed a time when a student wasn’t able to eventually contribute. The contribution may end up large or small, but they all end up contributing something, even if it isn’t exactly the issue they would have chosen, which has implications for getting people to work together on collective action from different perspectives.

What has worked well in your programs/events? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what specific advice would you give them as far as things to do to replicate your successes?

What I think works well in getting a student to work towards a group goal that they didn’t initially endorse is to figure out what a students’ skills are and seeing how that relates to the problem. If they are good artists or good interviewers, how can we help them shine so that they can do really good work leveraging those skills and buy in. 

They also work together in groups, so seeing the others inspired in the group works wonders. Over time, their initial ideas about the ideal project fade and the group project gains momentum.

In conversations with adults, it also helped that the students did a lot of research, so the adults were often convinced by the students because of their empirical knowledge.  Students were trained to evaluate the status kuo and were often critical of existing policies. and able to effect change because they had lots of evidence. Public officials who would be threatened by adults making the same recommendations were far more open to a group of 12 year olds. They were much more open. They often got a lot more of what they wanted from the public officials than we thought was possible. Youth often melts the hearts of hardened people…the heart opens and there is an element of surrender.

What have you tried in your progams/events that has NOT worked well? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what advice would you give them as far as things to AVOID doing?

It doesn’t work if the problem is chosen from the outside. There needs to be some time spent on finding out what they care about themselves with a lot of listening and open dialogue. I had to stop going in with a questionnaire and just listen to what concerned them and what was really problematic. Often they would come back to the problems I listed, but there was more buy-in if they came up with it themselves. There was more discourse and willingness to do the work as they were invested rather than thinking that there were these “Americans” coming in telling them what to do.

As far as the public officials we talked to, if there was any possibility that the officials would be shamed or put on the spot, then it would close dialogue. But if there were a possibility for positive PR or an award…or to talk to their own constituents/voters, people were very open. Having people far removed from them telling what to do would also close things down.

 

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  What might you add to these ideas?

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Showing Examples of Positive Relationships , Reducing the Perceived Differences Between Groups, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement , Reducing Certainty of Individual Beliefs, Increasing Cross-Group Personal Connections through Fun, Meals, Talking, etc..

I would like to emphasize listening at the outset. Careful listening that leads to finding common ground.  It gives space for people to realize that they often have the same problems in divided societies and it improves relationships for people to realize that people unlike them have the same issues. It humanizes the other side.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

http://www.civiced.org

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Mark Gerzon of the Bridge Alliance on finding a 3rd political narrative

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the second post in this series,  where Mark Gerzon, Director of The Bridge Alliance, shares lessons from his 25 years bringing people together.

What is the organization/group that you represent? What is it’s history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships?

The Bridge Alliance is just founding, but I have been active in the field for a quarter of a century. We’ve incubated numerous projects like America Speaks and the US Consensus Council. One of the things the past 25 years has thought me is the limitations of any single project, approach, book, tool, practitioner, or website.  After 25 years, I felt a yearning to help the field mature and become integrated into a coherent movement or soul because I want to have an impact on the American people and my frustration is that the political system has not benefited from this work.  If anything, the political process has deteriorated while this field has been growing.  I want to close this gap so that the system can receive the benefits of the work being done, through the Bridge Alliance.

What specific programs/events/curriculum do you run? Briefly describe what it is you do.

There are many specific strategies that one can read about on our website, but one specific goal is that by the end of 2016, we want a significant percentage of the American people to be familiar with a third political narrative. The first narrative might be that conservatives are better and have the answers.  The second narrative might be that liberals are better and have the answers.  The third narrative is that we have to work together across the political divide to meet the challenges facing our country. Americans working together is this third narrative. 100% of people may not become aware of this as not even 100% follow politics in any form, but if a significant number are at least aware that there is a third narrative, they will no longer be living in a black and white world, but rather living in a technicolor political world.

An example of a specific project we have done that can facilitate this awareness is the set of Youtube presentations we have made available under the Center for Transpartisan Leadership.   The idea was to provide short youtube presentations as an online faculty so that American citizens can meet all the people in this field. The presentations include personal testimonials about what led individuals to be interested in this field as well as practical lessons on how people have created change in their communities.  We have about 20 of these videos going up by the summer, with 12 online now, and the eventual goal is to have 40 or 50 up.

What has worked well in your programs/events? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what specific advice would you give them as far as things to do to replicate your successes?

My best answer to that question is detailed in my book, Leading Through Conflict, which reflects the panoramic view I have had within this field, through methods like appreciative inquiry, generative dialogue, non-violent communication, and more.  The table of contents list 8 tools that I have found helpful across techniques (Integral Vision, Systems Thinking, Presence, Inquiry, Conscious Conversation, Dialogue, Bridging, and Innovation).  That being said, I’d like to expand on one recommendation that readers of this post may find helpful that relates to our current efforts.  It had been written about as Systems Thinking or Systemic Change previously.

Specifically, the success of any program is likely to depend a great deal on what happens to get the right people into the room before the meeting even starts.  Too often, people will gather like minded parts of a system into a room and pretend it is the entire system.  They may rationalize this by saying that the other side wouldn’t come, because they are so unreasonable, but that is a very self-serving way of framing things.  Awhile back, I led a retreat where we gathered Al Gore and his team with the people responsible for advertisements against his movie, an Inconvenient Truth.  In order to get everyone in the room, we had to focus on both climate change and energy security.  Similarly, in order to get both liberals and conservatives in the same room, the Bridge Alliance is focusing on both money in campaigns and free speech.  [ Editors note: this is very similar to academic work on finding shared goals and the Asteroid's Club model ]

Where can others learn more about what you do?

http://mediatorsfoundation.org/our-mission/

 

 

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Research suggests that Belief that Groups Can Change facilititates Reconciliation

Recently, I was forwarded a research article entitled “Belief in the Malleability of Groups Strengthens the Tenuous Link Between a Collective Apology and Intergroup Forgiveness” that was recently published in Personality and Psychology Bulletin.  From the abstract:

Although it is widely assumed that collective apologies for intergroup harms facilitate forgiveness, evidence for a strong link between the two remains elusive. In four studies we tested the proposition that the apology–forgiveness link exists, but only among people who hold an implicit belief that groups can change. In Studies 1 and 2, perceived group malleability (measured and manipulated, respectively) moderated the responses to an apology by Palestinian leadership toward Israelis: Positive responses such as forgiveness increased with greater belief in group malleability. In Study 3, university students who believed in group malleability were more forgiving of a rival university’s derogatory comments in the presence (as opposed to the absence) of an apology. In Study 4, perceived perpetrator group remorse mediated the moderating effect of group malleability on the apology–forgiveness link (assessed in the context of a corporate transgression). Implications for collective apologies and movement toward reconciliation are discussed.

In summary, apologies facilitate reconciliation IF there is a belief that groups can change.  A related article was published in Science in 2011, showing that even in the absence of an apology, the induced belief that groups can change has an effect on intergroup attitudes.  You can read the study here and below is that abstract:

Four studies showed that beliefs about whether groups have a malleable versus fixed nature affected intergroup attitudes and willingness to compromise for peace. Using a nationwide sample (N = 500) of Israeli Jews, Study 1 showed that believing groups were malleable predicted positive attitudes toward Palestinians, which predicted willingness to compromise. Next, experimentally inducing malleable vs. fixed beliefs about groups among Israeli Jews (Study 2, N = 76), Palestinian Citizens of Israel (Study 3, N = 59), and Palestinians in the West Bank (Study 4, N = 53) (without mentioning the adversary) led to more positive attitudes toward the outgroup and, in turn, increased willingness to compromise for peace.

Among the more notable things in this last study is that it was done on individuals in the midst of a real intractable conflict that we all have an interest in resolving.  To make this a bit more concrete, I think it is helpful to see exactly what the authors mean by “group malleability” and how it was changed.  In this last paper, the details are here and the belief that groups can change was measured by these 4 items:

“As much as I hate to admit it, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks–groups can’t really change their basic characteristics,” “Groups can do things differently, but the important parts of who they are can’t really be changed,” “Groups that are characterized by violent tendencies will never change their ways,” and “Every group or nation has basic moral values and beliefs that can’t be changed significantly.”

Perhaps more of applied interest to those working to bring groups together is how they manipulated beliefs that groups can change through a scientific-style article.

Manipulation of beliefs. Participants were randomly assigned to the “malleable” or “fixed” condition. They read a short Psychology Today-style scientific article (in Hebrew) describing groups that had committed violence and reporting studies on aggression. These studies suggested that, over time, the groups had (malleable condition) or had not (fixed condition) changed. In the malleable condition the research suggested that violence resulted from extreme leadership or environmental influence, whereas in the fixed condition the research suggested that aggression was rooted in the nature and culture of the groups.

Is extreme and violent behavior “influenced by context and leadership” or is it “entrenched within the nature of individuals and groups”?  Certainly we should encourage the former if we want to improve relationships between groups and luckily there is a lot of research that supports this view as well.

- Ravi Iyer

 

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.