Are we debaters, salesmen, or citizens?

Members of my local grassroots club have better-than-average political conversation skills. That’s not surprising: Anyone who willingly attends  weekly political meetings gets more practice than the average person. And yet last week’s meeting was derailed by an all-too-common pitfall. When faced with a differing political view, people immediately fell into a debate–a two-sided contest in which the goal is to ‘win’–rather than using their substantial conversational skills  to create a dialogue in which the goal is shared understanding.

Salesman or citizen

Most members of the group are Obama supporters, so the agenda included a training billed as “Having Effective Conversations,” given by the chair of the local Obama campaign. I participated because of my interest in political conversation, not because I plan to campaign for Obama.

The training consisted of simple instructions on how use a prescribed but flexible script when knocking on strangers’ doors. Campaign volunteers are to ask whether the voter has made up his or her mind and, if the voter is not planning to vote for Obama, ask why not. The training material anticipates about six or seven reasons that voters might give, and provides a response for each that volunteers are to use in communicating the President’s message to the naive voter.

I sincerely did not intend to derail the training, but here’s what happened: Because I do not plan to go door-to-door for Obama, I volunteered to play the potential voter in the role-playing exercise.  A fellow member, Jan, pretended to knock on my door. She asked if I was planning to vote for Obama; I said no; she asked why; and I told her I cannot bring myself to vote for the first president in American history who has claimed legal authority to detain or assassinate American citizens without judicial due process of law.

Although the written training material contained no prepared answer for that concern, Jan gamely kept going.  She tried briefly to steer me toward something covered in the training material. “Is it the drones in Afghanistan…?”

“No, but now that you mention it, that’s another problem.” In less than two minutes, everyone else was listening to our conversation. They quickly agreed  that they should say ‘thank you’ and move on if they met anyone like me while going door-to-door, and then just as quickly joined Jan in a very real effort to convince me I was wrong.

The fact that Obama has claimed and exercised this power was news to one person, who began with flat-out denial. When others backed me up on the facts, we quickly got past that. They then began to take stabs at my opinion and as I parried each, came up with another.

  • Thrust: “You’re falling for Republican scare tactics and hysteria.”
    Parry: “The Republicans support extrajudicial executive power to detain or assassinate citizens. They have no interest in spreading even awareness of the practice, never mind hysteria.”
  • Thrust: “Obama hasn’t assassinated anyone within the US yet. At home, we are safe.”
    Parry: “We cannot know. The Administration has insisted that no one outside the President and the staff who report to him is entitled to know who has been detained or executed, where, or why. And American rights against the unlimited power of kings or presidents to take our lives, liberty or property have, before now, traveled with us wherever we go.”
  • Thrust: “Most Americans believe we are safer with al-Awlaki gone, and are glad that Obama ordered his murder.”
    Parry: We would have been safer still had al-Awlaki been tried before he was executed, so that our our centuries-old right to due process would not have died along with him.

And so on. About five minutes into the debate, Jan asked: “Do you think our Fifth Amendment rights would be safer if Romney were elected?

With my response, I gave every Obama supporter in the room an opening to transform the debate into a collaborative problem-solving dialogue: “Unfortunately, yes, but not because of what Romney would do. Because of what people like us would do.  I remember our unanimous outrage at lesser violations by the Bush Administration. But when Obama negates a civil right we’ve cherished since the 13th Century’s Magna Carta, few object. If Romney becomes president, we will fight to restore our civil rights, but if Obama is re-elected, our rights will continue to die silently and unmourned.”

At home later, I wondered what would have transpired if one of them had responded: “I agree we need to restore our sacred Fifth-Amendment rights. I don’t think there’s a chance of that with Romney in the White House. Let’s talk about how we can do that with Obama.”  Had any one been willing to acknowledge that common ground and explore it with me, they would have discovered that I might be convinced to vote for Obama.

Why didn’t they?

First, when I surprised them with a point of view at odds with theirs, their reflex was to  jump into the role of debater. Two-sided, pro/con, win/lose, point/counterpoint  debate is so ingrained in our competitive American civic habits that we mindlessly fall into it whenever we encounter a difference of political opinion. Often, we don’t even attempt to create a “conversation with a center, not sides,” to use William Isaacs’ term from Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. When playing the role of debater, they had to listen to my concerns only for the purpose of refuting or minimizing them, not for understanding them.

Second, I sense they perceived themselves–primed by the training we had just received–in the role of salesperson. But salespeople are limited in the extent to which they can allow themselves freely to hear and express ideas and information. When playing the role of Obama salespeople, they had to pretend they could defend the policy, even though the Administration itself has described it only in sketchy, unofficial leaks, and has defended it in only a brief, ambiguous speech at Northwestern University. They were not free to engage with me in dialogue about what we, as citizens, might try to do to protect our Fifth Amendment rights.

Citizens–unlike debaters or salespeople–collaborate with each other to solve problems facing them as a group. It is through that collaboration–not through debate–that we truly strengthen our ability to govern ourselves. When we play the role of citizen, we are free to engage in deep listening, responding to each other, collaboration, and discovering or creating the whole from the many. We’ve got to learn how to cut down the debate and crank up the dialogue.


About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time freelance writing, largely on topics related to our right to self-government. I have two main focuses: how we can protect our election results from miscounts (whether deliberate or accidental), and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. I am based in Wisconsin.
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2 Responses to Are we debaters, salesmen, or citizens?

  1. Vicky Jones says:

    Good salespeople collect information before they talk because they know their job is to connect what they want to sell with what it is people want to buy. Bad salespeople think their job is conquest.

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my clients, who complained that a marketing tactic he had used once hadn’t worked. I asked him what he meant when he did that it “hadn’t worked.”

    “Well, nobody called us,” he answered.
    “Steve, you’re a married man,” I said. “Did you get lucky on your first date?”
    “Does that mean the first date didn’t work?”

    Our political system lives on a ladder. Everyone is always trying to reach a one-up position. There is no such thing as win-win. Until we teach ourselves to live in a circle, in which we seek connection rather than conquest and honor patience and process, we’re stuck with the sword fight. Thanks for the lesson!

    Nobody can listen and win at the same time. I think one of the reasons the “Recall Walker” camp was so thoroughly trounced was that it was so desperately trying to make its point it forgot to listen. (You talked about this in an earlier blog. I talk about it here:

    What do you think of this: ?

  2. Karen McKim says:

    Discussion on my other blog (I’m cross-posting while I move from there to here), included:

    Koshersalaami wrote:
    Frankly, as a salesperson I listen.
    To answer your question: They’re trying to defend a position rather than explore one.

    I responded:
    Kosh, thanks for weighing in with the salesperson’s perspective. I’ve never been in sales, but I’ve been exposed to enough business & management literature to know that the listening-to-understand part is absolutely critical.
    Yes, my fellow members of the grassroots club were trying to defend a position rather than explore one, and that’s what I find so curious. We all want to persuade each other, but (I read this quote earlier today), Thomas Jefferson said, “I never saw an instance of one or two disputants convincing the other by argument.” I don’t think any of us ever have seen it, or have ever been convinced by being argued with in the way the Obama supporters were arguing with me, even after I waved a big red flag pointing to a line of reasoning with which they might have caused me to consider voting for their guy, had they engaged with me on it. Why we continue to argue the way we do…I just don’t know.

    ScottDV wrote:
    Thank you for the interesting and thought provoking post. I am an ardent supporter of both President Obama and our Constitutional rights. I also participate regularly in political debates with groups from all sides of the issues. I am confident that I have been guilty of falling into the same “trap” as your political discussion group. I will endeavor to avoid this knee-jerk reaction in my future responses.
    I do not believe that any president should have the power to order the execution of a citizen of the United States without judicial oversight / due process.

    cheshyre grin wrote:
    Great post. This curiously echoes a mock conversation in my latest post:
    “Do you want to win the argument or win your life?”
    “The argument is my life!”
    It’s winning that needs to be defined. Winning an argument on whether you’re a good citizen doesn’t mean you’re a good citizen. That’s the blind spot of politics, people think they can vote on reality. Funny but tragic.

    koshersalaami wrote:
    Actually, I have been convinced to change a position on Open Salon. Token/Herr Rudolphus has changed my mind about an issue involving firearms.

    I responded:
    Kosh, when you changed your mind about the firearms issue, was it the result of an argument or debate (etymology: Old French, to beat) or was it the result of something that you would categorize as a conversation (etymology: Old French, to keep company with, to turn with)?
    If you truly changed your mind as the result of an argument in which you and another staked out and defended conflicting positions, please give me a link to that discussion. Until I see it, I’m with TJ: Once two people frame their interaction as a debate or argument, neither is likely to be open-minded enough to change. (I’m not arguing with you, just asking to see the evidence!)

    koshersalaami responded:
    I don’t differentiate between conversations and debates that way. If you define a debate as something formal, like a legal case, you can’t afford to back down because it means you lost. What happened was Token presented me with information I didn’t have before and it made sense. It had to do with gun shows. I’d heard that gun shows were somewhere that people went to get around the legal technicalities for background checks, like they were an NRA-sponsored loophole. What I found out was that there are different requirements for background checks by private individuals selling and by dealers – private individuals aren’t required to run them, like when selling through the want ads. At gun shows, the same two parties have the same obligations, so what’s changed is not the requirements but the physical location of the sale. In other words, dealers at gun shows still need to run background checks. This is not the impression I was given by gun control advocates (of which I am one) at all.

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