At the January 12th Tucson memorial for the six people killed when Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others were shot, President Obama called for a more civil discourse. His message was well received (See Obama’s Call for Civil Discourse Resonates Around the Country).
I watched FOX news for their response immediately after the president’s speech figuring they’d be his biggest detractors. I was impressed, hearing not a single critical word.
The shooting in Tucson opened the door for a deeper reflection on how we treat each other. A quiet group in Congress, the Center Aisle Caucus, is encouraging Democrats and Republications to break with custom and sit together during the upcoming State of the Union address. (See Emerson, Carnahan team up to promote civil discourse in Congress by Bill Lambrecht.)
That’s a promising beginning. Still, civil discourse isn’t just for politicians. If we each get involved, it could spark momentum to face the multitude of challenges that defy polarized haranguing. It can make creative use of our differences.
It won’t be easy. The more we know about what civil discourse looks, smells and tastes like, the more we appreciate why it matters, the more likely that, when it gets hard, we will keep working towards it.
We have some subtle challenges to overcome. Divisive forms of discourse are embedded in our culture. Advocacy, the basis of our political and legal system, is implicitly about win/lose. Dialogue, which is based in inquiry and I believe is at the heart of civil discourse, calls on different skills. And it takes practice. It’s a muscle we haven’t exercised for far too long.
When first introduced to dialogue, I remember a light bulb moment in which I discovered that deeply listening to another wasn’t so that I could turn their heartfelt beliefs into a weapon. I don’t recall the specific exchange. I just remember the response when I jumped on something another said to make my case. I hadn’t appreciated the effect my words would have on someone who made himself vulnerable by speaking his truth. His perspective was so different from my own that I just reacted. Had it not been for others wiser than me, the fragile beginnings of an open exchange would likely have died at that moment.
Years later, I appreciate the value of listening to understand, of bringing compassion – “suffering with” – as I interact with others. And I have learned that creative interactions can lead to innovative and lasting answers that serve us all. Further, they contain aspects of what each of us brings to the situation. If I listen for deeper truths – shared values often hidden within our differences – I can help us uncover breakthrough insights and actions.
Today I pay attention to people different from me trusting that even when I’m offended, I can find some kernel of wisdom at the heart of their message. Further, when married with my own deep needs and those of others, wise, resilient answers emerge.
That belief has changed how I interact with others. It requires me to listen creatively no matter how a message is delivered. Because we are human, I know that some point of connection exists. It’s up to me to seek it, even when pissed off, hurt, or triggered in some way.
The practices for engaging emergence – preparing oneself, hosting others, stepping up and stepping in, and doing it again – equip us to get involved and influence others. The more internalized the principles of welcoming disturbance, seeking meaning, pioneering, encouraging random encounters, and simplifying, the more promising the outcomes.
Civil discourse is a pathway to addressing complex challenges because we need each other to find answers none of us can discover on our own. Creativity lives on the edges where unexpected connections occur. If we want a vibrant economy that provides good jobs, a healthy environment, excellent schools, and strong relationships with neighbors across the street and around the world, we need each other. In fact without each other, it is impossible to create the kind of democracy that, as President Obama said, “is as good as [nine year old] Christina[-Taylor Green] imagined it.”
So what are we waiting for?