Lehrman discusses how to turn points of conflict into productive conversation

By KATE COIL
TML Communications Specialist

In times where civic discussions seem to be more divisive than ever, many communities are looking for ways to bring citizens together and find common ground to move necessary conversations forward.


Matt Lehrman, co-founder of Social Prosperity Partners, discussed how local leadership can move these discussions “from conflict to conversation” during the Tennessee Municipal League’s Annual Conference in Chattanooga. Lehrman said civil discussion begins with a willingness to see someone else’s point of view.


“Where people work together courageously, their potential is unlimited,” he said. “We can talk about courage in a lot of different ways. There is the courage of the soldier and the first responder, the courage to rush into harm’s way to do your duty. There is also the kind of courage where you are ready to fall on your sword for a principle, where you are ready to be the last defender of what you think is right. I’m not talking about that kind of courage. I am talking about the courage to be open minded, the courage to listen to a person with whom you might disagree – even profoundly – and be willing to think about your own position and engage them in conversation. ”


In his talk, Lehrman posed the question: How do we move our public, our residents, our citizens to a better way of communicating?


“My belief is that the purpose of local government is to enable individuals to come together in recognizing and solving community problems,” he said. “This sentence, which I intended to be a basic, vanilla sentence that doesn’t trigger anyone, turns out to be a massive trigger. A lot of people look at this and feel the tension because they feel they somehow have to balance the rights of individuals with the needs of the community.”


Lehrman said that argument misses the overall point.


“This is supposed to give you a different mission; it’s supposed to give you the mission that the most important words here are ‘join together,’” he said. “Our responsibility as community leaders is to enable people to join together. The mechanics of how we help people join together is the most important measure of success.”


Lehrman said there are six steps to improving public discourse in a community: declare community values, recognize what hurts, give them what they want, host courageous conversations, avoid binary choices, and acknowledge uneasiness. Lehrman said there is already a blueprint for declaring local values.


“I am interested in what are the values that your council or your community would say is how we operate our government,” he said. “I am going to offer you six: togetherness, fairness, peacefulness, security, betterment, and sustainability. This is a statement of principles, not politics. I take these directly from the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. I’m not saying you have to use these exact words, but that value statement we can draw straight from the U.S. Constitution shows a lot about how we can hold ourselves accountable to values in our own community.”


Leaders also need to recognize what hurts in their communities.


“In the last year-and-a-half there has been a lot of hurt,” he said. “In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it says that as individuals before we can be who we really want to be we have to have our basic and psychological needs taken care of. The same is true in your community and for your community. In order to be a vibrant community, there has to be a foundation of health and safety. Built on top of that, we have to take care of the psychological needs of inclusion and trust. It has become incredibly, unmistakably vivid that we have a lot of work to do to build our foundation.”


Giving residents what they want is another way to improve public engagement. Lehrman said this means thinking about the civic process like a coffee filter.


“Citizens bring to you all their opinions, ideas, needs, stresses, beliefs, ambitions, perspectives, experiences, values, personalities, expectations, histories, fears, demands, suspicions, judgements, thoughts, and attitudes,” he said. “They come with all this baggage. It’s enviable, natural, and necessary. Humans disagree and have different perspectives; that’s not a problem. We pour those into the civic process and determine what they want. People have learned that even if they are heard, they don’t always get their way. People understand that there may be a different decision, but what is sacred is that they have to come away from the process feeling heard.”


Sometimes, Lehrman said disagreement does need to be disagreeable in order to move forward.


“The right to protest is a sacred right in this country, and we owe people that,” he said. “There are people who have been left out of the process, and they have frustration and anger about this. Sometimes the only way they are going to be heard is through an act of protest. Our job is to make people feel helped and empowered and that we demonstrated the caring they were expecting from their engagement with us.”


One of the major roles for local government is to host conversations and open forums for the community to explore opportunities. Lehrman often facilitates community meetings to talk together about local issues and suggest options and opportunities for city officials to consider.


“When you bring residents together, it’s not about how you help the city make the decision but how about you bring people together so they can talk, learn, and hear what other people have to say without the expectation of making a decision at the end of it,” he said. “This is how they come away from your civic process feeling engaged and heard. It’s a chance to exercise their own leadership.”


Lehrman said civic engagements cannot be a win/lose situation.


“Stop offering your public binary choices,” he said. “I know if you’re in leadership you have to make binary choices all the time. Council has to vote on things, but this is for the public. For public engagement, we don’t need a majority vote to make a decision. We need a collaborative decision, a softening of positions. Instead of asking if people agree or disagree, ask if they are 90% OK with this, because if you can give this a green light we are good to go. If you are 80% of better, we can give you a yellow light, which means we are also good to go. Not everyone has to love it, and it doesn’t have to be everyone’s first choice, but we can find the soft spot..”


Lehrman said it also important to acknowledge how the community feels.


“We as leaders and the teams we manage and work with need to get skills in what I call emotional intentionality,” he said. “Emotional intentionality means we have to understand how to respond to people who have all these emotions. Where people are angry, we have to remain calm. Where people are sad, to be human is to comfort them. Where people are fearful, we have to demonstrate that we care. Where people are having joy, we have to pay attention to it. Where people are surprised we need to be patient. Where people are disgusted because they feel they have been disrespected or unheard, we have to respect that. We need to listen to their stories and channel it into something that is production and useful.”


By making changes to how governments approach civic engagement, officials can move their communities forward in a positive direction.


“The future is unknowable, but it’s incredibly malleable,” he said. “I believe wholeheartedly that even the small changes you make in your behavior can have a massive impact on the quality of public engagement in your communities because it will leave people feeling certain ways. There is one question you must ask to start a courageous conversation: How might we join together to contribute to the recovery, health, and collaborative spirit of our community?”