Personality is largely a collection of internal defenses – deeply ingrained beliefs about and habits toward the world that have come from the past. The Enneagram Institute.
The personality that shows up at public meetings has internal defenses loaded for bear, and leaders are the bear. These days, people have a list of past grievances against government, so every new issue triggers memories of seemingly to-the-death political battles. Hence the internal defenses are up when they walk in the room.
To have a civil, productive conversation, public leaders must design their conversations to handle public defensiveness.
The key to reducing defensiveness is empathy, so as soon as anger enters the conversation, you need to acknowledge it. “I know you are angry. By a show of hands, who else in this room is angry?” Seems risky, but people actually relax when someone acknowledges and seeks allies for their anger.
But an angry public will need more than a statement that you “feel their pain.”
The next step is to validate their anger. If the issue is whether to cut busing for high school students, you might say, “Of course you are angry – we are considering an action that will profoundly disrupt your day, causing you and your family even more stress.” Seems even riskier to egg them on, but instead, the public is starting to believe that you understand them -- so they unclench their fists.
The next step will clinch that belief: “We’d like to hear more about your concerns, so please get in groups of three to share why this issue matters to you.” After 7 minutes, go back to one conversation and ask the whole group what was most important about that conversation. In just 3-4 comments you will capture what matters most to 85% of the people in the room. Now people will have experienced intimate empathy in their small group and cognitive empathy with the whole group – all of which gets imputed to your trust account as the host and facilitator of the gathering.
Diving right into the public’s emotions is a radical act, but will jumpstart the trust building process and open people to the conversation to come.
The next step is to acknowledge the public's skepticism about these kinds of conversations – the ones where government “gets us together so they can blow off our feedback.” You have to let them vent about their past experiences in order to believe something might be different. So, ask them “to share in small groups about their doubts and reservations that this conversation will make a difference.” Then debrief. By acknowledging and validating their doubts about the process, the public sees that you will do something different now.
Finally, you need to reduce defensiveness about the issue before having the debate. Leaders typically start by offering their own solution and seeking feedback; some ask the public what they want to see happen. Either way, people will become threatened by any solution or argument against their position.
But if you ask people why they want what they want, and why they want that, and why that is important, and then map those responses on a white board, people will know that everyone understands what matters to them -- that their needs have been baked into the debate. Because they have been fully heard, people won’t feel the need to rebut everything contrary to their position and the debate will become more civil and orderly.
In summary, you can handle public defensiveness by empathizing with their past experience and anger toward government, validating their doubts about the efficacy of this conversation, and mapping what they need from a potential solution. By meeting the public’s need to be heard and empathized with, you demonstrate that you care about them, the ultimate antidote to defensiveness.