Knowing What We Don’t Know: Dealing with Public Testimony

Knowing What We Don’t Know: Dealing with Public Testimony

She’s professional in demeanor and studiously disciplined in her presentation. I can’t help but admire her clear, thoughtful testimony at the council meeting, a public forum in which, not infrequently, citizens begin angry and end indignant. Not her.

Then, her tone almost unaltered, the intensity of her controlled emotions channeled to the pen she fumbles, she drops the bombshell: she accuses a member of council of sexual harassment.

I believe her.

But not everyone with whom I’ve shared the video sees what I see. Some see a politically motivated character assassination of a public official, well-rehearsed, crafted for maximum impact.

Others remain uncertain what to think.

They are probably the wisest ones.

Human beings interpret current events through the lens of past experiences. For example, many of us watching the September 11 attacks found ourselves comparing what we were seeing to a movie. We’d seen incomprehensible violence and disaster in films. Most of us hadn’t seen anything in any way analogous in real life. So, it was like a movie. That was the experience with which we could frame the event.

That framing may have had an unconsidered effect. The movie frame made those totally abnormal and wicked events seem somewhat familiar. The frame also suggested to us that the events were fictional (many of us struggled to accept that what we saw was real). The ultimate effect may have been to lessen the horror we experienced.

Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe not.

Public leaders, tasked by their office with representing all of the people, must be particularly sensitive to the risk of unconscious framing. There are members of the public we serve whose life experiences are very different from our own. Consequently, the meaning they attach to events, gestures and words may diverge sharply from the meaning we assign to them. The result can be misunderstanding at best, shock and hostility at worst.

When we hear from the public, we must be keenly aware of what we know and what we don’t know.

We don’t know much.

What we know, when a member of the public speaks to us, is just that. We know he or she is speaking. We can hear the words.

Whether the words are truthful or not, we often cannot know in that moment of interaction. Whether the underlying motivation is constructive or destructive of the public good, we almost certainly cannot know.

We may be tempted to fill in the vast void of our ignorance with our personal experiences, framing the interaction with what we have learned in the past. If we treat our frame as a hypothesis to be tested, that’s a reasonable approach to achieving understanding.

But it must be tested.

Because our hypothesis may be false, our experience irrelevant to accurate understanding. And we must be prepared to accept that we are wrong.

Maybe she is as I perceive her, hard-working and conscientious. Perhaps her public accusation arose from painful experiences. Perhaps she was fulfilling a deep personal and civic duty to expose an abuser.

Or maybe she was part of a conspiracy against a sitting councilmember.

Or maybe something else.

Only when we accept the limits of what we actually know can we know how to respond.


Dr. Scott Paine will be speaking at the FLC University Regional Summits this May. The topic? Investigations, Accusations, Confrontations: How Cities Should Respond. Learn more about this learning opportunity at