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.