Wisconsin's Political Debate Will Get Loud. Here's How To Turn Down The Volume & Be More Thoughtful

Feb 21, 2020

Katherine Wilson recalls the story with a smile. After a Zeidler Group event on criminal justice, a man approached her and said he'd been shocked to learn that he had been sitting with the “enemy” the whole time and didn't realize it.

“ ‘We really connected in terms of understanding where we were coming from and agreeing on different solutions for criminal justice reform,’ ” Wilson said, quoting the man. “ ‘At the end, we ended up all going around the table and identifying our political affiliations … and I was shocked that all along I had been sitting with the enemy. This has helped me understand that I need to give this idea of reaching across the divide another chance.’ “That stood out to me," Wilson said. "The surprise that he could talk to one of those people. That’s an example of the kind of aha moment we see.”

The Zeidler Group, a Milwaukee nonprofit, specializes in helping people who disagree have thoughtful discussions. The group has worked across the community to promote dialogue of all sorts, including discussions between the Milwaukee Police Department and residents, on sexuality and mental health, and on faith issues.

When the goal of a discussion is dialogue — rather than debate — people tend to listen more intentionally, Wilson says.

With that in mind, the Ideas Lab is partnering with Zeidler and WUWM-FM (89.7), Milwaukee’s NPR, to produce a series of “listening circle” events this election year aimed at improving dialogue about issues people in the community say they care most about. Click to read more about Listen MKE.

A "listening circle" in action. The discussion at each table is moderated by a facilitator trained by Zeidler Group. This discussion occurred at a 2018 event cosponsored by the Journal Sentinel, Zeidler, WUWM and the Millennial Action Project.
Credit Millennial Action Project

The first in the Wisconsin 2020 Dialogue Series will be at 6 p.m. Feb. 25 at Good City Brewing, 2108 N. Farwell Ave. The topic: An $87 million tax hike requested by Milwaukee Public Schools.

We'll select topics for future events series based on feedback we receive from the public. You can tell us what you think by filling out the online form at the end of this article — or by emailing me.

As you think about this, please consider this question:

What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for your vote?

During these events, participants will break into small groups for facilitated discussion that encourages active listening. Discussions like that can help participants understand their opponents’ perspectives — but also their own ideas. Research shows that when different groups interact, they are less likely to be prejudiced against one another.

Katherine Wilson is executive director of the Zeidler Group in Milwaukee.
Credit Zeidler Group

Wilson isn’t anti-debate, but she is clear about the differences between debate and dialogue. A student of genocide — she earned her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2013 — she sees language in American political discourse today that is similar to what was used in the past in conflict zones around the world. There is the same tendency to marginalize, dehumanize and withdraw from "those" people.

Here’s an edited interview with Wilson about the listening circle approach and why she thinks it works, particularly in a politically fraught moment:

American political debate has always been rough and tumble. What’s the big deal?

I think the toxic environment of Democrats vs. Republicans that we have really encourages violence, dehumanization and polarization because there is such a divide. The best kinds of politics are those that listen across party lines. I think that’s what Frank Zeidler was known for … listening and having friendships across party lines.”

(Zeidler, the organization’s namesake, was Milwaukee's last Socialist mayor, serving from 1948 to 1960. He died in 2006).

What’s the difference between dialogue and debate?

In debate, you’re looking to refute. In dialogue, you’re looking to understand other peoples’ perspectives and even to understand your own perspective better.

You become less attached to your group label in dialogue — it becomes more nuanced. Dialogue is about valuing uncertainty and allowing for uncertainty within your own position. Dialogue builds greater understanding and allows you to explore complexities. In dialogue, you are encouraged to speak as an individual who might identify as a member of a group but who is not speaking as a representative of that whole group.

What will happen at the Feb. 25 event?

The evening will begin with a 30-minute interview of Rob Henken and Anne Chapman of the Wisconsin Policy Forum. The Forum has studied MPS finances for years and Henken, Chapman and colleague Jason Stein recently wrote a primer on the financial issues that have led MPS to this point.

After the interview, participants will break into small groups. Participants have been vetted ahead of time to ensure a range of political viewpoints and that each broad geographic area of the city is represented.

Each table will be lead by a Zeidler-trained professional facilitator.

In this 2018 photo, participants in the "Across the Red & Blue Divide" event at Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery discussed ways that the two main political parties could work together at the state level in the wake of the midterm elections. That event was co-sponsored by the Ideas Lab, WUWM, Zeidler and Millennial Action Project.
Credit David D. Haynes / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

What do facilitators do?

The facilitators are trained professionals who know how to lead people through dialogue and de-escalate when necessary. They are not participants. They are not there to preach or teach. They are there to help people communicate well.

Facilitators hold participants to 'agreements.' What are agreements?

We use communications agreements. We don’t call them rules. They help keep people from devolving into attacks and debate. Those agreements, and the facilitators who are reminding people of their agreements, help avoid some of the things that lead to toxic communication — name-calling, insults — but also speaking for all people of a single group.

What good is dialogue if it doesn’t lead to action?

People always talk about a dichotomy between talk and action. You hear people say, "We need less talk and more action." We define dialogue as talk in action. It’s not just empty debate or impassioned phrases.

Why does dialogue need to come before taking action?

Pushing for solutions before people feel heard and listened to doesn’t work. That kind of action can be destructive — when people are about us without us and doing all these things without building trust in advance. We define the action as trust-building, deep listening, relationship building. … When action is done before dialogue, people end up feeling not heard, they feel like those actions don’t pertain to them, and that can be a deep form of disrespect.

"Listening circles" are often the centerpiece of public discussions led by the Zeidler Group. Participants are vetted ahead of time to ensure that there is a good mix of left-leaning, right-leaning and independents in the room — and at each table. This photo is from a 2018 event co-sponsored by the Ideas Lab, WUWM, Zeidler and Millennial Action Project.
Credit David D. Haynes/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

How do you know that the listening circles form of dialogue works?

If our goals are deeper trust-building and humanization across differences, we’ve been able to measure that. We’ve seen quantitative increases in trust and decreases in polarization through the process of dialogue. Those are our goals. We’re not driving for any particular outcome.

In police and community listening circles, sometimes we had over a 50% increase. … In any single dialogue, if we can get a 10% increase, to us, that’s moving the needle.

(Zeidler measures trust by asking people to say on a scale of 1-10 whether they “strongly agree” or “strongly disagree” to  questions such as: “I respect people who disagree with my political views” or “Intelligent people may hold different political views from me.”)

What worries you about the way we talk to one another in the U.S.?

I came from rural Wisconsin surrounded by staunch Republicans and now am working in inner-city Milwaukee surrounded by staunch Democrats. And the language they use is very, very similar. ... To me that (idea) — wouldn’t it be great if all those idiot monsters would go away — I’m very sensitive to that kind of language. … And so the questions are: How do we help people manage the discomfort of differences along identity lines? Especially when some of these identities aren’t going to change. Outside of politics, we have a race problem in Milwaukee, and race isn’t going to change! So how do we get along with one another? How do we build community across these differences when the differences are not going to change? 

What’s the payoff for doing this work?

Relationship building across divisions is essential work. Huge projects fail because people aren’t asked and heard. You can have laws on the books that aren’t followed because people aren’t moved or understand what is being put forward. You have to have changes in minds and hearts — along with policy. It’s very easy to discount this kind of work but I see it as essential.

What do you want to know about the 2020 elections and the DNC convention? Submit your questions below.

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