COUNTY CONNECTIONS: Respectful Discourse Is the Answer
COOK COUNTY, MINNESOTA - January 29, 2019 (LSN) I’ve now practiced law for Cook County for over 10 years. In that time, I’ve learned a lot about how to effectively negotiate resolutions despite clear conflict and high emotion. I’ve learned these lessons through trial and error. Being too aggressive out of the gate may win the battle but lose the war. Avoiding difficult issues may be more comfortable but will only allow a problem to fester and potentially worsen. My conclusion? If you think something or someone is wrong, you make the change you desire by addressing the conflict with respectful discourse. For the benefit of taxpayers, and for the benefit of my colleagues in local government, I’d like to talk about what this means to me.
Allow and Invite Different Points of View You cannot avoid differences in opinion or ideas when you are doing the important work of county government. You should not avoid differences in opinion or ideas. An open conversation between fullyinformed people, interested in good outcomes for our population, is where good and thoroughly-vetted ideas come from. Concern and involvement in local government from citizens whose taxes are going toward government business is absolutely necessary. Your input is needed for elected officials to do their job well. At the same time, our Commissioners are citizen-leaders and human beings who work long hours for the pay and should not be the subject of abusive language and harassment. So how do we listen to each other and debate these issues and make positive change, without allowing anger and emotion to stall our progress?
Assume the Person on the Other Side of the Table Also Wants to Make Things Better Invite people to the conversation whose intent is to repair the situation, not sabotage relationships. Now you can assume each person at the table has a positive intent and a legitimate reason for their position. Find the reasons behind their position and work towards consensus from there. A confrontational tone stalls progress by making a rift in communication and is rarely necessary.
Have the Difficult Conversation Don’t abuse “Minnesota Nice” by passively ignoring problems because it’s uncomfortable to address them. Don’t talk to everybody but the person you’re upset with. Avoid speaking negatively about people behind their backs. Give them the respect of having the conversation directly with them and do this before a group conversation where hostility can rise in a more public way and damage your, or their, reputation. Assert that there may be a problem here. Respond to the problem with a quest for understanding the origin of the problem, allow input and propose a solution. Don’t blame individuals for causing the problem because, whether blame exists or not, your goal is to create change through this conversation and the perception of a personal attack will stall your efforts. Likewise, it is important not to take every criticism of your ideas as a personal attack. This kind of negative reaction poisons the negotiation.
Allow for Grace When Others Behave Badly Each of us has done the opposite of my advice in this column many times in our lives. We have felt attacked in a conversation and lashed out. We have smiled and nodded and walked away instead of confronting a problem. We have labeled the other side with a negative intent and put up defenses, causing the conversation to end without resolution. If your goal is truly to solve a problem, you cannot end the conversation when you see this in another person. Acknowledge the frustration and listen. Get real and share your own frustration. Ask for a break or to reschedule for another time. Request explanation for the behavior and certainly require accountability for it, but if you walk out the door forever because of bad behavior, you’ve lost the negotiation and given up on a solution.
The Cook County Board of Commissioners has been exploring adoption of the “Speak Your Peace” platform of assumptions and rules. I hope this discussion continues. I think a focus on civility has the potential not only to make the meetings I attend more pleasant, but more importantly, to find real solutions through respectful discourse.
County Connections is a new column on timely topics and service information from Cook County Minnesota – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service.
By: Molly Hicken, Cook County Attorney