For Janet Ayres, the key to understanding someone’s opinions on issues that are drastically different from ours and leave us shaking our head in bewilderment is in closing the gap between “up here” and “down here.”
Sitting in her office in the Krannert Building on the Purdue University campus, she explains with both hands outstretched, her right hand 2 feet directly above her left: “When our emotions are up here,” she says, shaking her right hand to draw attention to it, “our reasoning is down here,” she adds while jiggling the left.
Such is the challenge for Ayres, a professor of agricultural economics and Extension specialist in community leadership development, when she teaches government employees and members of community and advocacy groups how to work productively toward consensus on public issues that sharply divide them.
Ayres’ workshops help people to better understand their differences, which often arise from differences in personal values.
Emotions Often “Like a Tornado”
Two men on opposite sides of a lawsuit involving logging on state property attended a three-day Natural Resources Leadership Development Institute workshop Ayres led, each telling her separately during the first day how much he disliked—even despised—the other. With the two creating tension at the workshop, Ayres took the bold step of making them room together the second night. Some wondered if that was a good idea.
“People said, ‘They’re going to kill each other,’” Ayres said.
The next day during the closing ceremony, she saw the two embrace. Ayres said their relationship grew to where they could “separate the issue from the person,” a necessary step toward being able to talk to each other with a civil tongue.
“It didn’t change the dynamics of how they viewed the issue,” she said, “but they were able to communicate.”
Ayres likened unchecked emotions to a whirlwind that gradually stirs up hatred and distrust.
“It’s like a tornado, which starts from little gusts of wind,” she said. “But they create so much damage.”
About 200 people have “graduated” from the program since Ayres of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Bill Hoover of the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources started it in 2003, funded in part by a grant from the Renewable Resources Extension Act.
Attending that first workshop were environmental advocates and a forester. The training they received in conflict management helped them to better appreciate the opposing views in forestry issues such as logging, said Martha Clark Mettler, deputy assistant commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s Office of Water Quality, who was part of the group.
“It was an opportunity to see different perspectives,” she said. The lesson, she added, was that “we really might not be so far apart if we understand each other.”
She considered the program so valuable that she had some of her staff enroll.