Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What should you do when the other person is lying (in a public context)??

There's a lot of confusion about the best way to respond to a lie spoken in a public context. One strategy is to ignore it and act as if the statement was never made. I guess folks who take this tack hope they'll avoid giving a false statement any traction. A second response is to suggest that the person making the statement probably didn't realize what he or she was saying. This approach presumes that its always best to give someone the benefit of the doubt and presume there's just a misunderstanding on their part. I don't think so. From my standpoint, the most effective response to a lie is to name it, frame it, and claim it.

If I think someone is lying -- that is, deliberating making a statement they know to be false, I'll say that out loud: "That's a lie." Or, "Wow, another whopper." Yes, I'm giving visibility to the statement, but, from my standpoint, I'd rather the statement be labeled as a lie than allowed to stand unchallenged.

That's not enough. It is important to say why I think the statement is a lie and to suggest what the motive of the liar might be. I call this framing. Motive is important. If I can't think of any reason the person making the statement might have for misrepresenting the truth, then I might chalk their statement up to ignorance or reckless disregard for the truth. So, for me to call something I lie, I have to believe that the person making the statement has a motive for misrepresenting the truth. I link my characterization of their motive with the evidence that ought to convince any neutral observer that their statement is untrue. "That's a lie. That's not what it says on page 1014. They are obviously are trying to make the President look bad." Or, "No, that's not what happened on that date. They obviously would rather have us believe something that casts them in a better light. Here's reliable information to the contrary."

Finally, I think it is important to "own" my claim that their statement is a lie. That means, I need to be confrontable. If I'm going to call someone a lier, I ought to do it in a very public way -- to their face, if possible. I'm certainly not going to do it anonymously. The credibility of my characterization of their motive hinges, in part, on my willingness to stand behind my charge. "That's a lie. She is just trying to gain publicity for herself and play to her constituency. The bill doesn't say that at all. In fact, here's what it says. I'd love a chance to meet with her and have her show me exactly where it says what she claims."

Name it as a lie. Frame it by postulating the lier's motive and offering evidence to the contrary (that any neutral observer would accept). And, claim responsibility for your counter-charge.

If someone else has a different view of how to respond to a lie, I'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How Should You Respond to the Noisy Health Reform Critics?

Imagine you are one of the members of Congress running a "town hall" meeting to discuss pending health care reform legislation during the current legislative break. You are confronted by some very angry citizens. They are shouting at you!

"How dare you!
Don't you take my doctor away from me! Don't tell me what medical services I can and can't have!
If you think the Canadian system is so great, why don't you go live up there. People have to wait months to see a doctor in Canada.
Shame on you! I don't want some faceless government bureaucrat deciding whether my parents live or die!
I'm a small business owner. You're gonna bankrupt me if I have to pay for health care for my four or five employees.
Our health care system is already too expensive! You're going to raise my insurance premiums if we have to pay for everyone who won't take care of themselves!
The deficit is already out of control. You're bankrupting the country.
Look at what happened in Massachusetts after they passed their health care reform. Costs exploded! They can't cover everybody. Their taxes are going up.
My tax money shouldn't be used to pay for abortions.
Don't you cut my medicare benefits!
It's greedy trial lawyers who driving up the cost of health care.

There a bunch of things you want to say, but every word out of your mouth is met with another round of boos and chants of "No New Taxes," "Let Doctors Decide," and "Keep Your Hands Off." You feel obliged to set the record straight on each and every point:

No one will have to give up the health care provider they have now.
We are not proposing a single payer system like they have in Canada. The proposed reforms
passed by the House and being considered in the Senate will offer more choice for more people, not less choice. (Besides, the claims about long waits and government telling doctors what they can and can't do in Canada are bogus.)
This whole Sarah Palin "death panel" thing is a complete fabrication. There's nothing in the proposed legislation that would tell doctors or patients how to handle end-of-life decisions. There are provisions that make it OK for doctors and patients to talk about the most compassionate ways of helping people who are dying. But everybody wants that.
We are going to exempt small business or rebate some of the costs to small businesses who help their employees get health coverage.
The cost of health care keeps going up. We can't afford not to do something to bring the costs under control. Other countries get better medical results at lower costs than we do. One of the best ways of reducing the continued growth of health care costs is to get everyone into an insurance system that compensates providers for keeping people healthy (not for spending as much as possible on unnecessary procedures once you are sick)! We need a system that can bargain with powerful pharmaceutical companies to keep the costs of drugs down.
We may have to increase public spending in the short term to reform our health care system, but in the long term this is the only way to bring costs under control. We need to put the system in place and give it couple of years. Then the costs will start to come down for everyone.
Actually, Massachusetts has reduced the cost of providing health care to everyone in the state. It's not true that the new state system (that covers everybody) is breaking the budget or causing tax increases.
Abortions are legal in the United States. People covered by publicly supported health insurance need to have the same choices that people covered by private insurance have.
We are not talking about cutting medicare benefits or medicare spending. What we are trying to do is get more people who don't have insurance covered by something like medicare.
Yes, legal reform is necessary to reduce unscrupulous malpractice claims that drive up medical costs.

But, it's pointless. As soon as its clear that you mean to disagree
with what one of the questioners has said, the boos and chants begin. Nobody is listening to anything you say. And, even if you managed to get the words out, they wouldn't believe you. They have been briefed by their favorite talk radio hosts. And, many of the people there have been bused in or organized by political action groups. They have their talking points. Many of them believe fervently what they are saying -- that proposed reforms will bankrupt the country, that their medicare benefits and choices are about to be cut, that they will be forced to abandon their local health care provider or limit their medical services.

So, what's the best advice we can give a Congressperson in such a situation? Most aren't going to get the easy ride that President Obama got in New Hampshire. Hard as he tried, he couldn't get any of the 1600 people present to challenge what he was saying.

Here are five suggestions that grow out of what we have learned about facilitating public dialogue in politically charged situations:

1. Begin by saying that you want to hear what the audience has to say. Ask 5 volunteers to come up on the stage to ask whatever questions or make whatever statements they think are important. Invite them up. Make it clear that you don't know any of these people and you are just trying to find out what people who bothered to come to the town hall meeting have to say. Pick five who raise their hands and appear to represent different age or other groups. Let them speak. Tell them that the ground rule is that each person has the mike for no more than five minutes. Invite them to sit on the stage with you. (Make sure someone is controlling the mike and make it clear that it will be shut off after five minutes.) Don't try to respond to each statement. Just listen.

2. Then, after those five have spoken and gone back to the audience. Ask for 3 more people who have different points they want to make that don't repeat what has already been said.
Again, choose three from those who indicate a desire to speak. Invite them up. Same ground rule. Let them speak. Don't respond to each person.

3. When the eight have spoken (it could be 10 if you want), make a list of the key concerns or criticisms that have been raised. Re-state each argument in the most empathetic way you can -- as if you believed each claim or criticism. Show that you have listened. When you have played the points back, ask those who stated them originally whether you have understood their concerns. If they say no, spend a minute or two trying to re-state their points.

4. Then, announce that you are going to take no more than 3 - 5 minutes to respond to each of those points. Since you have given those who have concerns a chance to voice them, you expect to be given the same courtesy. If people disrupt, remind them of this ground rule. If the whole crowd continue to be unruly, indicate that you will end the town hall and broadcast your responses on the web and the radio. See if that gives you the "space" you need to have your say.

5. If you manage to get through all eight points. Then, open the microphones -- people
need to stand in line to use them one at a time -- so that anyone can rebut what you have said, respond to one of the original statements, or raise any additional question they like. Promise that by the next day, you will make available to anyone who provides an email address or a snail mail address a written version of your responses to all the questions raised.

6. Hand out a survey form to everyone in the room. Include three or four open ended questions about people's reactions to the parts of the proposed reform legislation that you would most like input or advice on. Say that you will read all the responses. Indicate, that you will also be doing a scientific survey of everyone in your district to see whether the views represented at the town hall are representative of the district as a whole. Then, do a quick overnight telephone survey of 500 people in the district to see whether the key points raised in the town hall match up with what the population of the district thinks. Publicize the results.

If the goal of the town hall is to hear what people have to say, then the suggestions above will accomplish that. If the goal is to "educate" people on what the Congressperson believes, he or she should have a handout ready with a detailed statement and evidence to backup their claims. If the goal is to generate a thoughtful dialogue, a town hall meeting is the wrong format. Better that the Congressperson selected a small statistically representative sample of residents to talk with in an extended conversation for several hours. It might also make sense to encourage the kind of "study circles" that have been used so successfully in Scandinavia to get thousands of people thinking and talking about the issues framed in a study guide. If the goal is to hammer out a consensus with regard to the district's views, it will be necessary to tap a professional mediator to undertake a district-wide conflict assessment that will produce a "map" of all the relevant stakeholder groups vis a vis the health reform issue and to involve representatives of each of category of groups in formulating an agenda, ground rules, and a process of joint problem-solving.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hey, C'mon, Why Can't Reds and Blues Agree?

I was thinking about the reds and the blues. You'd think they'd be able to reach agreement once in a while without bashing each other. But, the more I analyze it, the more I realize that the reds and blues are probably doomed. Some of the time, it's not in one side or the other's interest to reach agreement. They have more to gain by holding out for some extreme proposal, even if it throws them into deadlock. And, often, something or somebody stands in the way. It's hard to have a constructive conversation if there's too much background noise or by-standers are trying to sabotage things. And, finally, I keep forgetting that most of the reds and blues have no relevant negotiation training or consensus building experience.

It's Not In Their Interest to Reach Agreement

Let's say I'm a red, and I want to build something. I need some of the money that's in the shared kitty. (It's not my money, it's our money.) So, I announce, "I want to build one of those." Doesn't matter what reasons I give, before the words are even out of my mouth, some of the blues have lined up against it. They are against it because I'm for it. They're playing to their constituents. They think they will lose face with their constituents if they support something that a red like me might favor. If I try to make an argument "on the merits," rolling out facts to support my claim, they challenge the legitimacy of my data and marshall contrary evidence. The information is really secondary. They've made up their mind that building what I want to build will take resources away from whatever it is they prefer to do. They have different priorities.

When I suggest we meet to work something out, they might agree, but only because they want to convince me to build what they want instead of what I want. If the blues think they can move forward without any support from the reds, they will. Why talk if they can get what they want. If they can't, they'd rather go down in flames than admit that what the reds want makes more sense, especially when the thing we are fighting about is much less important in the long run than maintaining the support of their constituents.

Are there ever issues on which the fundamental interests of reds and blues overlap? You'd think so. But as soon as someone tries to frame a problem in terms of the overlap, someone else will reframe it in partisan terms -- because it is in their individual interest to do so. That's how they can stand out (and claim a leadership role) in the blue or the red community. Even in a time of crisis, when leaders on both sides know that something must be done, the temptation to frame the crisis in partisan terms (and thus force a win-lose confrontation) is overwhelming. Red and blue leaders wont' be leaders for long if they can't rally the troops. The way they do that is to frame every issue (including every crisis) in partisan terms. Reds say it is about individual rights and responsibilities, letting the market operate in unfettered ways, protecting our national identity and hegemony, and above all promoting economic growth. Blues say it is about reinforcing the social contract (fairness and group responsibility), using the mechanisms of government to correct for inevitable market failures, international responsibilities and human rights, and, above all, promoting sustainable development (so that future generations have the same choices we do). Confrontation allows each side to promote its agenda. Getting agreement pales in importance.

Somebody or Something Is Getting In the Way

Reds and blues act as if they are the only ones with something to say. That is so not true. There are whites who pursue their own individual interests and don't care at all about the perpetual battle between reds and blues. This is really hard for reds and blues to accept: whites are playing a different game entirely. For example, there are contractors who donate equally to red and blue causes. They are trying to court favor on both sides. They don't care about the issues that are central to red and blue, they only care about themselves. There are also people who have written off "the whole system." Their lives are miserable and they blame both red and blue. Then, there are global interests who, like the contractors mentioned above, court both red and blue leaders. They are not above surreptitiously making secret deals with one or both sides. Finally, there are those who make a living off the conflict between red and blue -- the chattering class. It's in their interest to turn up the flame on every controversy.

Any time a segment of reds and a segment of blues try to find common ground, they are attacked not only by hardliners on their own side, but by the chattering class. "Reds and Blues Make a Deal!" does not a headline make. You can't sell papers, you can't grab eyeballs and ears with a story about agreement. But, if you can get a red leader to punch out a blue leader, then you've got a story with legs. The chattering class takes no responsibility for educating anyone on the underlying issues (indeed, the presumption is that there is no such thing as education, only propaganda, so pick a side!). It's hard to reach agreement when you are attacked for even contemplating a meeting with the other side. The chattering class demands transparency and accountability because it is in their interest to do so. The notion that confidentiality might be crucial to the early stages of a useful conversation between reds and blues, is so antithetical to the interests of the chattering class, that they have made such exploratory moves almost impossible.

They Don't Have the Knowledge or Skills

Would you put somebody before a judge or jury who doesn't know how the present their arguments in court? Of course not. We'd make sure that they were represented by qualified counsel. Would you throw someone with no diplomatic experience into a high-level peace-making situation? I hope not. They'd get eaten alive. Would you throw someone into a red or blue leadership role who had no formal training in negotiation or consensus building? We do it all the time! Legal, political, administrative, or corporate experience is not necessarily consensus-building experience. There is a science of collaborative problem-solving that is as carefully spelled out as the techniques of political combat that are on display all the time. But, no one has asked that red and blue leaders demonstrate any consensus building competence. In fact, we seem to think that what we need are leader-warriors who will fight the good fight. Is it a surprise, then, that these leaders have no capacity to generate agreements that are in our collective best interest?

One of the most important things that skilled consensus builders know is that the rules of the forum in which joint problem solving takes place are as important as the abilities of the participants. If reds and blues want to reach mutually advantageous agreements that are actually aimed at solving jointly framed problems, they'll need to change the rules that govern when and how they meet. There's no reason they can't suspend the prevailing rules periodically and switch into consensus building mode, but they don't know that. And, they don't know how to operate in such a setting. They'll probably need a neutral mediator (selected jointly) to help them manage the conversation. Imagine, a confidential mediated conversation between reds and blues where nobody could claim victory over the other side. They'd need to conduct such conversations in private with a confidentiality rule in place. Finally, they'd probably need to agree that no agreement would be reached unless and until nearly all the reds and blues involved were in concurrence. No majority rule. No 60% cloture vote.

So, the question is, as a red or blue constituent, would you be willing to reward your representative with your vote if they produced effective bi-partisan solutions to problems
rather than post more wins than losses against the other side? How should we identify the issues we prefer to have red and blue leaders work on in this way? Is there a large enough segment of the population willing to demand that red and blue switch into consensus building mode periodically? How might we trigger such a shift?