Embracing Emotion Without Derailing Dialogue

Sue Cass, PublicEngagement

Pascal wrote, “The heart has reasons that the mind knows not of.” As human beings, we are emotional. We are passionate about all kinds of topics and therefore when we discuss policy and science and technology, we do so with our hearts as well as our brains . So trying to take out emotion and passion in public engagement, is not only impossible, it can also be counterproductive in the end. After all, emotions often arise because the issue touches on our values and to be sustainable, decisions need to consider alignment with values. So how can we allow room at the table for emotion without letting it overwhelm or derail the dialogue?

Often, we want to engage the public – but we don’t want to engage their emotions. Emotions can be messy! We try to minimize emotion, neutralize outrage, and control consent, but how do we do this when people are committed to an issue and very affected by its presence in their community?

For instance, Climate change is an issue that people are passionate or angry or scared about. In “Risk Communication, Public Engagement, and Climate Change: A Role for Emotions,” Sabine Roeser writes that “emotions are generally excluded from communication and political decision-making about risky technologies and climate change, or they are used instrumentally to create support for a position.” However, she adds, emotions may be the “missing link in effective communication,” and finally concludes that emotions are necessary for understanding the moral impact of risks of climate change, and provide motivation for people to change. We cannot and should not divorce feeling from societal issues like this, otherwise we may never achieve any action.

Neuroscientist Antonia Damasio writes in his seminal work on the subject, Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, “The action of biological drives, body states and emotions may be an indispensable foundation for rationality.” That is, emotions are not in conflict with rationality, but rather support it. In turn, emotions can support rational dialogue on complex societal issues if and when we engage emotional intelligence.

We have to validate the role of emotions in engagement processes, as part of moving towards a durable solution. Divorcing our emotions from discussions on climate change, on projects affecting our communities and/or livelihoods, on initiatives that could impact our health or access to care – is not effective or productive. These issues are fundamentally “emotional.” When we recognize the role of emotions and validate feelings, we can open the door for that rational, productive discussion.

We are feeling beings; we are thinking beings. But we’re often both at the same time! Effective public engagement requires that we address communities holistically. There is room for emotion. There has to be.

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