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A plea for good faith in public meetings: Listen to understand, not to refute

Recently, I got an earful after writing a blog post that casually compared opposition to proposed bike-friendly changes along St. Paul’s Jefferson Avenue to the anti-government outrage on display at public town-hall meetings on health care.

My post provoked even more outrage from one resident who thought I’d ridiculed him and his neighbors and dismissed their concerns.

There’s been a lot of that going around lately, and I was sorry to add to the fire. I’d failed to follow one of my own principles: Listen to understand the other guy — not to refute him.

But I had also failed to make this point clearly: When you arrive at a meeting looking for a fight, you can’t expect to find a solution.

Although not as publicized as the fights, we’ve seen some examples in the past weeks of how airing our differences in public, face-to-face, can begin to rebuild the trust so necessary in a democratic system that relies on consent of the governed.

Engaging critics
President Barack Obama staged a town-hall meeting on health care in my conservative Colorado hometown, where the county gave him only 34 percent of the vote in November.

U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., began a series of meetings in his District 7, not long after he took flak for saying he didn’t care for town halls because they were too often dominated by conspiracy theorists.

Both leaders showed a willingness to engage their critics — and their critics responded in a civil fashion.

In other cases, we’ve seen apparent gamesmanship. Who’s doing the gaming, however, is open to interpretation.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., District 1, reached out to the other side from another angle. He invited neighboring 2nd District U.S. Rep. John Kline, a Republican who favors more controlled roundtables and telephone town halls, to join him in co-hosting health care reform town halls in their respective districts. Walz’s staff reached Kline’s staff with a call and an emailed invitation Friday morning, but not Kline himself. When a press release and copy of the invitation went out that afternoon before Kline had responded, his office pronounced the offer a publicity stunt.

In Winona, state Sens. Sharon Erickson Ropes, DFL-Winona, and Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, announced a “High-speed Rail Summit” to discuss building high-speed rail connecting Chicago and the Twin Cities. The invitees included Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, MnDOT officials and local business leaders, but not the Southeast Minnesota Rail Alliance, which includes the Mayo Clinic and other Rochester interests that have been pushing for the city to be considered a stop on a high-speed rail line.

Meanwhile, Gov. Pawlenty declined an invitation from DFL legislative leaders to attend a “Minnesota Leadership Summit” that would bring together a variety of expert perspectives to discuss how to deal with the state’s budget woes.

“The state already has an annual ‘Minnesota Leadership Summit,'” Pawlenty quipped. “It’s called the legislative session, and it lasts approximately five months.”

Unfortunately, the governor was often a no-show during the session, too.
 
Meetings part PR, part tone-setters
To be sure, town hall meetings and leadership summits are designed with public relations in mind. The listening that occurs is more about selling solutions than directly solving problems. But such meetings also set the tone for general discourse and signal how leaders intend to carry out their responsibilities on the public’s behalf.

The signals are decidedly mixed when some leaders say “Come, let us reason together” and others declare “I don’t trust you, so I’m not going to cooperate.”
 
Unfortunately, the best outcome we can expect from such a polarized approach is likely to be something between forced compromise and doing nothing. That’s just not good enough as we try to address complex, systemic issues such as health care, climate change and a healthy economy.

Principles for discourse
Maybe consensus problem-solving has become forever secondary to partisan point-scoring, but I’m trying to be optimistic here. In that spirit, I offer up some of the principles I try to follow in my own imperfect discourse. Leaders and citizens alike are encouraged to steal freely from this list:

1. Listen to understand instead of to refute. Try to grasp the deeper interests and concerns behind people’s perceptions rather than to label them or change their reality to match yours.

2. Ask about motivations, don’t ascribe them. Where facts are in dispute, don’t assume others are being deliberately dishonest. Look at the sources and discuss.

3. Speak to each other as individuals, from your own unique experience, rather than striking a pose as your side’s champion. Talk about perceptions, issues and solutions. Don’t become distracted by politics and personalities.

4. Don’t take the bait when others go ballistic. Demonstrate the values you believe are essential to the process, such as inclusiveness, tolerance, mutual understanding and respect.

5. Seek a higher common denominator. If Minnesotans can’t find any common ground to start from, we’re really in trouble.
 
No matter what issue we’re wrangling over, we have choices about how to act. We can bring together people with different perspectives to weigh fact-based analysis and seek workable solutions. Or we can pursue policy by placard — in which case I’m right and you are, at the very least, a dishonest idiot.

Charlie Quimby is a communications fellow at Growth & Justice, a think tank that focuses on policies that make Minnesota’s economy both more prosperous and fair. He tries hard to follow the principles mentioned above, though occasionally he violates them at his blog, Across the Great Divide.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 08/31/2009 - 11:33 am.

    Charlie
    Your thoughts are good ones, but as Barney Frank said the other day, it is like arguing with your dining room table. These folks at these meetings are ginned up by the right wing voices that have NO interest in facts, dialogue, compromise…or even the truth. They have an indeological viewpoint on health care reform which transcends reality, and is built on fear and misinformation pure and simple. I respect your admonitions, but in this case I regret to say, your dining room table will win!

  2. Submitted by Grace McGarvie on 08/31/2009 - 11:45 am.

    Good ethical civic advice. I wish to add this quotation:
    “And so when I hear so much impatient and irritable complaint, so much readiness to replace what we have by guardians for us all, those supermen, evoked somewhere from the clouds, whom none have seen and none are ready to name, I lapse into a dream, as it were. I see children playing on the grass; their voices are shrill and discordant as children’s are; they are restive and quarrelsome; they cannot agree to any common plan; their play annoys them; it goes poorly. And one says, let us make Jack the master; Jack knows all about it; Jack will tell us what each is to do and we shall all agree. But Jack is like all the rest; Helen is discontented with her part and Henry with his, and soon they fall again into their old state. No, the children must learn to play by themselves; there is no Jack the master. And in the end slowly and with infinite disappointment they do learn a little; they learn to forbear, to reckon with another, accept a little where they wanted much, to live and let live, to yield when they must yield; perhaps, we may hope, not to take all they can. But the condition is that they shall be willing at least to listen to one another, to get the habit of pooling their wishes. Somehow or other they must do this, if the play is to go on; maybe it will not, but there is no Jack, in or out of the box, who can come to straighten the game.” Learned Hand

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 08/31/2009 - 12:02 pm.

    Mr. Quimby’s principles are admirable and wonderful, but they also assume that we’re dealing with psychologically functional people. Sadly, this is not always the case.

    The loudest, most strident voices are those on the fringes of either side of any issue. They are likely to continue to be so because of their internal issues (or, sorry to say, their unrevealed agendas) regardless of how reasonably we approach them.

    The main stream media seems most to love those extremist voices because their screaming attracts viewers/listeners. Thus the MSM amplifies and celebrates such extremism, some of the pundits, themselves, being prime examples of it. Such reinforcement produces more and more of what we need least.

    If, somehow, we could develop the solutions we need by quietly holding the discussions and negotiations somewhere else while the screamers scream at each other in public and on the media, we could, by pursuing Mr. Quimby’s strategies, accomplish a great deal. I suspect that was the original function our founders thought congress and state legislatures might fulfill.

    Since this is clearly not how those bodies are functioning at this time in history, does anyone have any ideas how that function might be fulfilled in our own day and time and is there any way to ensure that what results is designed to preserve and protect the “general welfare” rather than just the result of political wheeler-dealers trading personally-advantageous favors?

  4. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/31/2009 - 12:58 pm.

    The thing that concerns me is that too often we cherry pick what we want to hear. What you have are the loudest voices coming from the fringes of both sides and both sides are too far apart. That’s not really where the middle of America, the large majority of America currently reside.

    It concerns me that the entire political systems and our information systems tend to give so much attention to those extremes. and not to the large middle majority. A majority that has this ambivalence with regard to government, a big believer in private enterprise and individual initiative. But also that government has a place and we’re going to have to pay taxes to make it possible.

  5. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 08/31/2009 - 06:54 pm.

    Thanks for the comments. One thing I’ve learned over time is that dialogue can’t be accomplished in a flash and mistrust can’t be overcome in one encounter.

    The town halls are made to order for the cutlery to bang on the dining room tables.

  6. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 09/01/2009 - 10:40 am.

    So called town halls by politicians are used for nothing more than photo ops by politicians.

    Ask an inconvenient question and get a well massaged answer from your local politician, who will then quickly move on to the next well massaged answer, before you will have the opportunity to follow up on his non-answer to your question.

    Therefore the media and left leaning groups like Mr. Quimbys loves these “town halls” to show case their favorite local politician because they know that the fix is in before these so called town halls.

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