Two reasons that people find it difficult to work on shared problems are that the way they are talked about obscures their nature, and an assumed course of action is implied even though there is not broad agreement on either.
When developing materials for people to deliberate together on shared problems, we try to mitigate those reasons by finding a way of stating it such that almost all would agree that it is indeed a problem that we must talk about in order to decide what to do. Such a shared problem might also be called an issue. The challenge is to determine and state what is at issue in a public way.
In order to develop these ideas, we start by listening to people’s concerns about the general topic. What people say when talking about what concerns them can give a window into what it is they feel is most valuable, and that they feel is at stake. Listening closely, and making sense of what is said, can help zero in on the issue.
Concerns about the economy – a broad topic — provide one example.
Many express worry over how well the economy is working for people. That is an abstract way of putting it, and the way it shows up in ordinary speech might be something like “The rich get richer and working people have it harder and harder.” This sounds clear, but even this plain language obscures a number of embedded issues.
Consider this (literal) napkin drawing that was sketched in a recent informal conversation by people thinking about the topic. The axes are amount of wealth (vertical) and time (horizontal). The graph shows the wealthy (top line) earning more and more, poorer people (bottom line) earning less and less, with the amount needed to just get by in between them (dotted middle line).
Different aspects of this set of facts trouble people in different ways, expressed as basic concerns. This is shown by the circled numbers:
- The rich make much too much
- The vast difference in income between the rich and the rest is unfair
- Working people make less and less each year
- More and more people don’t make enough to get by
- The rich make too much more than they need
Any one of these ideas may be in play when someone says they are worried about “economic inequality” or “economic opportunity.” (And of course there may be other embedded concerns.)
Keeping these different concerns conceptually distinct is important in developing a clear statement of what is at issue. Different concerns will suggest different underlying problems, and different remedies, some strikingly so.
The challenge is to find a way of stating the shared problem – the issue — such that most all can see their interest reflected in it. Too often, when it comes to the economy, the dominant political discourse takes one of the specific concerns above, and treats that as the whole issue.