MML#1: Having Civil Discussions on Local Topics

MML#1: Having Civil Discussions on Local Topics

(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 27, 2018)

Lansing, MI- “Some conversations you know you’re just going to leave those conversations feeling drained,” said State Representative Donna Lasinski as she led a discussion on “Public Engagement and Civility in Local Government” at the Michigan Municipal League Capital Conference March 21.  “My goal is for you to be able to present a proposal to a community of mixed viewpoints that doesn’t alienate anyone from the beginning.”

The core lesson of Lasinski’s talk is that you can’t change someone’s values, but you can change the conversation in a way that may open the door to better understanding.

If there is a discussion that has anticipated opposition – such as a new ordinance or policy, a new development, anything that creates change, etc – then the best way to approach potential opposition is to think empathetically about the values that each side brings to the conversation.

This means more than just knowing the objections.  “Think about their values. Think about their objections and drill down to the underlying values,” she said.  For example, people who oppose change may value tradition, stability, family and community.

“It’s hard because you may be speaking in your own language,” Lasinski said.

“We all have code words that we understand,” she said. She explained that on a national political level there are terms that people tend to associate with one political party or another.  This happens in our community as well, apart from partisan discussions.  “We have code words for neighbors, for types of people, for ‘those kind of parent,’ for people who are always upset over zoning, etc.”

Understanding the values of people with differences can make for more productive conversations.  Lasinski spoke of a TED Talk by Robb Willer about political change, wherein people who believed in climate change and those who did not all read essays about the subject. Half read an essay that spoke in liberal terms about climate change, and the other used words like family, community, duty, faith and purity.  “When conservatives were spoken to with values they relate to, their views change,” Lasinski said.

Taking this to local politics, she said “When we have a proposal we understand through our values, how do I reframe it in a way that honors the values of others?  How do I speak to your values?”

In Saline, MI speaking to values was key to broad community acceptance of a non-discrimination ordinance.  Lasinski said that Saline is a white, affluent, faith-based community, and that an ordinance about equality “was not a slam dunk.”

“We had a conversation about shared values in Saline,” she said.  “The conversation was about family values. We want our children to live in Saline.  We want strong schools. We know that communities that are thriving are welcoming of all people. We want to make sure Saline is thriving, not just now, but 20 years from now.  We became a welcoming city because we welcome everyone.”

Another example where community conversations can be challenging is medical marijuana.  “We’re coming in thinking we’re on totally different sides of things, but when we think of commonality it’s a starting point,” Lasinski said.  Some shared values around medical marijuana discussions could be public safety, personal liberty and the personal experiences.

Another tip Lasinski gave was to present the community with option.  “The only way to get a pessimist to know there is a way forward, is to give them three options and involve them in the process to choose one,” she said.  “If you say ‘this is the answer,’ you’ll get shot down.”

And lastly, it helps to be realistic.  “You’re not a miracle worker.  You can’t make people be knowledgeable or considerate.  It’s depressing but you have to work with what you have,” she said.

This article is the first in a series of articles about the Michigan Municipal League Capital conference held March 20-21, 2018. If you aren’t already on our list for Daily Headlines, please sign up HERE so you won’t miss any of this exciting and informative series! Find other MML related articles HERE.

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