Getting to the Heart of the Matter when Dealing with Emotion, Outrage and Opposition

By Lauren Wirtis, IAP2 USA Intern

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being.” – “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Language is how we communicate with one another and, since it is how we communicate, it is often the fodder for our emotions. Our hearts swell when someone says they love us for the first time, we weep when we confront terrible news, we laugh when we are told a joke, and we are enraged when we are presented with injustice.

When IAP2 originally created the Foundations course, John Godec was the principal writer of the section that discussed risk communication and dealing with upset people. Frequently, the trainers would receive feedback that they wanted to spend more time on this section. In response to this demand Stephani Roy McCallum, John Godec, and Mary Hamel created a class called Emotion and Outrage in Public Participation (recently retitled Strategies for Dealing with Opposition and Outrage in P2).

“The course is about human behavior. It’s about social psychology. About the psychology of people and people’s perception. How people perceive and interpret information differently depending on their emotional state.” -John Godec

Much of the content in the class on risk communication comes from Dr. Peter Sandman, an expert in the area whose model of risk is Risk = Hazard + Outrage. Dr. Sandman discusses three types of  risk communication that can be understood by mapping where they fall on a chart of outrage and hazard, see the image below.

Much of the content in the class on risk communication comes from Dr. Peter Sandman, an expert in the area whose model of risk is Risk = Hazard + Outrage. Dr. Sandman discusses three types of  risk communication that can be understood by mapping where they fall on a chart of outrage and hazard, see the image left.

See Dr. Peter Sandman’s full video on this topic here.

This is a helpful tool that provides a practical approach to managing people’s outrage. However, when I think about the kind of outrage that troubles the United States today, I can’t help but think that there is a third dimension to this chart. A z-axis that acknowledges that hazards are not experienced evenly across populations. And while we have made a lot of progress on a range of issues, I would also say that this progress was made without acknowledging the z-axis and, to Trevor Noah’s point, only in one language and that is the language of a group that is predominantly upper class, white, and male. As a result, we have left certain important pieces of issues unresolved and unacknowledged and all we know is that the solutions have supposedly “created jobs” or “grew the GDP.” These aren’t words that go to my heart.

I had the privilege of speaking with John Godec and Stephani Roy McCallum to understand how they believed the patterns of opposition and outrage have changed and what they think we can do about it. Do they see patterns in the opposition and outrage they encounter in their work? Yes. And more of it. John said that he believed a lot of this growth comes from the widening gap between the government and the governed. That gap has fostered a large amount of distrust fueled by rhetoric citing government as the issue rather than the problem and the fact that government doesn’t work well for many people. However, the closer people are to government services, the more likely they are to trust their government, which means somewhere there’s a fundamental breakdown in communication.

Stephani pointed out that these highly charged spaces are also more visible than ever with the support of social media, with more people engaging in the demonization of people who they view as “on the other side.” She went on to say that this is not an experience unique to the United States, but is occurring across the globe. “[The political situation in the United States] is just a bellwether of that shift.”

Taken all at once, these issues are incredibly daunting. What can we, as P2 practitioners, do to manage outrage and opposition in our own communities?

1. Go beyond the project level.

Dealing with emotion and outrage successfully is “about the whole system changing not just about completing a project,” says Stephani. She noted that this is a big challenge in P2, that so much of the focus is on the project level, which is not a way to change people’s hearts and minds. Emotion and outrage are often closely tied to a lack of trust. It’s important to do good P2 even when the public isn’t going to be upset and when you aren’t asking anything of them. Put goodwill in the bank over time, rather than starting from a position of asking for newfound trust at the beginning of each project.

2. Do your due diligence.

If there is one thing that John and Stephani taught me, it’s that there is no excuse for not knowing about opposition. None. You should never be surprised by the fact that there is opposition. To make sure this carnal offense never happens, do your due diligence. Talk to the community and ask them who else you should talk to. John said “the ability to predict how people are going to feel about a project is critical to the process.” Get out there and get to know your community!

3. Don’t underestimate your community.

Believe it or not, people want to help. Stephani said that she enjoys working in spaces with high emotion, because they “are spaces of opportunity and possibility; when people have passion, they give you something to work with.” An example of this is a story John told me about a transportation project in Arizona. A major intersection was going to be redesigned and would shut down access to downtown for 18 months. An environmental study predicted this work would lead to the closure of 15 local businesses. Originally the approach was an informational campaign, but then John brought the stakeholders into a room together with local residents and business owners to talk about any possible ways to mitigate the impacts. They adjusted, tweaked, and pushed the schedule around in a way that was able to “minimize anger and optimize the situation.” This was supplemented with a targeted promotional effort for the businesses that were going to be impacted the most. After much relationship- and trust-building, the community was determined to support these businesses. In the end six businesses opened, zero failed. Never underestimate a community’s ability to be creative and pull together.

4. Put down the templates

IAP2 courses on emotion, outrage, and opposition will provide new ways of thinking about these issues and will provide tools and approaches to try. They will also help you think about how you show up to a meeting and what issues you and your organization are dealing with. Stephani said, “the course is a powerful first step in thinking differently and learning how to approach opposition and polarization in a different way. But it is not a magic wand.” Sometimes people think that if they fill out enough forms or the poster boards are good enough that it will overcome the outrage, but that will never be the case because then you are speaking a language they understand rather than their language. Stephani worked on a project in Canada dealing with conflict about language, a highly polarized issue rooted in identity, and she said “it is not about results or facts. It’s about the culture of communities. For this, we need a model for having brave and honest conversations.” In her work to unpack this issue and transform the nature of the conflict, Stephani worked with participants to create a story-based process where they could share their experiences- good, bad, and ugly. There is no template for doing this, but effective and successful P2 will help participants see the whole person and not just the issue.

5.Relax, nothing is under control

Over-reliance on tools, process steps, and check boxes will gain you the illusion of control, but lose, as Stephani pointed out, “the heart, soul, and complexity of the issue.” It also, as John pointed out, makes you “lose sight of the fact that there are real human beings affected by what [you] do.” There is no magic formula for avoiding outrage. If opposition (that, hopefully, you were anticipating) arises, stop. Talk to people. Give them individual or small group attention and consideration. John noted that “the worst thing you could do is hold a public meeting.” This is an opportunity to build trust for both you and your community, and it is important to be able to trust them enough to give the control away. As Stephani said, “The messier it is, the more there is to work with.”

There is a lot of despair here in the United States and around the world. Despair created by nature, by humankind, and a combination of the two. I spent the last week surrounded by P2 practitioners at the North American Conference hosted by IAP2 USA and Canada, but attended by people from Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, South Africa, Europe – and those are just the people I personally encountered. Each one of these people attended the conference to become better at showing their communities not what makes them different, but what they have in common with one another. It certainly gave me hope to know we’d all land back home re-energized and ready to expand our community vocabulary.

Thank you to John Godec and Stephani Roy McCallum for taking time to speak with me about their experience designing the EOP2 course and their personal experiences dealing with emotion and outrage in communities.

John Godec
John Godec, Co-creator of Emotion & Outrage in P2, Expert Communication and Strategist and Facilitator at The Participation Company
Stephani Roy McCallum
Stephani Roy McCallum, Co-creator of Emotion & Outrage in P2, Chief Storm Rider at Courageous Leadership Project, and Knowledge Director at Dialogue Partners
Lauren Wirtis, 2017 IAP2 USA Intern & Author

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