Reframe community proposals to reduce conflict

Many communities promote conflict by how they present an issue to the public. Decrease conflict using this simple strategy.

A public hearing notice to the community says, “Should we raise taxes to support a larger sheriff department?” The residents who attend the meeting go because they are for or against the proposal.

The way this proposal is stated promotes polarization. Residents are incited to take a position about whether or not they agree with increasing taxes to support additional services for the sheriff department.

Consider if the question was reframed to promote open-ended responses. For instance, “How can we support a larger sheriff department, while at the same time maintain our tax base?”  By removing “should” and replacing it with “how”, the proposal encourages broader responses around interests, not just positions. Once similar interests are ascertained, it is much easier to reach a solution that appeals to a larger number of people and eliminates the initial conflict inherent with close-ended proposals.

Additional examples of close-ended proposals that could encourage polarized responses:

  • Should a millage be proposed to fund a senior citizen complex?
  • Should we extend the contract for our food service provider?
  • Should we prohibit campers from bringing their own firewood into the campground?

Reframed as open-ended questions, the above proposals might read:

  • How can we fund adequate senior housing for our growing senior citizen population? 
  • How can we continue to deliver quality food to our students? 
  • How can we eliminate the transfer of invasive pests and diseases from other areas when campers transport potentially infected firewood into state campgrounds?

Reframing a proposal provides opportunities to generate many diverse ideas. It keeps the focus more on interests and less on positions. Most importantly, it reduces the initial conflict apparent at public meetings called to debate a close-ended proposal.

Reframing, however, is not a magic bullet. Ultimately, decisions still have to be made. Nonetheless, by asking stakeholders “how” an issue can be addressed offers them an opportunity for deliberative dialogue, providing decision-makers with meaningful public input, less conflict and more ideas for a supported outcome.

Michigan State University Extension offers a variety of conflict resolution and facilitation workshops. 

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