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.
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.