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!
4. When caught off guard, take time to think before engaging in speech, sending e-mails or leaving phone messages. Don’t just say the right thing at the right moment; leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment! When you communicate with strong emotion and charged phrases, you may rally the faithful, but those who disagree with you won’t pay attention past the first attack. Take time to edit those tirades into clear statements designed to influence instead of inflame.
5. Avoid name-calling, “you” statements and “should” talk! Instead of putting down others or their positions, share your opinions in the form of “I” statements—“I find…; I feel…; I think…” Find that assertive middle-ground where you can express opinions without demeaning those with whom you disagree.
6. Be focused more on what you are for rather than what you are against. Anger over the past does not a vision make! Participating in the blame game only traps your eyes to the rearview mirror looking at things that can’t be changed while new obstacles and challenges are rapidly approaching out the front window! Let everyone save face and learn from mistakes by focusing conversations on working to invent a better future.
7. Be able to admit your own mistakes and the mistakes of your own party. “My party right or wrong!” seldom impresses independent-thinking voters. If you can’t confront your own when wrong, you won’t be respected. Even when you cannot honestly concede a mistake, at least admit that you can appreciate that many see it differently. With the record of Republicans in Washington over the last few years, it’s not hard to find failures worth confronting.
8. Learn to use humor to diffuse the tension conflict creates and to keep issues in perspective. The safest target for your humor is always yourself. When Lincoln was accused of being “two-faced,” he replied, “Obviously I am not ‘two-faced,’ or I would not use this one!” When George Washington faced a Constitutional Convention that wanted to limit the size of the army to 5,000 troops, he agreed as long as they would limit the size of the enemy to 3,000 troops. The resulting laughter ended the threat of unwise legislation.
9. Be ready to take distance from a difficult conversation and give others time to think. The most powerful impact from a thoughtful conversation is often experienced after the parties have left each other’s presence. Forcing closure may only harden views that might have changed if the information shared had been given time to percolate. Giving them a little distance with dignity just may get them to reconsider a few of their positions.
10. End fruitless conversations positively. Many will never change political positions no matter how civil the discussion or how long you talk. Learn to say, “I guess no amount of dialogue is going to change either of us. That’s what makes this country so great—We’re free to disagree!”
Ronald Reagan said it well, “I have always believed that a lot of the troubles in the world would disappear if we were talking to each other instead of about each other.” In this election, spend some time out of your conservative comfort zone; listen and talk to some democrats and independents. Keep political dialogue vibrant and alive for a new generation of American voters starting with you! You just may win a few converts to the conservative cause and help win a few elections!