Every utterance has a purpose. Figure it out.

Main point: Imagining that a conversation–even a political one–is all and only about exchanging information is a mistake. We need to be aware of our conversation partner’s more personal reasons for wanting to talk about the issue, what he or she hopes to get out of the conversation.

Joanne and Kate don’t talk about Obamacare and contraception any more. Both were  frustrated by a short conversation, and now the topic is closed for them. It didn’t need to be that way.

Joanne started the conversation with a remark that she felt Obamacare violated freedom of religion, because it makes no exception for Catholic employers to its requirement that large employers provide coverage for contraception.

Kate replied that she could see several reasons why the new law needed to make no exceptions for any employers that were not actually churches. First, Kate explained that the law needed to require basic set of covered services because if it didn’t, employers could pay for only immunizations and gym memberships and claim they were providing ‘health insurance.’ Exceptions for personal beliefs would allow things like Seventh Day Adventist CEOs to have their companies provide ‘health insurance’ that covers only faith healing, or a corporate board claiming an intense belief in animal rights and refusing to cover any drugs or procedures that had been tested on animals.

Joanne replied she hadn’t thought of those possibilities, but she still perceived the requirement as an infringement on religious liberty, particularly since women would be free to obtain contraception elsewhere. Kate responded that the same could be said of any medical service.

Joanne responded that she hadn’t thought of that, either, but still perceived the requirement as an infringement on religious liberty. Kate replied by pointing out that  even on the individual level, religious liberty has never excused Americans from certain responsibilities as citizens. Quakers pay taxes that support the military; Orthodox Jews pay taxes that support Saturday public-park maintenance.

Joanne, irritated, ended the exchange by saying, “I can tell your mind just is not open on this, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.” Kate walked away, irritated because she perceived Joanne to be the one with the closed mind who wasn’t engaging in reasoned conversation on the merits of the law.

What went wrong with this conversation? Both Joanne and Kate respected each other and remained civil. Neither lied or made anything up, misunderstood the other, or tried to make the other look foolish. Yet both left the conversation feeling it had been a failure.

The problem was that neither Joanne nor Kate seemed to be aware of either her own reason for participating in the conversation or the other’s. Working at cross-purposes is a sure path to frustration. But what is obvious when one person is, say, trying to paint the walls and the other trying to wash them is rarely evident in conversation.

Even if we’re not aware of it, every utterance has a purpose. “Please pass the salt” is obvious. “Excuse me,” when brushing past someone in the aisle is motivated by a desire not to be perceived as rude even by a stranger. “How was your day, honey?” is motivated by a desire to get a sense of what mood your partner is in.

When Joanne brought up the topic of health insurance and contraception, she was acting on what might be the most common reason for starting a political conversation: She was seeking reassurance that others shared her concern–in this case, for religious freedom.

When we are disgusted, outraged, or scared by some news, we hate to feel alone in that reaction. So we talk about it with people who are likely to agree, hoping for a response along the lines of “Yes, ain’t it awful? Boo, them!” The same thing happens when we’re pleasantly surprised or pleased. We want to hear others say something that roughly translates to, “Yay, us!”

Kate, however, had a very different purpose for entering a conversation about contraception and health insurance. She was aware of the issue before Joanne brought it up, but she perceived it as a deliberate attempt by Republican politicians to frame a simple policy question with lots of historic precedent as a uniquely new clash of fundamental core values. Kate’s motive in responding to Joanne was to counteract what she saw as inflammatory messages and provide Joanne with an opportunity to consider the policy question in a more thoughtful way.

Both Kate and Joanne value religious liberty, and both would be happy if no federal policy ever caused anyone to feel forced to do anything they consider immoral. Had Joanne been able to ask for that reassurance without asking for renunciation of the specific policy at the same time, Kate might readily have given it to her.

Had Kate been more attentive to Joanne’s unspoken request (“Reassure me that we all still value religious liberty!”), she might have been able to respond in a way that satisfied both her objectives and Joanne’s.

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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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