On the role of feelings and emotions in the Planning Discourse Support SystemPosted: February 9, 2015
A Fog Island Tavern discussion
Sjutusensjuhundreochsytti-sju jäklar, beim heiligen Kyrill von Drögenpütt!
– Bog-Hubert, you’ve got to quit drinking that Slovenian stuff, it makes you cuss in incomprehensible Balkan dialects. I can’t even tell whether I should kick you out of here for inappropriate language.
– Ah, Vodçek, pour me another one. It’s actually some kind of Swedish and German this time. I think.
– Cross-cultural cussing, oh my. What in the world gets you so upset? Anything in your notebook that would have made you rich if you’d thought of it a week ago?
– Huh? You’re confusifying me. No, it’s Abbé Boulah.
– Good grief. What’s he done now?
– It’s not what he’s done but what he hasn’t.
– Well, aren’t we all guilty of some of that sin. I should have paid my utility bill several days ago. But explain.
– Well, you know how he and his buddy have been working on this scheme for a planning discourse support system. On the basis of the old Argumentative Model of Planning, you remember?
– Do I remember? Your ramblings about that one have kept me up beyond too many last calls I care to count. But isn’t it actually a good idea, basically? What’s wrong with it now?
– Well, we are all still working on straightening out some details. But Abbé Boulah and his buddy won’t get moving on those problems. I don’t know whether it’s because they don’t think they are serious enough to fix, or because they don’t know how.
– What problems?
– It’s this misunderstanding that some people have about the argumentative model — that it’s ‘too rational’ and doesn’t allow for feelings and emotions. So in a few of the first application experiments, the people didn’t even get started on working with it. Well, Abbé Boulah and his buddy are insisting that the model allows for any subject and concern to be brought up in the discussion — as Rittel said, anything can be dealt with as questions and arguments and answers, it’s the most general framework anybody has come up with. So they won’t change anything about the basic concept.
– And you think that those critics are right? That the argumentative model does not — how do they put it — accommodate feelings and emotions?
– They are right! Some people are just put off or intimidated by the pretense of logic and rationality of the term ‘argumentative model’, and ignores emotions.
– Huh, Sophie, good morning. You’ve got a point there. I don’t care whether they are right or wrong. The fact that they are put off by what they think it is when they hear ‘argumentative model’ is the problem. It’s real. So I think that needs to be dealt with, somehow.
– I agree. But what do you think they should do? Let’s assume those folks are right. That feelings and emotions should play some significant role in planning discussions. Why do they think that?
– Some people are mentioning recent research that seems to show that when people make decisions, the regions in the brain that deal with emotions are showing significant activity some time — they are talking about fractions of seconds — before the thinking and reasoning areas of the brain are signaling that a decision has been made. So they conclude that the emotional side has actually made the decision before the thinking part has, or processed the reasons for it.
– Hmm. So what are they saying: because the emotions are calling the shots, the decision is better than what the reasoning part would have come up with?
– I don’t know if they actually believe or are claiming that. Though it does sound like it when they come up with that old bit of ‘going with your gut feelings’. And I don’t really care about that either…
– Wait: isn’t there some good explanation for that? That there may be some piece of information about the situation that the brain has picked up only in the subconscious — some rustling in the forest that the ears have barely registered — but the conscious brain hasn’t yet interpreted and processed yet? But the unconscious has produced the gut feeling that there may be a dangerous predator sneaking up on you? That seems like a very good reason to pay attention to that gut feeling, don’t you think?
– Yes: So why don’t you care about that?
– Sophie, I do care about those feelings. I have gone by my gut feelings many times myself. And it often turned out that they were right — that there actually was a piece of information that called for attention and influenced the decision. But hey, there were also many times when there wasn’t anything to be concerned about. So often that people around me began to think I was overly paranoid. The issue is: how do I know when the gut feeing is right and when it’s not?
– So that’s another reason to care about it, isn’t it?
– Sure. But does that whole issue apply to the problem of planning discourse about public issues? Even if it’s just you and me discussing a plan. My gut feeling says do A, but your gut tells you something else — what should we do about that?
– I see what you are saying. Unless your gut also tells you to hit me over the head – yeah, yeah, for my own protection or good — we need to talk about it.
– Right. It has to be brought out in the discussion. It’s not enough to say ‘my gut tells me to do, or not to do this’ — when there are different gut feeling signals, they need to be made explicit and explored, discussed. And for large public issues, there is even a legitimate question, in Abbé Boulah’s opinion, whether individual people’s feelings should play a role in the decisions. Not that he says that they shouldn’t be voiced if participants in the discussion feel they are important — but merely private, individual feelings without explanation should not be allowed to determine decisions that affect many people over a long time.
– You don’t agree with that?
– I think there is a case to be made that people who insist that feelings should play a role even in decisions about large scale plans, should offer some evidence that their feelings are shared by a significant number of other people. But in principle: aren’t plans and planning discussions meant to produce solutions that people agree with? That they like, and feel good about? Future situations of their lives that they expect will be emotionally satisfactory? Help their pursuit of happiness?
– I can’t disagree with that, Sophie. But isn’t there a difference between ‘respecting’ someone’s feelings, and accepting them sight unseen as a reason for rejecting or accepting a public decision? So if we accept that emotions should play a role even in large-scale public decisions: what role should they play?
– You mean, other than just being brought up in the discussion and examined?
– Well, yes.
– In other words, it seems you are staying within the assumption that there is, or should be, a discussion. A discourse. And that it consists of questions, issues, and — among other things: arguments? Or do you think you can keep people from arguing in discussions?
– I see, Bog-Hubert. Yes, we are still talking argumentative model. Or what other models are such critics proposing to use as the basis for public planning?
– Alternative models? To my knowledge, they tend to stay silent on that question. At least, I haven’t heard any alternative proposals in those situations. ‘It’s too rational’ or ‘It doesn’t acknowledge emotions’ — that’s usually the end of it. Of course there are a number of other approaches to problem solving and planning. But they don’t engage the issue of argumentation very well either.
– What are those?
– Well Sophie, there is the whole realm of ‘Systems Thinking’ approaches — where the approach is to develop models and diagrams of the ‘whole’ system or problem situation, with all its factors and relationships. Very powerful and useful, if done right, in revealing the complexity of systems and their sometimes counter-intuitive behavior.
– I agree. But?
– Think about it, Vodçek: there is hardly ever any talk about how they get all the information that goes into the models, (other than ‘research’, which may take the form of opinion, ‘user need’ or customer preference surveys or some such tools, usually to early on, to begin the model development work. Nor about how they resolve any disagreements about those assumptions. It simply isn’t talked about. In the finished model diagrams, it seems that all controversies and disagreements are assumed to have been settled.
– True – I have been wondering about that myself. Which means that what the modeler- analysts have settled upon are their own perspectives or prejudices?
– Don’t let them hear such heretical thoughts. To be fair, they are trying; and convinced that their data support those views.
– Well. Let’s just keep the question unsettled for now. Any other approaches? Examples?
– Sure. Just some examples: there are approaches like the ‘Pattern Language’, — you know that one?
– Yes, — the ‘Timeless Way of Building’ books by Alexander? But isn’t that mainly about buildings”
– Yes. Buildings, construction, urban design. In my opinion, that Pattern Language essentially aims at developing a collection of recipes or guidelines — ‘pattern’ sounds a little less than the rules they really are — that guarantee a good solution if they are applied properly, and therefore don’t need to be discussed or evaluated in any formal sense. No discussion or arguments there either.
– So what role do feelings and emotions play in those approaches?
– I guess the same accusation of not accommodating feelings could be raised against many systems models. ‘Stocks and flows’, variables and rates etc. don’t exactly sound like having to do with emotions. Nor does the statistical analysis of data – even when they deal with opinion surveys. Though the systems people would argue like Rittel does for the argumentative model, that if anybody wants to make a model of emotions and what influences those, say, they can do that in the systems vocabulary too.
– And the pattern language?
– The language Alexander developed for building consists of a number of patterns that he and his collaborators found when they looked at places they liked, so they claimed that these patterns solve problems and conflicts inherent in the situation, and make people feel good. ‘If you aren’t using the pattern, you aren’t addressing the problem’ is one of their admonitions. Many of those recipes are quite good, I agree; better than some of the things we see in buildings by other people using different theories, if you can call them that. But he also used the stratagem of the ‘quality without a name’ that can’t be explained. That cuts off the discussion right quickly: nobody wants to be told that ‘if you have to ask, you simply don’t understand it…’
– I see. If you can’t feel it, you are just one of those unfeeling folks…
– And when the patterns are applied, there is no more talk about feelings or emotions, or arguments, pros or cons, either.
– So I take it, we have the same problems with those approaches too? It seems we are back to discussion, discourse, argument, the minute we even begin to examine whether any alternative approach works, and how. So what do you think should be done with the argumentative discourse system you guys are working on, if you are going to stick with it?
– Good question. That’s what I was cussing about. Do you have any suggestions for that problem? Vodçek? Sophie?
– You are asking lil’ ol’ me? Let me think about it. Vodçek looks like he has thought some ideas: Do you, Vodçek?
– Well, if I were bothered by the ‘argumentative’ label – which I’m not, mind you: in my experience around here, it makes people thirsty, you know what I mean? – but if I were, I’d start by changing that label. Isn’t your ‘planning discourse support system’ good enough? Well, it’s a bit long, and doesn’t make a catchy acronym; I’d work on that. And leave the reference to the argumentative model to the academic treatises.
– Okay, that’s just the label, the name. Is that enough to change the reaction of those emotional advocates?
– Maybe not. It might help if the discussion process could be started with some questions that de-emphasize the quarrelsome kind of argument part of the discussion. Starting up with questions about what folks would like to see in the solution or intervention to a problem situation: what would please other groups affected by the situation or potential solutions? What would make them feel good?
– So as to make them focus on things they can agree on right from the start, instead of bickering about proposals they don’t like? Okay: how would you frame that? And how would you keep people from starting out on – of falling into — an adversarial track right from the start? For example, if somebody starts out with some pet proposal of a solution that raises the hackles of everybody else?
– It might take some procedural manipulation, eh?
– Bad idea, if you ask me. Wouldn’t that really aggravate people and get them upset?
– All right. Suppose we start out by agreeing on some sequence beforehand – before any specific proposals are presented, and simply asked what such a proposal would or should look like if it were to make everybody happy? And agree that any ‘preconceived’ solutions be held back until they have been amended and modified with any suggestions brought up in that first phase of discussion?
– I don’t think that any restrictions should be placed on the order or sequence in which people contribute their ideas to the discourse. So whatever is being brought in will have to be accepted and recorded as it comes in. I am assuming a system that is being run not in a meeting, but mainly on some platform with contributions in different media. All entries should be kept as they have been stated, in what we called the ‘Verbatim’ file. But your suggestion could be useful when the material is sorted out and presented in the files and especially maps, structured according to topics and questions or issues. This could be shown in a sequence that encouraged constructive ideas, a gradual building up of solutions towards results that are acceptable to everybody, rather than having a proposal plunked down initially, take-it-or leave-it style, that people have to argue about.
– Sounds like something you should try out.
– Would it help if during that phase, the display of ideas and comments could be kept ‘anonymous’?
– Why, Sophie?
– Well, I have noticed that often, arguments get nasty not because the proposals are bad or controversial, but because of who made them. Jealousy, revenge for past slights, not wanting to give the other guy credit for an idea, or partisanship: ‘anything those guys are proposing we’ll turn down’ – you’ve seen those things, haven’t you?
– Yes, the news media are full of them.
– You don’t seem too excited about that idea. I think it gets in the way of the other provisions of your system – the evaluation part, does it? But you can still run that system of merit points ‘behind the curtain’ of the system, can’t you, so that people don’t evaluate ideas because of who proposed them?
– I guess so. It might actually help the concern somebody mentioned, that the evaluation of contributions could be deliberately skewed because of such personal or partisanship jealousies. Yes, ideas might be rewarded more fairly for their own merit if you don’t know whose they are.
– We’ll see. Sometimes the ideas are so obviously partisan that everybody can guess whose they are.
– Well, back to the issue here: what about feelings and emotions? So far, what you have suggested is aimed more at defusing or minimizing extraneous feelings about other participants than about the problem and solution proposals?
– You are right. Again: there could be nudges, suggestions about how to bring those into the discussion. For example, rather than asking participants to state their feelings or concerns outright, those considerations could be phrased as questions like this: ‘Would the proposed solution detail make people feel … ? And if so, what might be done about that?’
– Are you suggesting a rule about how participants should be wording their comments? What if they don’t?
– No, that’s not what I’m saying. The original ‘verbatim’ record entries are worded in whatever way they choose. I’m talking about how they would be displayed in the maps. But of course, that very feature may lead people to formulate their comments in this way, both less ‘argumentative’ and less personal – as you suggested earlier, in a way that indicates a more common feeling than a purely individual one.
– Hey, this all sounds very nice and friendly and cooperative. Well-intentioned. But are we looking at this in the right way? I mean, can all feelings, all emotions be treated the same way? Aren’t some more, let’s say, more ‘legitimate’ than others?
– Good question. What are all the feelings those do-gooders want the system to accommodate’?
– I think the judgment about whether they are legitimate or not must be left to the people participating in the discussion, don’t you agree? And it may be very different for different cases and situations? But yes, it may be useful to look at various kinds of emotions, to see whether they require different rules. Yeah, yeah: ‘nudges’, I see you’re frowning at the term ‘rule’, Sophie. Is there a rule against it?
– Can we go with ‘encouragements’ for the time being?
– Sure. If it makes you happy…
– We may have to ask some of the people raising this concern about feelings in the discourse, what kinds of feelings they have in mind. For example: I see many papers and blogposts complaining about other people’s resistance to change. Is that an issue we should look into?
– Ah, the current obsession with change. I suspect that’s often just a fad, something all the management consultants have to promote so they can help management push for their particular brand of change in their organizations. The Starbucks syndrome: try to order a straightforward coffee these days – bad boy: You aren’t honoring the change, effort of innovation and increase in choices. As if you couldn’t just mix them up yourself to your own taste if they put out the ingredients. No: You’d get upset – there’s an emotion for you – if the recipe for your plain coffee were changed.
– Hey, calm down, Sophie. Here’s a plain coffee for you. Sumatra. Cream? Sugar? Lemon? Red pepper? Brandy? French? Spanish? For recipes that aren’t on the Starbucks menu yet? But you are right, Bog-Hubert: Resistance to change is a common reaction. And it can be caused by many different emotions. Fear? Irritation over the reduced degree of certainty about the stability of conditions for your own plans? After all, your plans for whatever change or success you pursue are based on some context conditions being predictable and constant, so if those conditions change, you have to hustle and change your plans. Aggravations galore, right? Jealousy? Because the change will reduce your income while increasing that of the ‘change agent’ and other people?
– This all sounds very negative, guys. Aren’t there positive emotions too, that might play a role? Excitement, a sense of adventure, even risk and danger: some people like and thrive on things that elevate their adrenaline levels? Hope? Empathy? Love?
– Hold on, Sophie. You are right, we should consider positive emotions – but isn’t this getting into a whole range of different topics? Attitudes, values, beliefs, habits, personality likes and dislikes? Social pressures and demands. Boredom, curiosity, pride, group affinity and allegiances. Why should a planning discourse platform make special provisions for all of those? Can’t it be left to the people doing the planning in each specific case how they want to deal with such issues?
– I think you are right. But the problem is still that the folks who need to run such discussions or to participate in them don’t see how that is possible in the current version of the approach, the way it is presented. It may boil down to getting the story across, perhaps finding better ways of making people familiar and comfortable with this way of thinking.
– I see where you are headed, Vodçek. Games, am I right?
– Yes. And good examples, stories. But yes, I think games are a good way to familiarize people with new ideas and ways to work together. You remember the weird experiment we did here some time ago – on the bus system issue? I think things like that would help. We should look at that issue again, see if we can develop some different versions, — some simple ones, for kids, and some more advanced ones that can actually be used as entertainment versions of planning and problem-solving tools for real cases. And the issue of how to deal with emotions in those might take the form of trying to make them exciting and fun to play.
– Sounds like a plan… just don’t mention the word ‘argument’?
– Yes. And whenever it does slip into the discussion and people object to it, ask them what other approach they suggest, for developing a better tool? Perhaps they might actually come up with some useful ideas?
– Don’t get your hopes up. They’ll just vote you down.
– Three cheers for the optimist. Yes, I say give them a chance to make some positive and practical contributions. We might learn something. Let’s go to work on it.
Some issues regarding the role of emotions and feelings in the planning discourse