Reflection 76: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Part 2

This is the second part of a two-part essay that sets forth a program for creating a more civil political dialogue, across partisan lines. The first part, Reflection #75, offered goals for the work, and a series of premises and orienting mindsets upon which the  specific communication strategies I suggest — the subject of this week’s Reflection — are based.

1.      Resist partisan labels and the push to discuss emblematic tribal issues.

Political partisans will instinctively seek to hijack any explicitly political conversation by labeling and pigeonholing each participant, putting them in an appropriate “partisan tribe” (e.g., liberal, conservative, libertarian). Once that perspective is baked into the process, the overwhelming tendency will be for participants to view the ideas of those on the “other” side as partisan arguments – to be countered; rather than as ideas from a different perspective – that might enrich and expand the conversation.

If we hope to pursue our broader agenda, our first job will be to avoid this instinctual highlighting of partisan labels and, with it, a rapid retreat in a discussion of the emblematic issues that define tribal membership.

2.     Listen with curiosity and empathy. 

Whether they acknowledge it or not, people always have an emotional agenda that, in most cases, is their dominant agenda. Thus, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012), Jonathan Haidt, with overwhelming neurobiological support, describes our thinking brain as a rider on an emotion-based elephant. 

Why an elephant and not a horse?  Because the emotional brain is very big and very smart. 

Haidt also emphasizes that the rider is a lawyer and not a judge.  In other words, it doesn’t calmly weigh the merits of the needs that the elephant communicates to it and, then, do the logically right thing.  Instead, its far more powerful tendency is to make up “logical” arguments to justify whatever it is the emotion-based elephant wants.

One of our most basic emotional needs is to be seen, heard, and appreciated.  And that is why active listening is central to the approach of so many couples’ theorists and why, in the business context, in Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989, 2013), one of Stephen Covey’s 7 keys to success is: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

These neurological realities and emotional truths apply will equal force in a political context.  So, simply reflecting back what others say is a highly effective tool. So, also, are follow-up questions of curiosity.

But beware.  We are very intuitive beings.  In terms of establishing rapport, real listening works.  On the other hand, people can easily sense when your listening is pre-textual – a polite, calculated prelude to the main event: The moment when you can start asserting your ideas. And, equally, make sure your questions are not editorial comments masquerading as questions.

3.     Focus on participants’ underlying motivations for being politically engaged, their personal stories, and the values implicit in each – and share yours as well.

As fundamentally emotional beings, we need to remember that in politics – as in every other sphere of living – our beliefs are a function of our life experiences.  And these experiences can lead us in very different directions.

Given this reality, why do I gravitate toward personal sharing as the vital ground out of which a more fruitful political dialogue can emerge? 

The answer is that, in addition to being emotional beings, we are profoundly affiliative, hard-wired to be in intimate contact with one another.  When asked what dogs really want, the immediate response of the world’s reputed canine expert was, simply, “dogs want to be with other dogs” – and, so too, with us.

In politics, however, this natural tendency for people to coalesce around their common humanity is deeply suppressed. Why? Because we live in a culture that encourages us to think that “out there, in real world” we have to be tough and cynical to get by.  So we reflexively put these instincts aside in our political engagements, reserving them (in theory at least) for family and friends – where these mainstream pressures are less compelling.

But as any number of deep and abiding friendships across partisan lines – from Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen, to Joe Biden and John McCain – remind us, our fundamental, affiliative wiring can, in the right circumstances, trump our politics.  And that is the process we’re seeking to promote and expand upon.

So, ask other participants in a political conversation:

  • How did you get interested in politics in the first place?
  • What do you hope to accomplish? 
  • What is the better world you are hoping to create with your involvement?

With well intentioned people – those in our target audience – the answers to these questions are likely to get back to the kinds of values that thinkers like Rosenberg and Haidt – discussed on part 1 of this essay – articulate: Concern for others, fairness, loyalty, security, respect for authority and tradition, the freedom to create the life of our dreams, etc.

As Haidt points out, areas of emphasis are likely to vary with, for example, liberals tending to emphasize care and fairness, and conservatives more strongly focused on loyalty and respect for authority.  My belief, however, is that well intentioned participants from across the political spectrum will come to see that, in the great majority of cases, their fellow participants, on the “other” side, are also motivated by entirely valid and, indeed, commendable values.

As the conversation we are seeking to nurture evolves, remember as well not to shy away from getting personal.  We all have our stories – and our pain and fear, hopes and triumphs are central to who we are.  As participants feel safe enough to disclose these intimate details, their sense of a shared, common humanity will grow and grow – and, with it, their ability to engage in a more meaningful and civil political dialogue.

Finally, your willingness to share your own story is an essential part of the equation.  Resist the instinct to stand above or apart from the process. One of the most important ways in which you can promote and support this very different sort of political dialogue is to model it in your own behaviors.

4.     Identify and expand on underlying areas of agreement – and acknowledge areas of difference in ways that avoid judgment.

Very often, our extreme partisanship masks significant areas of agreement. So, for example, the common view is that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are completely at odds with one another.  And yet, one could argue that they are united in their opposition to the abuses of power, perpetuated by large institutions – with the Tea Party focusing on the excesses of big government, and Occupy Wall Street emphasizing the excesses of big business. 

An important aspect of our work is to point out and expand on these areas of underlying agreement.

Notwithstanding these efforts, differences will inevitably emerge.  When they do, our job is to discourage reactions that are freighted with judgment and criticism.  So, for example, when someone says something that seems misguided to you, begin your response with recognition of your areas of agreement: 

  • “I agree with you, when you say this”; or
  • “I am sympathetic to your underlying premise that . . .”; or
  •  “I admire your instinct to protect this value or to ease the suffering of that group of people.” 

Then, return to the balance of what he or she said – your area of disagreement – and explain your position, not in right/wrong terms, but as an expression of your greater emphasis on a different set of value propositions.

5.     Look for ways of framing problems – and proposed solutions – that boil out partisan political assumptions.

Part of the art of politics, as it is currently practiced, is to thoroughly embed our partisan tribal prejudices into the very language we use.  So, for example, a restructuring of the health care system is either the Affordable Care Act (for Democrats) or Obamacare, an act of partisan political aggression (for Republicans).  And, in the hands of its political opponents, an inheritance tax becomes a death tax. 

It is easy to underestimate the extent to which we all fall into this trap, unthinkingly using the coded partisan language of the political tribe that is our natural home. 

So, for example, one of my closest professional colleagues, a business-oriented, Republican conservative and I sought to collaborate on a description of Radical Decency’s approach to politics.

One of the examples that came very easily to me described “the excesses of big business and the military/industrial complex.”  But these words, drawn from my progressive political “home base” quickly separated us into our partisan political camps.  It was only after careful and patient reflection that we realized that we were actually allies in our concern about the extent to which we “continue to excessively subsidize oil, defense and other politically influential industries.”

The lesson to be drawn from this episode?  The language we use matters – a lot.  And in our efforts to create a more constructive political dialogue, we need to work hard:

  • To avoid slipping into the partisan shorthand that pervades the current political dialogue, and
  • To create a counter-language that is more reflective of the underlying values that unite us.

6.     Be clear headed about trust issues. As Stephen Covey points out, in any deal, one acceptable outcome is no deal.

We are operating in an environment where insincerity and deception are not only condoned but, in the more typical case, honored as “smart politics.” Don’t be taken in by false kumbaya moments.

On the other hand, we need to avoid cynicism. Politics is a tough game and people with a sincere interest in the different kind of conversation we are seeking to promote may slip into mainstream ways of operating out of habit — or because the feel they must to maintain credibility with their home tribe.

Walking the line between cynicism and kumbaya is really difficult: art and not science. 

So, we need to be clear-headed and uncompromising with respect to our goal lest we become mainstream political practitioners, albeit with a kinder, gentler approach.  We should never be afraid to end a conversation if the other participant, despite his nice words, is really only interested in pursuing a partisan agenda.  At the same time, we need to be ready to work with true allies, even if their commitment to our approach is, at times, compromised – if, in our judgment, they are honestly seeking to do better.

Reflection 75: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Part 1

This Reflection is part 1 of a two-part essay offering a program for creating a more civil political dialogue, across partisan lines. This Reflection provides a goal for the work, and a series of premises and orienting mindsets upon which my specific communication strategies – the subject of next week’s Reflection – are based.


  1. In the current hyper-partisan political environment, well-intentioned people are divided and disempowered.

We live in a culture in which we are powerfully inducted into partisan “tribes” – liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Evangelicals, etc. – and, then, reflexively define ourselves and others by positions taken on the current, emblematic issues that define tribal membership: Pro-choice vs. right to life; small government vs. government as social problem-solver; security vs. privacy, etc.

The result is that the mainstream political dialogue shrinks into a partisan, win/lose knife fight on these emblematic issues. And, since that dialogue tends to be dominated by the shrillest partisan voices, we wind up judging the “other side” by their worst examples.

My belief: If we are able to foster a dialogue that moves beyond this engrained, ossified pattern, a meaningful group of well-intentioned people can emerge, from across the political spectrum, interested in fostering a more civil and, thus, more meaningful political dialogue. The strategies I suggest, at their most visionary, envision a reshuffling the political deck; nurturing a “coalition of the well intentioned” across party and ideological lines.

  1. We can shrink the partisan divide – and foster a more civil dialogue – if we focus on the values that underlie our political positions.

Without regard to partisan political orientation, there are a series of values that underlie most seriously offered political positions. And while political partisans may place greater emphasis on one group of values over another, well-intentioned people – the people we seek to engage – are likely to agree that all of these values are positive and worthy of consideration.

A number of thoughtful people have attempted to enumerate these values. And while these efforts vary in their particulars, what’s encouraging is their similarity and the fact that they each articulate sensible and constructive needs, longings and aspirations – values around which we can unite. So, example:

  • Jonathan Heidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) lists five values: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Sanctity (that is, respect and reverence for the rituals that embody our foundational principles);
  • Marshall Rosenberg, in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2003), lists eight Universal Human Needs: Autonomy, Connection, Integrity, Interdependence, Physical Well-Being, Play, Meaning, and Peace; and
  • Radical Decency is premised on seven values: Respect, Understanding, Empathy, Acceptance, Appreciation, Fairness and Justice.
  1. Models for a more effective dialogue that exist in other contexts need to be applied in the political sphere.

In the last few decades, a number of highly effective models for facilitating more effective communication – between couples, at work, and in politics – have been developed with each, in their own way, seeking to create conversations that are more:

  • Authentic – vivid and real; and
  • Mutual – willingly engaged in by all parties.

See, for example, Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want: A Couples Guide (1988, 2010); Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work (2011); Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989, 2013) and, importantly, Lichtenberg, et al., Encountering Bigotry: Befriending Projecting People in Everyday Life (2002).

Models such as these can, and should, be applied far more systematically in the political sphere.

Orienting Mindsets

  1. A different and better political dialogue needs to be grounded in good relationships.

At first blush, this goal might seem unrealistic. After all, we live in a world in which Republics/conservatives demonize Barack Obama and Democrats/liberals do the same George W. Bush and, now Ted Cruz; where every word, every image of “that” person is like finger nails on a black board.

In my view, this demonizing mindset is an emotional distortion. Most people who are interested or involved in politics want to do something constructive. And, on the flip side, politically aware and active people who consciously seek to do bad things – or who are knowingly cynical or ignorant – are in the minority.

More deeply, I fully subscribe to this perspective, offered by Harville Hendrix in the couples context but applicable, it seems to me, in all areas of living: Every person makes complete sense if we just know enough about how he was raised, as well as his innate disposition, life experiences, and hopes and dreams for the future.

When we bring this mindset to the people on the “other” side, politically, our quick dismissal of them as perverse, cynical and/or immoral will be progressively replaced by genuine curiosity – about who they are and what makes them tick. And this, in turn, is the emotional gate-way that takes us down a path that, beginning with understanding, can flower into empathy and, even, respect, acceptance and appreciation for the personhood of those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

  1. Think long term.

The goal and specific strategies for transforming our typical political dialogue – discussed in part 2 (Reflection 76) – represent a dramatic shift from our usual ways of interacting. For this reason, efforts to implement this approach will meet the normal resistance that crops up when something new and different is introduced. In addition, because trust across partisan political lines is so low, prudent participants will have an additional reason to be cautious, lest their more authentic ways of sharing be used to undercut their credibility.

For this reason, we need to think long term.

Seeking to implement this new way of interacting is likely to require multiple contacts, the goal being to habituate others to a very different kind of conversation and, very importantly, to build trust.


Both of these orienting mindsets – relational and longitudinal – are beautifully reflected in the following comments from Elli Sparks, a political activist, quoted in Daley-Harris, Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government (1994, 2013):

My relationship model is different. I adore romantic relationships, so I use romance as my model. That first meeting with the editorial writer… it’s like a blind date, only you’ve decided beforehand you are going to marry this fellow. You are going to be sweet and interesting, but not too intense…. If it doesn’t work out with the editor, you are going to marry one of his friends at the newspaper – the business editor, environmental writer, or city editor. Someone at this paper will find you interesting and compelling – it’s just a matter of being persistent until you find the right connection.


In most political dialogues, the assumed goal is to persuade the other side that you are right and they are wrong. Rejecting that model, I am offering a 2-tiered approach in which an initial relational focus (Level 1) sets the stage for more specific policy discussions (Level 2).

Level 1: The political conversation we are seeking to encourage would have, as its initial goal, a better understanding of the wide variety of ways in which well intentioned people can translate their values and, with them, their hopes and dreams into public policy perspectives and specific programmatic positions.

In the course of this dialogue, participating political partisans would, it is hoped, deepen their respect and understanding for what the “other side” is about and develop an increased sense of empathy, acceptance and, even, respect and appreciation for people with whom they disagree.

Level 2: As Level 1 takes hold and deepens, the hope is that participants would be able to coalesce around currently less obvious policy initiatives, in one or more area, which express their shared values and, at the same time, are sensitive to the diverse policy and value perspectives, shared in their Level 1 discussion.

Note, importantly, that Level 2 is a very ambitious goal. Success does not depend on reaching this Level. A meaningful Level 1 dialogue, without more, would be a very positive result.