Let them know you hear.

Two small discussion groups at the Wisconsin Grassroots Network conference yesterday blossomed in different ways during the breakout period. All the groups had the same assignment: In 30 minutes, come up with a list of four priority goals for the grassroots movement in the next year. Both the Green and Yellow groups finished five minutes early, but in different ways.

The Green Group reached a solid consensus on four items in 25 minutes and spent the last five minutes sharing constructive ideas about activities to advance one of their chosen goals. The Yellow Group broke up after 25 minutes having identified, but not agreed on, 15 items. Some members left to calm down, while three members decided among themselves which four priorities the Yellow group would recommend to the large group when it reconvened.

Both groups had seven members, individuals who had the same basic set of needs—to be respected, to be creative, to belong, to contribute, to trust and be trusted. You know the set because you have it, too. In both groups, a few members did the expected: They spoke too long and got off topic. In both groups, the recorder felt irritated and impatient as the talkative members slowed or monopolized the discussion.

Every time the Yellow recorder had enough, she said something like, “I think it’s time to move on. Let’s give someone else a turn now.” The group put up with this a few times before the power struggle began. “I think you have some control issues…,” and it went downhill from there.

Every time the Green recorder had enough, she said something like, “Let me make sure I’m following you. You’re suggesting that the goal be ‘Amend the Constitution to make it clear that corporations are not people and money is not speech, and to do that by following the strategy recommended by the Move to Amend folks.” As she said this, she would show the long-winded speaker the notes she was taking, pointing to his words. “Have I got that right?” The speaker would either confirm or correct the recorder’s notes, and the discussion would move on.

Every one of us has yammered on for too long in some situation, repeating ourselves, piling on too many examples, interrupting ourselves with parenthetical comments, repeating ourselves, saying the same things again in different ways, and repeating ourselves.

We all know the feeling: We care so much about what we are saying. We want so badly to be heard. We struggle to do justice to our topic and make sure it registers in the listener’s mind, while the confidence that we’ve succeeded seems just out of reach no matter how much we say.

If the response we get is nothing more than “Okay, that’s enough, move on,” we’re left with a raw emotional hole. Did I fail to make myself understood? Is my point going to be shoved aside? What am I, chopped liver?

The well-intentioned Yellow recorder created a string of emotional cuts and bruises as she shoved the conversation forward, leaving some with the feeling their words had been lost in thin air and others with the feeling that they might be next. Before the group had reached consensus on a single goal, the unmet emotional needs around the table outweighed the need to get the job done. The most urgent topic for resolution was no longer identifying grassroots’ priorities; it was how those seven people should relate to each other.

The technique used by the Green recorder took both emotional and informational needs into account before moving from one speaker to the next. Look at all the unspoken messages the Green recorder communicated:

  • Your words matter.
  • I’m listening.
  • I respect you.
  • I am as concerned about the accurate transmission of your idea as you are.
  • You’ll have a chance to correct me if I don’t understand.

The Green recorder’s technique not only satisfied the speaker’s active emotional needs, but also gently turned the speaker for at least a moment into a listener, giving him a chance to realize he was being heard and giving others a chance to step into the conversation.

The technique of interrupting sincerely and sympathetically to summarize a speaker’s points and to ask for confirmation that you’re understanding correctly is useful in every political conversation—even more so when the listener and the speaker disagree. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, every exchange of facts, information, or ideas between two flawed human beings (there is no other kind) has to make its way through a cloud of felt needs and emotional responses. The more we are aware of this cloud and know how to wend our way through it, the more productive and satisfying our political conversations will be.

Originally published on June 24, 2012 on my Open Salon blog.

Conversation that followed included:

  • Great post! Oh, if only the world would hear, really hear, your words. I cannot agree with you more and strive every day to become better at approaching disagreements in this way. As you say, none of us are perfect but we should get points for trying!
    — Michele Curtis
  • Me thinks that you’re rather astute at interpersonal relations ;).
    This will work for most of us average folks, but the politicos I’m not so sure. I’m not sure how many of them actually experience emotional (or intellectual) investment in their subject, so many of them seem to be operating on rote, memorization of a specific sheet of instructions – they don’t seem to want to be heard so much as they just want their way :-/.
    Rated for EP material –Seer
  • You have described the heart of empathetic communication. While it will not put everyone on the same page, this style will certainly create a better shot at agreeing to disagree with some civility. Rated. –onislandtime
  • A certain amount of this comes out of the psychology classroom. Some of this is a technique called “reflecting,” which is to say what someone says to you back in some form so that they’re aware that you’re listening and taking them seriously. Makes perfect sense. A hell of a lot more sense than insulting each speaker in turn.
    — Koshersalaami
  • You always make so much sense. Rated. — Jonathan Wolfman
  •  I really admire the work you are doing — both for your persistence and your patience! Do you read EJ Dionne? He, more than anyone I know out there, is trying to build the sorts of bridges across misunderstanding that you’re working on in Wisconsin. I’ll admit that I am more cynical when it comes to closing these gaps, but I am with you in spirit. I’ve often said that HOW a political party thinks is more important than WHAT it thinks — and how a party thinks is connected to whether it cares about facts more than ideology, solving problems more than power and really listens to other points of view. I first started working for the GOP here in blue-state Massachusetts because as a reporter who had covered the State House I could see the limitations where the conversation was completely dominated by one party. But now that GOP seems to want one-party control for itself as it actually makes war on “empathy,” as we saw during the Sotomayor hearings. – Ted Frier
  • Good stuff–really, really good stuff. We’ve all been part of groups like both the Yellow and the Green and perhaps we’ve all been both “facilitators”–effective and ineffective. Thanks.  – Walter Blevins
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About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time in civic activities promoting our ability to exercise our right to self-government. I have two focuses: verified accurate election results, and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. Based in Wisconsin.
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