Civil discourse and Radical Candor in our country have been dealt a heavy blow by an innocent sounding phrase: “politics divides.” These two words have silenced millions of small conversations that should have happened, and resulted in a political food fight very few of us are enjoying. The phrase “politics divides” has silenced us at work, and even around our own dinner tables. It’s caused us to turn our minds off, and to leave those hard issues to others.
That phrase, “politics divides,” may be one of the most dangerously insidious expressions in our language. It has left the notion of civil discourse in terrible disrepair in our nation. Just as the phrase, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” kills feedback and Radical Candor at work, the phrase, “politics divide” is ruinous for civil discourse.
If we can’t find a way to have a disagreement, then go out and have a beer together, and start the conversation again the next day, our democracy may fail.
The first time somebody told me that, I thought he was just a silly old man longing for a past that had never existed. He was a senator, kind enough to talk to a bunch of college students spending the summer in DC. Something was troubling him deeply, he told us. Collegiality had gone out of government. Once upon a time, it was possible to have a raging debate in the Senate, and then to enjoy a meal together. In my eighteen year-old arrogance, I dismissed him. I thought he was just saying that it wasn’t any fun to be a senator any more. I didn’t understand that when he warned us that it had become impossible to “reach across the aisle,” he wasn’t just talking about his power lunches. He was talking about his ability to get things done for the good of the nation.
Civil discourse–the ability to have the hard conversations and still care about the person you disagree with even when you think their position is wrong–is not just a nice to have, it’s one of the foundations of democracy. Our reluctance to jump in and have the hard conversations with each other has led us from a state of ruinous empathy to one of manipulative insincerity.
Real civil discourse has been sorely lacking from Democrats and Republicans alike. I am just as saddened by the rhetoric of people I agree with as I am by that of those with whom I disagree. We’ve resorted to a kind of unproductive name-calling we should have outgrown in second grade. I’m as guilty of that as anyone. It is so tempting…
This Fourth of July, try to have a political conversation with somebody on some topic you disagree on. Don’t judge the success of the conversation on whether you change the other person’s mind, or change your mind. You just have to be willing hear the issues from the other person’s perspective, and to express your point of view with respect but with unstinting clarity–all the while, not losing sight of the fact that you actually like the person you’re talking to, even if you don’t agree about abortion or healthcare or gun control.
But don’t set off the fireworks in this first conversation. Don’t choose the topic you care most passionately about and the person whom you have the most fraught relationship with. Choose something you care about but doesn’t make you see red. Choose a person whom you respect and get along with easily.
Start by asking why they have the opinion they have on some policy. Listen with the intent to understand. Repeat what they’ve said to you to make sure you understood correctly. Ask more questions. Then ask if they’d like to hear about your point of view. Only if they seem genuine when you proceed should you continue. Explain your position. If the conversation is going reasonably well but you still don’t agree, try switching sides. Ask the other person to take your position, and you take theirs. To learn more about having these sorts of conversations and being a great boss, check out my book Radical Candor.
This conversation going to feel unnatural. Why should you have it?
Because it’s your job. If you are an American citizen, you are a boss. The founding fathers made each and every citizen of this country a leader. It’s the job of all of us–we the people–to choose our executives, legislators, and judges carefully. It’s our ability to hold them accountable for good governance. And it’s our job to elect somebody different if they are failing us. In other words, we hire, hold accountable, and fire the team who governs this nation. That’s a very basic job description of a manager. You might not want to be a manager. But if you vote (or even if you should’ve voted but didn’t), you are one!
Part of a boss’s job is to give feedback to peers. If we can’t lead by example–if we can’t discuss the important topics of our time with our peers–with each other–in a civil way, then it’s going to be difficult for us to insist that the representatives, the senators, and the President whom we elect to follow us.