Engagement in the Age of “Truth Decay”

Polarization. Confirmation bias. Fake news.

What does it mean to be a neutral, third-party engagement practitioner and facilitator in the modern environment of declining trust in officials and institutions and rising credence in social influencers and click bait?

This important question was explored at “Prevent Truth Decay”, one of the many excellent workshops and learning sessions at the iap2 North American Conference, held Sept. 5-7 in Victoria. Session presenters and American public policy mediators Sam Imperati and Devin Howington outlined the Rand Corporation’s research on the trends, drivers and consequences of Truth Decay, and offered session participants a number of tools to help “make the truth stick” for our stakeholders, clients and project sponsors.

In addition to offering some tangible tools I’m looking forward to trying, this session posed some challenging questions that still have me pondering:

  • What’s your definition of “fact”? Turns out there are a few out there, and – surprise – they can be subjective. (“Alternative facts” anyone?)
  • Is there a distinction between “fact” and “truth”? If so, what’s the difference?
  • As engagement practitioners, do we have an obligation to help stakeholders find the truth, or are we only obligated to capture their “truth”?
  • Are we influencing our stakeholders with our engagement-related communications?
  • Whose facts are privileged?

There are no easy answers here, but perhaps some fuel for interesting, deep conversations with colleagues or even around the dinner table.

As for the tools for preventing truth decay, here are a few of the nuggets I’m taking away from this conference session:

  • Draw on the knowledge of cognitive psychology and learn about how people evaluate the truth of a statement. For example, did you know that “assess general acceptance by others” comes before “gauge the amount of supporting evidence”? Apply this knowledge in your engagement, communications and session planning.
  • Make the true information as easy as possible to understand.
  • Remind people their beliefs are not them. Help participants decouple their beliefs with their identity.
  • Allow people to change their minds. Help normalize changing minds within a group. Offer the mind an excuse or an “out”. For example, in the face of new information, help people to see that the previous belief was reasonable and “right”, given the information that was known then. But now that the underlying facts have changed, so should the mind.

I’ve seen this last one in action, and it’s both simple and powerful. At the first meeting of an advisory committee, we were discussing our operating values (a.k.a. ground rules; rules of engagement) and a committee member suggested: “It’s okay to change our minds”. The group agreed to add this to the operating values, and so we started each meeting with this reminder. While I can’t say for sure it was the influence of that value, the committee members remained open to each other’s perspectives and a consensus was reached.

No doubt we as engagement practitioners and facilitators will continue to face challenges related to facts vs. opinions, providing information vs. allowing participants to share their truth, and increasing skepticism and distrust in the officials and institutions sponsoring our engagements.

As my conference colleagues pointed out in our small-group discussion, in addition to these tools and suggestions we must proceed in all our work with transparency, accountability, equity and, I would add, compassion, openness and authenticity. And, to pull a piece of wisdom from a different conference session, with the acceptance that it won’t be perfect!

1 reply
  1. Richard Delaney
    Richard Delaney says:

    As engagement facilitators of public policy, goods and benefits I believe this is the issue of our time. People are so cynical they tend to engage with the assumption the process is rigged (distrust of public authority) or they simply refuse to engage the process and seek to undermine it from outside.

    As a co-facilitator with Jennifer in the project she mentions I would like to add three important aspects of design that contributed to our success (iap2 Project of the Year runner up). Aside of course from the wonderful clients who were willing to try something different, apologize for past errors and be vulnerable with their stakeholders.

    #1 – Empathy: The notion that peoples’ reality is formed by what they believe is hugely important, even if what they believe is not based in fact (truth or evidence). That is just “where they are at” and it needs to be respected. Respect and the empathy shown is a starting place for a meaningful discussion. After all, we need to consider the billions of dollars that all kind of political, corporate and NGO interest groups and spend each year on mis-information. It is no wonder people arrive at their positions with less than factual information. So “acceptance” and “respect” for the individual, as opposed to their viewpoint is the starting place.

    #2 – Representation: At Delaney we say the negatively impacted stakeholders recruit themselves. The hardest stakeholders to recruit are the ones who believe they are positively impacted and have nothing to lose. This is how good public policy initiatives get watered down. When all the people in the room or online believe they will be the decision losers it will be a very long night. A diversity of perspectives is paramount to productive conversations. If we don’t have all voices represented then the facilitator risks voicing the alternative perspective and there goes neutrality. When we do our impact analysis for stakeholder mapping it is important to identify positive and negative impacts.

    #3 Listening: In the project that Jen mentions we did include an operating value that says we are free to change our minds and we also include an opening discussion about “active listening”. We told the hundreds of participants that attended the emotional charged conversations they have several roles. Aside from civility, voicing their perspectives and being solutions oriented, they were to listen from the heart and confirm with the speaker what they heard. It’s not just a question of changing minds to get consensus, the heart needs to lead the way.


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