For argument’s sake…

Some years ago I attended a leadership workshop with a group of nonprofit executives and board members. The workshop was geared to helping boards and staff work together more efficiently and effectively. One session in particular focused on communication skills, especially the listening part. The workshop presenters did a good job presenting examples of how to listen quietly, to reflect what we heard, to use language that says, “This is what I heard,” rather than, “this is what you said.” We practiced listening to one another and then we talked about what we learned. To my dismay, many of the very intelligent and dedicated people in the room seemed to have come to the conclusion that effective listening was a tool for manipulating others to come around to one’s own position. They saw this as a way to get others to change their minds.

Debate and discussion require that we listen to one another. We need to do more than be quiet when someone else is talking, although that is a good place to start. We need to do more than repeat what they’ve said to be sure we heard it right. We need to be willing to shut off the part of our brains that is preparing our rebuttal before the other person finishes speaking. We must allow ourselves to be open to the possibility of having our own position changed. If not, we are not communicating, we are only trying to manipulate the argument in our favor.

Parents are advised to be consistent with their children, to not make ultimatums unless they are ready to follow through, to not give in to a demanding child. Governments have policies to never give in to hostage takers. Congress seems to have adopted a winner takes all strategy. Politics has become my way or no way. Compromise is seen as capitulation and weakness. We have lost the ability to discuss and to negotiate. We often don’t even try to listen to each other. We interrupt each other. We talk over one another. We fold our arms across our chests, close our eyes and our ears, shake our heads, call one another names and talk louder.

If parents never give in to their children and always win because the adult is bigger, does that teach kids who’s the boss or does it teach that it’s never okay to change one’s mind, to listen to the other’s reasoning, to give in? Of course parents should not compromise on rules that protect children from physical harm, nor should children be allowed to hurt others. Parents need to be careful about taking absolute positions on small stuff. Not every argument is worth winning. Children learn listening skills by being listened to.Sometimes teaching compromise and negotiation are more valuable lessons.

Generally, nations cannot give in to hostage takers and terrorists. Governments, however, should be careful to avoid creating situations where there is only one way out. Negotiations should always be the first choice and force the last one.

The politics of no compromise has created a government that swings from right to left and back again. Compromise is seen as losing and no one wants to be on the losing side. Rather than admitting there might be more than one solution or one valid option, each side stakes out a position and refuses to move. The side which has the most money and makes the most noise wins without regard for the long term consequences or for the common good. Then the other side accumulates more money, more power, and more votes and they win. Usually, those with the least power and influence get caught in the crossfire.

Disagreement is not itself a bad thing. Honest debate often finds solutions that are moderate and perhaps even better than either side’s original position. Debate requires that we listen, make sure we heard what the other person is saying and then to respond to what the other has said. Bringing up unrelated arguments, personal attacks or whether the other person’s hair, makeup or shoes are appropriate, is not useful debate.

Honestly listening to one another is a difficult and frightening thing. It requires us to set aside what we think we know to be the “truth” about the other person and about the subject under discussion. It takes practice to really focus on what we are hearing rather than what we are going to say in rebuttal. It takes courage and humility to be open to the possibility that someone else might be right, or at the very least might have a valid opinion based on their point of view.

Anything less is just arguing.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains