Navigating the Fog of (Culture) War – Part 1

Approximate Read Time: 5 minutes

These headlines (below the logo) from only the first two weeks of March are the latest dispatches from the ever-shifting frontlines of the resurging culture war in the United States. 

Last week’s post, Planning for the Unthinkable, we took a lesson from the sinking of the Titanic about failing to plan for that which we don’t believe (or want to believe) is possible. Forecasting is a planning strategy that helps us avoid being caught off guard.

Forecasting controversy and conflict is an often-overlooked strategy in organizational and community change work. It is also one of the most valuable strategies available to us…if we will use it.

One of the reasons we may not use it more than we do is because we may not know what it looks like in practice. So, what does it look like?

campaign engagement

It looks like community engagement…but not community engagement as we tend to think about it and do it. When we get focused on an issue we feel needs to be changed in an organization or community, we tend to use community engagement like a campaign strategy. We start talking to individuals and groups about the issue in an effort to gain their support and participation in the change. There’s nothing inherently wrong with community engagement as campaigning but this is only one way to think about community engagement and, frankly, it may not be very useful when it comes to forecasting controversy and conflict.

Campaign Engagement tends to feature one-way communication. It is usually us talking, telling, teaching, and informing others about the issue we are convinced needs to be changed. Whether we already have the support of the whole community or organization, or just a sub-group of the whole, we use Campaign Engagement to rally people to our cause.

Three risks

There are three risks when Campaign Engagement becomes the first type we lead with, whether we are trying to change an organization or community:

We miss what people are trying to tell us. We can be so focused on getting people to pay attention to us, hear our message, agree with our position, and sign on to support us that we can’t hear them. If they are trying to ask their questions, tell us about their fears, share their concerns, or express their reservations, we may not hear them over our own voices.

We become extremist crusaders. Crusaders are so convinced of both the rightness of their cause and their position, they charge full speed ahead, damning the torpedoes, and any rational pushback – even from friends and allies. Crusaders often dismiss minority views as insignificant when compared to the greater good they are trying to do, or, even, lacking the “evidence-based” credentials of their plans. Actually, crusaders don’t need evidence…they just need their own belief in their solution. When we become crusaders, we can become perceived, and rightly accused, of arrogance which risks our standing in the community, leads to loss of respect, and incites strong challenges from those who don’t agree with us.

We miss seeing the emerging or imminent controversy and conflict. By defaulting to Campaign Engagement, we can become oblivious to controversy and/or conflict that is in front of us. For this reason, we need to look to community engagement with another purpose – inquiry.

Inquiry Engagement prioritizes listening and hearing from people before we start our campaigning. We listen for questions people have about the issue. We hear their concerns about addressing it. We take notice of their reservations, including those reservations about our approach to the issue. Through Inquiry Engagement we can catch glimpses of the controversies that could lie ahead and then create a plan for addressing potential conflicts.

Next week we’ll pick up this theme and explore Inquiry Engagement and how it benefits our planning for the unthinkable.

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Preparing for Controversy in the Fog of (Culture) War

Wednesday, April 19

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