Nearly half of Americans from both sides of the political spectrum voiced “antipathy,” or deep dislike, for people who don’t share their ideological views in a recent PEW Research Center survey. So, in an age of rampant partisanship, how do we bridge deep divisions to identify shared values and priorities that transcend policy positions? The answer is engagement.

Effective public engagement in civic projects is a step-by-step process, and online engagement tools play a critical role. It begins by learning what matters to people with differing perspectives and beliefs at the individual level. It continues with identifying shared priorities and beliefs among the community. And it culminates with that input being used to craft solutions to challenges that align with the community’s shared goals.

Engaging the Individual Before Engaging the Community

Look around any large, unstructured public meeting and you’ll see lots of disengaged people in the audience. These unstructured settings allow vocal individuals or groups to dominate conversations, and they set the stage for debates that widen the partisan divide.

John Corliss, the vice president of PEER Consultants, deploys an effective strategy to cut through the static of in-person meetings. He arranges meetings into individual stations, which enables people to learn about specific elements of a project and provide feedback. Corliss also centers the meetings on shared culture — things like food and music — to help avoid culture shock and to help find common ground among different groups of people.

"Get beyond the idea of fighting each other, and get people talking to each other, and it’s easier when you are talking about food and music,” Corliss says. "First, understand each other, and then get to understanding these problems.”

Using the structured stations sets the stage for a more comprehensive process. The stations work to quickly identify shared values and visions for the future. This common understanding is further refined in a series of workshops with small group meetings to develop ideas. The final step is to return to a large group setting to validate the small group meetings and give input on priorities.

Not everyone is willing or able to participate in this kind of comprehensive process in person. To ensure more representative input, Corliss incorporates “an online experience during each step that matches the in-person opportunities to participate.”

A strength of combining highly structured online tools like IdeaMapr with this comprehensive multi step in person process is that it is easier to involve larger more diverse number of people in each step of the process. Intimate small group discussions that focus on specific challenges can be opened up to larger input and remote participation without losing focus.

Breaking Through Groupthink to Advance Engagement

In-person meetings with leaders of community groups and organizations can help assess the general views of larger membership bases before a community dialogue. There’s always risk, however, that leaders don’t fully understand or accurately convey the views of individual group members.

Robyn Arthur, the public involvement director at infrastructure solutions firm HNTB, notes that organizations change over time, and, as those changes occur, engagement can fall off, creating disconnects between group members and leaders.

Corliss says that overcoming the limitations of groupthink is a challenge. After all, group leaders and government officials “think that they came from the community and know the community —they may not want to admit that there are things that they don't know.”

To overcome this, Arthur “evangelizes engagement” within organizations early in the engagement process. Online tools can also help organizational leaders take a structured approach to engaging and understanding their members before community discussions begin.

IdeaMapr enables group leaders to forward shareable links to online engagement tools to members. These tools can quickly identify shared priorities, and results can be quickly summarized in engagement summaries for group presentations. Group members are often surprised by how often the individual priorities and goals of members intersect.

Overcoming the Expert Mentality to Prepare for Engagement

People don’t like experts telling them what’s best for them. Online engagement tools can play a critical role in overcoming the public’s sense that their views of a civic project haven’t been heard, which fuels disengagement and deepens partisan divides.

Arthur’s message to individuals and organizations is that their voice is important, and, “We are trying to help you make a better decision and not take the decision away from you."

Online tools like surveys, online meetings, webinars, and question-and-answer sessions can create a positive public view of engagement before a larger community dialogue begins. Then, once larger community discussions are held, data points can be used to objectively demonstrate shared priorities. This is especially helpful in politically dicey situations.

“People are controversy averse,” Arthur says. “They don't want to start anything, but when they see that these forums don't create outrage then they are more apt to use (the online tools)."

Setting the stage for effective engagement, John Corliss adds, helps navigate politically sensitive issues because letting people with differing views speak “undermines the politics of the situation.”

Online engagement tools can also be used to track who attends meetings, how their views change over time and how their feedback aligns with the larger community. These tools objectively demonstrate that people with differing views were heard, and it helps quantify the overall impact of community engagement.

View expressed in article are the professional opinions of the practitioners who participated and their participation in this article is not an endorsement of the IdeaMapr Engagement Tool