In light of the discussions happening all over the USA this week, I decided to seek out an expert on civil, effective communication. I was fortunate enough to run across Meryl Runion, a recognized expert on collaborative communication and personal growth from Colorado. She is the author of seven books that have sold over 350,000 copies worldwide: Power Phrases, Perfect Phrases for Leadership Development, Perfect Phrases for Managers and Supervisors, How to Restore Sanity to Our Political Conversations, and others. It’s that last title that caught my interest.
Meryl was kind enough to answer my questions about our current political climate via email. I have to admit, I learned something from her responses (including some of my own regrettable predilections). I hope y’all find it interesting too.
Here we go!
In a nutshell, how can we citizens change the tone of our political discourse to be more civil?
I don’t see toning ourselves down as the best goal. It’s important that we honor our passion and deeply held beliefs. Our passion fuels us and if properly conveyed, inspires others. I sometimes think public radio sounds so toned down as to sound dehuman. Some commentators talk about heinous things in the same voice as they relay the weather. The alternative to that isn’t screaming - it’s being genuine - speaking from the heart. So I say be who we are - express our passion, emotion, enthusiasm. If we believe what we’re saying and are excited about it, we don’t have to attack what someone else is saying. We can learn about what makes them tick, and ask how they see things as they do. We can invite them to be genuine with us and also be savvy enough to ask questions and respond authentically when we feel attacked or manipulated.
On our local newspaper’s website, I am paired with a conservative blogger. On talk radio, I am paired with a conservative host. What rules of engagement should I offer my counterpart pundits to promote civility in print and over the airwaves?
You’re set up for conflict from the start. It’s quite a bit like the show Crossfire that Jon Stewart took to task. It was structured as political theater positioning one side against another. The labels you start with put you both in boxes. Listeners think they know everything about you because you represent one side of the duality.
People read my book and don’t know what side of the political isle I’m on. Well, I don’t know either. I don’t fit under either label. Labels stop thought. I define myself by a completely different set of criteria. I actually think most of us would if we really thought about it.
Then there’s the rules of engagement term you used. Actually I do have communication guidelines in the book. But I wouldn’t call them rules of engagement, because that sends you out of the gate with a mindset of war. This isn’t a war and it isn’t a sporting match. I suggest you try a show without using any military or competitive sports jargon. I also suggest you make a point of finding and acknowledging one thing the other says in each interaction that influenced you.
I’m also wary of the word pundit. It implies someone who has all the answers - or thinks they do. Dialog is an exchange of ideas - not talking AT people. No one has all the answers, and speaking from a pedestal closes conversation down.
What are some of the most common logical fallacies you see being used in politics today?
Absolute thinking is the biggest. You’re with us or you’re not. If you’re not a republican you are a democrat. Politician X or Pundit Y caused the shooting and should be tried, or they have no responsibility for introspection to see if they should change their style a bit. Okay, (I’m using irony here) - we absolutely must get past our absolute thinking and communication.
But really, Kenny, I want to keep the focus on what underlies the logical fallacies. That’s setting a goal to win, rather than to communicate and collaborate. And it’s helpful to know how that game is played so we won’t get caught in the web. We do well to address faulty logic when people use it. (Notice I didn’t say confront.) But also keep the focus on changing the game. You might say, “I know you to be an intelligent person, and that remark doesn’t follow a line of clear logic. I’m sure you have good reasons for seeing things as you do, and I’d like to hear them.”
How do we avoid conversation-destroying tactics?
By learning conversation-enhancing skills. And by developing a better relationship with our reptilian brains (I call them brainlets) so we can respond rather than react and speak to connect and influence rather than crush and destroy.
Really, these skills are worth learning! If we can stay connected and effective when someone makes an inflammatory political comment, it will serve us at work and at home. Politics puts our emotional maturity to the test.
Our Congressman Randy Neugebauer made the infamous “baby killer” remark on the floor of the House at the time of the health care bill vote. In his recent reelection campaign, he used that outburst as a fundraiser and to score points with his base. How can we hope to restore civility in our political discourse when incivility seems to be a campaign booster?
Terms like that CAN be the sincere expression of what someone feels - and they can be manipulative levers to rile up a fight or fight response. Some people sincerely believe that’s an accurate description. Others use terms like that to stir mindless passion and stop discussion.
If someone believes that term is the best way to describe abortionists, they would be sincere in using it. However, if they are sincere in wanting to influence the practice, they would need to be aware that the term polarizes the discussion and is likely to be tuned out by many considering abortion. So the question would be - what would be a more effective way to talk about it if your goal is sincerely to be a “baby-saver.”
Of course if the goal is to boost a campaign, the term works well. That’s why I focus my efforts on people who have nothing to gain by inflaming and dividing us. Get the sincere to speak more effectively and it will plant seed toward changing the culture.
On a personal note, I want to thank you for your book and what it is trying to accomplish.
Thank you for that comment. I’m sure you know that there are many people who don’t applaud this kind of effort. I do believe the number who do are greater, and they are the ones who can hear - not just that we need to do this, but how to do it. I speak and write not as a pundit myself but as someone who has some skills and wants to be a part of the shift that is taking place by helping to empower the voices that will help make this happen. I hope you and your readers will learn from me and I will learn from you and from them ways to make collaborative political dialog a reality - not just in pockets here and there, but in the mainstream.
So what do you say, readers? Are we up to the challenge of collaborative political dialog?
I guess we’ll find out in the comments below.
Meryl Runion on YouTube
How to Restore Sanity to Our Political Conversations (ISBN 978-1-935758-06-8) is published by WordStream Publishing, 2010, and is available for order from your local bookstore or online.