Use Discussion Groups to Foster Productive Political Conversations

Showalter_use_discussion_groups_to_foster_productive_political_conversations March 15, 2022 By: Amy Showalter

When association members take hyperpartisan stances, your advocacy efforts suffer. Government relations professionals can help members navigate partisan concerns, talk productively about issues, and stay involved in the organization’s policy work.

Super-charged political polarization isn’t new. It just seems so because many media outlets have provided forums for theatrically dysfunctional political discussions. What is relatively new is that some association members who previously were loyal advocates for their association’s policy positions have now mitigated or abdicated their engagement because of their personal political values. This behavior has consequences for an association’s government relations programs and legislative agenda.

Our research with a variety of organizations reveals that there are advocates and association members who exhibit political maturity and those who cling to personal politics disguised as association interests. The latter group is usually more vocal and negative, and negative communications weigh much more heavily on people than positive interactions, resulting in a form of organizational e-coli.

According to government relations professionals in a variety of sectors, common hyperpartisan behaviors among association members include:

  • making derogatory comments on their association’s private online platforms to fellow members (and staff) who hold differing political views
  • becoming radioactive to legislators due to vitriolic online commentary
  • refusing to meet with legislators whom they disagree with on non-association issues
  • ceasing participation in advocacy on behalf of the association
  • reducing the amount or frequency of contributions to their association PAC or refusing to contribute due to the PAC’s contributions to one or more controversial lawmakers
  • dropping PAC memberships

All of this can accumulate into your very own advocacy apocalypse. But there’s hope.

Guided Discussion

Association government relations professionals routinely work with people of opposing political parties and who hold different political philosophies. They have, to paraphrase Liam Neeson in the movie Taken, “A very particular set of skills.” GR professionals are uniquely positioned to guide association members toward more civil, thoughtful, and productive political engagement and discussions.

Member political viewpoints are a form of diversity. Talking politics isn’t bad. The problem is that most of your members don’t know how to do it without assuming those who disagree with them are ignorant or devoid of a moral compass.

One way to encourage focused and productive political conversations is to form member groups where they can occur with facilitation by experienced GR professionals. The goal should never be to change a fellow member’s mind on an issue or candidate, but to elevate their thinking and discussions on political topics. When structured properly, goals and benefits of these groups include:

  • Inclusivity. People with different backgrounds and experiences share their views, and that's an element of inclusion.
  • Critical thinking skills. Facilitators can teach members to recognize specious arguments, misrepresentation of evidence or data, and logical fallacies.
  • Improved media discernment. Can your members recognize opinion journalism from objective journalism? These discussions can help members better assess the media they consume.
  • Mitigation of negative assumptions. Assuming that someone with different political beliefs is somehow intellectually or morally deficient ends the conversation before it begins. Facilitators can help members recognize and reconsider these biases.
  • Leadership development. Association members who develop the skills to engage in and even lead these types of discussions can bring these new skills to other association initiatives.

Here’s a checklist to help you create political discussion groups that educate, include, and unite association members. Effective groups must have:

  • Group peer leaders who are politically diverse. Authority figures can dampen candid exchanges.
  • Face-to-face (or video) interaction that facilitates conversations in real time.
  • Voluntary participation. Mandating engagement may convey promotion of a political philosophy.
  • Group goals and structure with discussion topics, reading materials, and guidelines for engagement.
  • Group evaluation and recalibration. Consistently obtaining feedback from group members is essential to improving future group discussions and outcomes.

Politically engaged and aware association members are a good thing. Instead of trying to cancel these conversations, organizational leaders should creatively and proactively promote productive and respectful discussions within the context of association concerns and relationships.

Amy Showalter

Amy Showalter is president of The Showalter Group in Cincinnati and a member of ASAE’s Government Relations and Advocacy Professionals Advisory Council.