Terry Paulson

Fox News Commentator Charles Krauthammer offered a post “Saddleback Church Presidential Forum” assessment of Rick Warren’s adventure in civil dialogue—“That was the best I’ve ever seen.” Most pundits gave McCain the edge, but the real winner was Rick Warren. His supportive demeanor, even-handed questions and refusal to use aggressive follow-up questions, provided a good opportunity for America to hear both candidates at their best.

But, as impressive as the Saddleback Presidential Forum was, it’s sad that so few Americans ever get to experience their own civil dialogue across the political divide. Whether you listen to talk radio or read the responses to op-ed columns, the shrill nature of what passes for political dialogue in America generates more fear than clarity. There are two Americas and few seem willing to talk across the divide.

Free and open political discussions have always helped make America strong. Such dialogue is the fire that tests the metal of our convictions and the depth of our understanding. They aren’t to be avoided but harnessed in a way that risks influence without demonizing adversaries. In a free society, finding clarity is often as important as convincing others. Here are ten tips on how to disagree without being quite so disagreeable:

1. Manners are the lubricating oil of good political discussions. Never underestimate the power of a ready smile, simple courtesy and civility. Your courtesy may not be remembered or returned, but discourtesy will never be forgotten.

2. Show empathy and tolerance for differences by seeking first to understand. Tolerance and empathy do not require approval or agreement—they do require a cordial and positive attempt to understand another’s feelings, beliefs and positions. If you’re doing all the talking, you are probably boring somebody. To lead others to your side on any issue it helps to see the road they must travel through their eyes, not your own. Master some timely questions and then listen: What are your most important issues? Why are they so important to you? What would you want your candidate to do?

3. Do your homework to build depth behind your convictions. Be humble and fair with your “facts.” Statistics are only temporary snapshots in a stream of history and far too many partisan quotes can be taken out of context. There is value in doing your homework; it’s quite another thing to tell people everything you know about a subject as their eyes glaze over. Listen more than you lecture!

Terry Paulson

Terry Paulson, PhD is a psychologist, award-winning professional speaker, author of The Optimism Advantage: 50 Simple Truths to Transform Your Attitudes and Actions into Results, and long-time columnist for the Ventura County Star.

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