Building Trust During Polarizing Times
Differences in political beliefs and policy goals are part of a healthy democracy. However, we live in increasingly polarizing times when what were once mundane issues are now considered political. This polarization seems to be surrounded by disinformation and misinformation, especially when it comes to how governments – local, state, and federal — get things done — or not. As digital technology advances, we see more information spreading faster and farther than ever.
This blog explores how building trust helps to reduce polarization and builds credibility with the public so that inaccurate information may be dealt with effectively.
What is Polarization?
The Pew Research Center defines political polarization as "the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats," and offers this observation:
We see polarization in many subjects including, but not limited to, taxes, government spending, police funding, pandemics, climate change, elections, electric vehicles, immigration, firearms safety, personnel policies, and our court systems. Political polarization contributes to discouragement in government when it seems like the two sides will never budge from their positions.
Disinformation and Misinformation
According to the American Psychological Association:
Misinformation is false or inaccurate information—getting the facts wrong. Disinformation is false information which is deliberately intended to mislead—intentionally misstating the facts.
“Misinformation” is the broader of these two terms and includes both inadvertently and intentionally false information. Recently, Strategic Government Resources (SGR) partnered with the online community engagement platform Polco to conduct a survey that included questions about polarization. The results revealed that “almost 80% of local government professionals said misinformation has negatively affected their organization by a moderate to a significant amount.”
In a local government context, it is important to help stop the spread of misinformation and to promptly respond to false information with accurate and trusted facts.
Fact or Opinion?
When faced with potentially false information it is often helpful to ask whether it is “fact” or “opinion.” The same set of facts may have different interpretations, and individuals draw different conclusions and form different opinions based on the same or similar information.
A “fact” is a piece of information that can be proven true or false. For example, there are 50 states in the U.S. and Abraham Lincoln was the 16th U.S. President. A fact is based on observation, research, or evidence. Fact-checking uses reliable sources to verify the truth of facts and information based on facts.
An “opinion” is a statement that expresses a judgment or belief about something based on assumption, interpretation, or personal preference. Facts can be used to support opinions, but opinions cannot generally be used to prove facts.
So, an opinion may be based on applying one’s views to underlying facts they believe tend to support their views. This does not mean that such opinions are wrong or false, just that they are different than the opinions of others. A discussion among those with differing opinions could lead to sharing the importance of the underlying facts and how each person came to their opinions. This would be more productive than name calling, interruptions, or simply walking away. Being able to discern what is fact and what is opinion allows us to work to understand and potentially influence the opinions of others and to find common ground in the underlying facts. This is one way to identify and address misinformation.
Effective Listening: Be Open and Curious
A starting point for building trust around polarizing subjects is to listen with respect, curiosity, and an open mind. This may happen in one-on-one conversations with members of the public or co-workers, or it could happen in larger group settings, such as public meetings or community gatherings. Community engagement could include scheduled listening meetings about potentially controversial topics that are important and timely to the local government agency.
Here are some best practices for agencies to consider:
- Create safe spaces for conversations with enough time and a comfortable setting to encourage meaningful sharing.
- Develop ground rules for effective conversations that may include an amount of uninterrupted time, no distractions such as using mobile devices, not arguing with those who have different opinions, and breaking into smaller groups then reporting back.
- Encourage participants to:
- Be attentive and make eye contact,
- Ask neutral follow-up questions like “how did you come to this view?” or “please tell me more,” and
- Avoid making negative nonverbal expressions such as eye-rolling or cringing when someone else is talking.
When people meet in safe spaces where they have the chance to share experiences on a more human and respectful level, they are more likely to empathize with each other, understand the reasons for disagreements, and develop ideas to move forward.
Another way to enhance group discussions, especially in meetings where polarizing views are being shared, is to have a facilitated conversation.
Braver Angels is a national nonprofit with a mission “to bring Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic.” As part of their work, Braver Angels volunteers convene groups of participants with different opinions and beliefs, aiming to balance their workshops with similar numbers of persons with right-leaning and left-leaning political views. They also offer elected and public officials (and their staff and constituents) facilitated experiences at no charge via their “Braver Politics” offerings.
Local organizations can also host facilitated conversations. Such recent examples took place in Kittitas and Skagit counties around diversity, equity, and inclusion; in Walla Walla and Umatilla counties around regional planning; and in Mercer Island, to advance inclusivity and support families of color living in the jurisdiction.
Practice the Three Cs of Trust:
Trust is a two-way street and requires consistent effort in all that we do. One way to build it is to embrace the three Cs of trust: competence, character, and caring, as developed by military psychologist Patrick Sweeney. Trust is strongest when we learn, practice, and demonstrate all three of these values:
- Competence means we are skilled and able to consistently perform our jobs, which is crucial for both leaders and staff members.
- Character is demonstrated when we show loyalty, respect, courage, and integrity in what we do and in our service to others.
- Caring means to genuinely care about others around us and to show our clear and heartfelt commitment to doing the right thing.
The magic happens when all three Cs are present and intersect in a way that strengthens and reinforces trust.
Conclusion and Resources
It is difficult but not impossible to build trust and effective bridges in polarizing times. Misinformation seems increasingly prevalent and there is less trust, especially in communications about government.
I trust this blog discussion is helpful as an introduction to ways to improve the current dialogue around politics and local governments. The basic message is to be kind, be optimistic, keep an open mind, and try to tone down negative rhetoric to find common ground. Below are additional resources:
- ICMA: Overcoming Polarization in Local Government Through Strategic Community Engagement (2022)
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.