Politeness is Good but not Enough to Uncover Bipartisan Common Ground in Politics: Strong Listening is Required

In the face-to-face conversation that I hosted involving four supporters of president Trump and four non-supporters, reported on extensively below, I insisted on politeness, characterized by a willingness to listen, without interruption, to the viewpoint of a person who disagrees with you and the reasons he or she has for holding to that contrary perspective.

My eight conversation partners (CPs) did well in practicing politeness. But, as our conversation proceeded, I came away with the impression that a number of our CPs were practicing what I call “weak listening.” They were being polite, but they had no intention of re-examining their own beliefs in light of the contrary beliefs expressed by others. They were patient and polite in listening to the contrary beliefs of others, but their mindset sometimes was to “get that over with” so that they could express and advocate for their beliefs.

Being polite is necessary, but not sufficient, in any conversation that is seeking to uncover common ground. To find common ground, “strong listening” is required, which means listening with an openness to re-examining one’s own beliefs in light of what you hear the other person saying that is contrary to your present beliefs.

What are the obstacles to making “strong listening” a hallmark of contemporary political discourse in America? Two major obstacles are obvious

The major obstacle is an unwillingness to talk respectfully with those who disagree about contentious public policy issues that includes critically re-examining one’s beliefs. This unwillingness eliminates the possibility of uncovering any common ground This is the result of the rampant tribalism that pervades American culture these days, a “us-versus-them” mentality that causes “us” (our tribe) to view those “other folks” who disagree with us as not only wrong but evil.

In his splendid book Enough About Me, Richard Lui describes this unwillingness to re-examine one’s beliefs about political issues as follows, “We tend to quickly demonize political opponents, throwing around accusations and labels in the hope that they’ll stick so we don’t have to argue our points, much less examine them critically” (p. 128).

An egregious example of this unwillingness to re-examine one’s beliefs about any political issue is contained in Mitch McConnell’s recent statement that “100 percent of my focus is on stopping this administration.” 

In effect, McConnell is saying that he will fight any political legislation that the Democrats propose. This stance precludes the possibility of Republicans and Democrats respectfully talking to one another about their disagreements. It precludes those on both sides of the political aisle practicing “strong listening” about the issue at hand toward the goal of uncovering some common ground.

A second major obstacle to making “strong listening” a hallmark of contemporary political discourse in America is that the current procedures for congressional deliberations work against the possibility of having respectful conversations about political disagreements that could uncover some common ground.

To take what I believe is the most egregious example, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to see how ludicrous it is that one person (Mitch McConnel) can control what proposed bills get to the floor of the Senate for deliberation (full disclosure: I once was a rocket scientist). 

I do not have the expertise to propose a definitive solution to this current brokenness of congressional procedures. But three initiatives toward a solution come to mind, all of which have the common element of calling for the conversation that is needed to uncover some common ground (since not talking respectfully about political disagreements will make it impossible to uncover any common ground – No talk = no hope for uncovering any common ground). 

First, the call to a return to “regular order” must be strongly supported. Such regular order must include orchestrating committee hearings on any proposed bill, leading to “markups” and then allowing for amendments from the floor, all of which calls for conversation. Members of Congress must embrace such an open process for deliberation and debate.

Secondly, consideration must be given to re-shaping the use of the filibuster. The original intent of the filibuster was, and remains laudable: To ensure that a “minority voice” is adequately heard in congressional deliberations. But it appears to me that currently the filibuster is often used to stifle the conversation between minority and majority voices that is needed to uncover common ground.

A third initiative that I propose flows from my experiences, both good and bad, these past ten or so years, of seeking to orchestrate respectful conversations among persons who disagree strongly about contentious issues: Start any congressional deliberation about any proposed bill with a relatively small bipartisan group of legislators.

My hard-earned experience suggests that attempts at orchestrating respectful conversations will be fruitless if there is a lack of mutual understanding and trust among those who have strong disagreements. And the fostering of such mutual understanding and trust is best accomplished in relatively small groups where conversation partners can get to know one another on a personal level before jumping into an attempt to sort through their disagreements in the search for common ground.

This experience of mine suggests that there is wisdom in starting congressional deliberation on a proposed bill with a relatively small group of politicians. A good recent example of the effectiveness of this starting point is found in the work of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 58 members equally divided among Republicans and Democrats, who have succeeded in forging bipartisan agreement on eleven issues for consideration by the 117th Congress. 

I do not underestimate the challenge of finding any common ground when the proposals from the Problem Solvers Caucus come to the floor of the House or Senate; challenges precipitated by the fact that those outside of the Problem Solvers Caucus have not taken the initiative to get to know one another to build mutual understanding and trust.

I have no easy solutions to this challenge. Possibly a return to Regular Order can be orchestrated in a way that enables there to be a series of small group conversations that will build the mutual understanding and trust needed to uncover some common ground before the bill is brought to the full House or Senate for a vote.

A common element in all that I have proposed above creates venues for us to talk about our disagreements regarding contentious public policy issues. I am not suggesting that such a search for common ground will necessarily uncover some common ground. As I like to assert every chance I get, “one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation.” 

Therefore, as I have proposed in an earlier posting [Bipartisanship is a Process Not an End Result], a politician on either side of the political aisle is being is being bipartisan if she practices respectful conversation characterized by the rare combination of passionate commitment to her beliefs and openness to re-examining her beliefs in light of “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs of others. Therefore, “strong listening” is bipartisanship. One is practicing bipartisanship relative to a given piece of legislation if one practices “strong listening,” even if the final vote on the legislation includes no votes from those on the other side of the aisle. (Remember that one cannot predict beforehand the results of a respectful conversation).

A possible objection to all that I have said above is a rejection of the idea that the search for common ground is the essence of doing politics. Those who situate themselves at either extreme of the political spectrum may argue that it is “my way or the highway”; I will not settle for less than a “full loaf.” I believe that this argument misunderstands the nature of politics, which, more often than not requires settling for “less than a full loaf.” It also reflects a lack of balance between the two poles of the rare combination of commitment and openness that I have argued is a pre-condition for having a respectful conversation that uncovers some common ground: strong on commitment, which is to be applauded, but weak on openness. I urge those who situate themselves at either extreme of the political spectrum to seek for a better balance between commitment and openness.

In conclusion. I address the question of how well President Biden is doing to date in what he calls his commitment to bipartisanship in politics. Let me focus my response on the current debate over potential legislation regarding infrastructure. A good start was that at the very beginning of debate about this contentious issue, President Boden hosted a meeting with Republican legislators. But my question is whether this meeting went beyond being the “weak listening” that characterizes being polite, to the “strong listening” of re-examining one’s beliefs about infrastructure in light of the contrary beliefs of others in the room. I don’t know if such “strong listening” took place, since I was not in the room and media reports about that meeting shed little light on that question.

But I do have a perspective on what should be the “ideal” in such a meeting: “Strong  listening” should be taking place The participants should exhibit that rare combination of deep commitment to their own beliefs about infrastructure and openness to re-examining their own beliefs in light of their “strong listening” to the contrary beliefs about infrastructure embraced by others in the room. If such “strong listening,” characterized by that rare combination is prevalent in the conversation, then there is hope for finding some common ground. But, even if the common ground uncovered is sparse or even non-existent, if “strong listening” was practiced in the deliberations, then bipartisanship was practiced.

Whether such bipartisanship emerges remains to be seen. There appears to be movement toward agreement on the size of a package.  President Biden has put a $1 trillion package on the table (after his earlier proposals for $2.2 trillion and $1.7 trillion) and Republicans have moved from an initial proposal for a $568 billion package to a $928 billion package. But the biggest obstacle to agreement is how to pay for whatever size package is agreed upon. It is my hope that in the days to come, some “strong listening” will lead to agreement on a package and how to pay for it that reflects the emergence of some common ground.

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