Good political deliberation involves listening and empathy, a rare beast it seems

There is a good commentary piece in the Age today about the perils of political communication and the tendency for people (and I mean all of us) to interpret what we are reading or listening to from our own particular perspective, rather than trying to understand what it is that the other person is actually trying to communicate. This happens all the time, particularly it seems, when it comes to online interactions, which, according to the American scholar Cass Sunstein, is particularly prone to ‘enclave thinking’. This involves people not only looking at information using a very narrow lens, but also a tendency to seek out information that supports our pre-existing view.

Even more problematic is the tendency for people to harden their positions, particularly as the evidence stacks up against it, particularly where views are relatively extreme. (This particularly seems to be the case for climate change.)

Apart from a few exceptions, our experience with small group deliberation is that these tendencies seem to disspate as the process moves on. But not always. The key seems to be ┬átaking the time to establish relationships within the group so that they see their task as finding a solution to a common problem together, rather than arguing their particular view (this is not to say that they should end up agreeing, but that’s for another post). The American scholar Shaun Rosenberg refers to something similar to this phenomenon in identifying the importance of emotion and empathy in deliberation. Deliberation doesn’t just involve dealing with facts, it also involves dealing with emotions. The ends we should be striving to meet, the impact of our decisions on affected others etc are all important considerations that come to play. And unless there is identification with the needs of others, then there is effectively no deliberation, there is merely a market of ideas.

When this kind of group identity occurs participants usually express considerable satisfaction, if not genuine joy, in respect to their experience. And this is despite the enormous effort that they have put into working through the issue over the space of a number of days. Those who do not engage in this mode tend not express satisfaction — to say the least, in some cases.

Just why, when and how the formation of group identity and willingness to properly engage with other perspectives in deliberation occurs is something we are currently researching. An important question concerns whether it is possible to achieve this kind of outcome in the wider public. That’s something we will be working on over the new few years.

Simon Niemeyer is a research fellow with the Political Science Program, RSSS, with research interests spanning deliberative democracy (preference transformation, institutionalisation), environmental governance, and adaptation to and mitigation of climate change. He was one of the first in the field of deliberative democracy to systematically examine the processes of preference transformation of individuals participating in democratic discourse. His research findings challenge a number of assumptions regarding how deliberation works in practice, which have significantly contributed to deliberative theory.