Art of public engagement: Rational thinking

Published in the December 2015/January 2016 issue

by Lee Nellis, FAICP, Wapiti, Wyoming

I am not the only one talking about how we can communicate through the veils of ideology and, specifically, about the research of Dan Kahan. I picked up the July/August edition of Discover magazine to read an article about Genghis Khan but found Christie Aschwanden’s article, “A User’s Guide to Rational Thinking.”

One must be wary of the word “rational,” of course. Last time, I wrote about Kahan’s observation that what makes sense - which is to say, what is rational - for a person depends on that person’s social context. Even this column has provided an example. Readers may recall my exchange with a planning commissioner who asked why she should ever have a conversation with anyone who did not share her view of property rights. Truly, and it confirms what Kahan’s data show: That a rational person will not spend his or her limited time and energy seeking out contrary opinions. From a personal perspective, it is (or at least seems) best to stay within the comfort zone of one’s family, friends, and favorite political pundits. But as Kahan also points out (and experienced planners know), what works for an individual in the short run may not work at all for the larger community in the long run.

Aschwanden’s article offers concise, useful advice that is rooted in the work of Kahan and other researchers. Professional planners can read it as a reminder of techniques they [should] know.

At the End of Technique: A Question for Readers

Aschwanden offers readers only “a fighting chance” that the techniques she recommends will work. And most WP readers already know that there are limits to the collaborative approach to communication, no matter how well the issues are framed, no matter how well the process is managed

Property rights have receded from the national news but are not far behind gun rights on the list of topics about which ideological attachments can override all efforts at productive conversation. And when the conversation ends, we have reached the end of the technique, the end of what planners can do to help communities reach a working consensus.

Stalwart decision makers sometimes proceed through the emotional storm that so often surrounds progressive planning and land use regulation. But even where the community interest carries the day, the controversy only subsides. If we want to build sustainable (there’s another word that carries plenty of ideological baggage) communities, we’re going to have to change some peoples’ minds and behavior.

So I ask you to help me out here: Can you offer examples of when the planning process did, in fact, change some minds? How did that happen? I look forward to hearing your stories! I have reduced my email addresses to just one. Send your examples to Thanks!

Lee Nellis, FAICP, is a pioneer of planning in the rural West, starting his career in Wyoming in 1974.

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