Building Trust through Civil Discourse

Mon, 2015-08-31

Audrey Wall

The half-day introductory workshop established by The National Institute for Civil Discourse entitled, “Building Trust through Civil Discourse,” was an outgrowth of an effort by The Council of State Governments Midwest, which brought together two legislators from different political backgrounds and different states for a workshop at its annual regional conference in Cleveland, Ohio, in July 2012. Rep. Ted Celeste, a Democrat from Columbus, Ohio, and Rep. Scott Raecker, a Republican from Urbandale, Iowa, teamed up to facilitate this first session for legislators from the Midwest region. CSG promoted the session in its materials about the annual conference, but did not have any idea how much interest there might be in the program.

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About the Author

Former State Rep. Ted Celeste is the founder and director of Next Generation, a project of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, where Celeste serves as the Director of State Programs. His goal is to inspire and support state legislators who want to promote greater understanding and better decision-making. As part of a bi-partisan team, Celeste has facilitated training for the CSG Midwest Conference and the Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Vermont and Washington State Legislatures. He has also presented at the CSG BILLD leadership program in Madison, and the National CSG annual meeting in Kansas City.

Celeste served in the Ohio Legislature from 2007–2012. Known for working effectively “across the aisle” whether he was in the majority or the minority, he has lived his belief in respectful dialogue. One of the only candidates for state office who insisted on running a positive campaign, he won each of his 3 races with a comfortable majority in a swing district. He was recognized for his emphasis on civil dialogue with the John Glenn Public Policy Institute’s Outstanding Public Service Award in 2011.

"How do I begin to trust someone and believe that we can work together, after a campaign season in which we have spent all our energy beating each other up?” —from a legislator in Next Generation Maine workshop.

Scheduled at the end of a day filled with many policy discussions, and immediately preceding receptions and the main gala event, organizers anticipated that perhaps 25 or 30 legislators might attend. The room was set up for 50. By the time the last person filtered into the room, more than 75 people were in attendance. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

A group of Ohio legislators who attended the session met afterward and decided they would like to have a similar but extended session just for Ohio legislators. Celeste teamed up with The National Institute for Civil Discourse and CSG to prepare an extended half-day workshop for the group in December 2012. Once again, Celeste and Raecker co-facilitated the program for 15 Ohio legislators. From this early effort, the institute created a program called Next Generation, which offers the half-day workshop to legislators around the country.

In 2013, upon his departure from the Ohio legislature, Celeste put in place a plan to support and market the workshop program for the institute and to develop a strategy for building a core group of legislators who would be trained as facilitators for future workshops. During 2013, three other states held workshops—Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Washington.

The first facilitator training for the workshops was held in January 2014 at the O’Connor House Building Trust through Civil Discourse in Phoenix. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had donated her home to the state for purposes such as this.

“NCID provides an opportunity through facilitation for legislators (and legislatures) to enhance responsible governance. It is a catalyst for building trust across ideological barriers. The facilitator training in which I participated confirmed that desire for responsible governance is strongly shared across the political spectrum. Building Trust through Civil Discourse creates the venue for legislators to identify practices that undermine good governance and to identify and act on ways to improve.” —from one of our facilitators, a Wisconsin state senator.

In March 2014, 39 legislators—the largest group to participate in one of the workshops—gathered in Maine. By this time, the workshop format and agenda had been through a few revisions and participants were asked to provide advice and guidance on how to make it better. The number of interested legislators who participated in the workshop and were interested in being trained to be facilitators grew quickly. And the number of states that expressed an interest in holding a workshop also grew quickly.

“What can be done about a colleague who shows a lack of respect for the institution and only wants to belittle the members of the other party?” —from a legislator in the Washington Next Generation workshop.

The introductory workshop is not meant to be a one-and-done exercise. It is designed to create a working document and road map for legislators in each state to address the present level of incivility in their body and plan specific steps for improvement. The goal is not to point fingers, but to join hands. The mission is to help create a more bipartisan approach to problem solving in each state. Each workshop is unique, although all of them start with a definition of the ground rules participants will be governed by during the exercise. The environment within which the workshop is carried out is meant to create a safe place for meaningful and personal interaction. The co-facilitators, one Republican and one Democrat legislator, are trained to guide but not lead the dialogue. The session is very interactive and goal driven.

All of the participants have indicated the most powerful part of the workshop is an exercise called “The Political Journey.” During this exercise, legislators are asked to think about the event or events in their lives that had the greatest impact on determining who they are today politically. Through this task and the sharing of personal stories, a level of communication is reached that only happens in a very safe space where trust and respect prevails. Many legislators have reported that this part of the workshop created a bond with a particular colleague from across the aisle that grew throughout their continued work in the legislature. 

“After (the) 9/11 attack, I thought our community needed a public event to grieve, come together and begin healing. I called the mayor’s office to see if one was planned. That started the planning. I asked a faith leader to speak, but he was not available and asked me to fill in. Soon I found myself speaking to hundreds of people about embracing difference as a way to heal—(the) start of my path to public service.” —from a legislator in the Minnesota Next Generation workshop.

As of May 2015, 220 legislators have participated in 12 in-state workshops. Several states have held a second workshop and many others have expressed an interest in having the workshop added to the newly elected legislators’ orientation prior to the beginning of their session. Twenty-seven legislators or former legislators have been trained as facilitators.

The nature of the workshop changes in each state based on the state’s particular partisan makeup, the desires of the individual members who participate and the level of interest in maintaining an ongoing effort. In many of the states, a working group has been formed that looks for additional opportunities to explore the area of increasing civil discourse. Some participants have looked to structural change, with a review of operating procedures within their caucuses and legislatures. Others have looked for ways to increase bipartisan social gatherings. 

“Statesmanship in a free society entails a serious commitment to civil discourse, a willingness to listen to others, and a recognition of the common humanity of equal women and men who are partners together in this democratic experiment.” —from a Washington State representative.

While each state is unique, a number of common themes arise as legislators discuss the present state of civility in their legislatures. Some items raised will not be easily overcome: the impact money plays in the process, the role the media plays in focusing on conflict, and the influence political strategists play in supporting negative campaigning. However, a number of issues raised by legislators in most of the states are areas where improvement can be more easily achieved: agreeing to disagree, but not being disagreeable; choosing your words carefully, respecting your colleagues, separating emotion from logic and listening to understand. 

Civil discourse in the legislative arena is much more than just being nice. Many participants come to the workshop with the belief that the focus of the discussion will be on changing one’s behavior. And indeed, a good part of the workshop is aimed at creating a safe space where discussion of an individual’s personal views can be carried out without a fear of retribution or mocking. However, the work of the participants goes further than individual behavior. 

“We can indeed work together and still disagree.” —from an Ohio representative at our first workshop.

The goal statement introduced at the beginning of every workshop says participants are there to:

  1. Deepen their appreciation for each other’s commitment to public service;
  2. Consider ways to improve the legislative environment; and
  3. Determine how to work together to strengthen civil discourse in the legislature.

The session is designed to work toward a mutual understanding of the present state of civility within the legislature, identify what barriers there are to improvement, and prepare an action agenda to overcome those barriers and create a more civil environment. Clearly, as mentioned earlier, some of the barriers are deeply embedded in the political system and change will come very slowly, if at all. However, a number of suggestions have achievable goals and have been frequently mentioned in all of the states where workshops have been held.

One of the most common suggestions for improvement is the need for more opportunities for bipartisan social interaction. Legislators often have been isolated within their party’s caucus events and have little time to spend with legislators from across the aisle. Indeed, in many states this is frowned upon. There are many reasons given for the lack of bipartisan discourse, but a genuine desire exists for creating more opportunities for it to occur.

Where it is allowed, bipartisan joint lead cosponsorship of legislation has been mentioned as another area that can be expanded to improve the level of civil discourse. Several participants in the workshops have joined with their counterparts on the other side of the aisle—whom they met and interacted with in the workshops—to create legislation of common interest. In several cases, this has led to multiple pieces of new legislation.

Another suggestion made during several workshops was introducing a program to visit the district of a colleague from the other party. Perhaps even holding a town meeting in that district to learn firsthand from the constituents in another’s district. This has generated interest from outside advocacy groups to the extent that they are prepared to help facilitate such events. 

“I enjoyed the workshop very much. I thought we did well. It became clear that we still have a ways to go. To me, there needs to be a core group going forward that focuses on creating events where people can mingle and get to know each other. I heard a lot of good ideas and if I am lucky enough to return, will take this on as Next Generation a mission.” —from a convenor of the first Maine workshop.

The introductory workshop has generated much interest in states where it has been held, and more states are considering bringing it to their legislatures. Additional modules have been developed that are aimed at the particular interests of skill development identified by the workshop participants. These include value-based negotiating skills training, conflict management tools, advanced inquiry skills and improv games for problem solving. 

Much of the The National Institute for Civil Discourse’s work with state legislators has been developed with the thought in mind that states are the training ground for our national political leaders. More than 50 percent of our U.S. representatives and senators come from state houses around the country. The Next Generation program for legislators will continue to develop modules for in-state workshops and provide the network of trained legislators to move up to the next level of service. Armed with the tools of effective communication skills and a stronger sense of finding common ground, this new generation of national leaders will be well positioned to help change the dysfunctional culture found today in Congress.

As some observers watch the unfolding of this effort, expressing skepticism and concern that the process is meant to eliminate strong partisan political beliefs and can lead to participants finding challenges for their seats from the extremes in their parties, more and more pressure is coming from the public and the press to find ways to find common ground and solve the difficult problems facing our states and nation. 

“Finally, some Ohio politicians are talking about creating civility, instead of practicing incivility” —editorial from the August 27, 2013 issue of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.