A Marriage Counselor makes some suggestions on Political communication

I am not a fan of most political discussions.

I am a guy who is not afraid of tension, who sees a significant need for difficult discussion on important topics.  I have also been a marriage counselor for the last 23 years and I’ve encountered lots of seemingly irreconcilable arguments which turned out to be reconcilable.  Political discussions though so often feel futile and defeating.  Anger and stubborn refusal to listen plague otherwise intelligent and friendly people on all sides of the political aisle.  Although friends on both sides disagree with me, I truly think this latest shutdown is a failure of  both sides.  At its root it seems to me to be a lack of willingness and/or ability to communicate toward common goals.

And so, not for our leaders in Washington, who I am quite sure don’t read my blog, but for my faithful readers who may find themselves in heated political discussions, I provide the following guidelines straight from my years as a marriage counselor.  Imagine how Facebook alone would change if we applied these Biblical standards.

1) The magic of James 1:19

The brother of Jesus says, in his letter to some squabbling Christians, “Take note of this:  Be slow to speak, eager to listen and hard to make angry.”  It’s interesting in fact, that when we are angry, we are more likely to be eager to speak and slow to listen.  Precisely when we care deeply about something we are most likely to be enthusiastic about sharing and uninterested in really listening.  The point is not to shut down, to simply refuse to talk out of anger, but instead to be eager in our conversation to really listen.  There are very few political conversations where the goal in our minds isn’t first and foremost to persuade the other person.  If they would just listen to us.  The problem is both of us are saying…”If they would just listen to me…”    When you find yourself rising to anger and your temptation is to speak quickly or forcefully, take note of this..   I hear people say things that astound me.  Things that just a little thought, a little slow down, would have prevented.  Reasonable people sounding very unreasonable.

2) Stop finger pointing and move forward.

James asks a question, “What is the reason you are arguing?”  If you actually ask this question of people who are engaged in argument (and I have countless times over the years) the answer is invariably the same.  “It’s their fault.  If they would just listen, if they weren’t so stubborn…”  We always think the reason for the quarrel is that the other side is being stubborn or stupid.  If they were as smart as I was there would be no argument.  James points out that this is never in fact true.  Our quarrels instead are based on our passions and our desires, most often when those passions and desires suddenly become more important to us then the person we are arguing with.  It’s a sad thing to say to a married couple that they are behaving as if how the tooth paste tube is squeezed is more important than this person they pledged their life and undying love to.  But it happens all the time.  Political discussion will never be fruitful as long as our ideas are more important than the people on the other side to us.  As long as we can blame the other side for the argument we will keep waiting for them to change and no progress will be made.  When I posted on Facebook recently that I was disappointed in both sides, I had friends from both sides immediately race in to explain why this current stalemate was really all the Republicans, or Democrats fault.  This is not to say that all arguments are 50/50.  They are not.  It is certainly possible for one side or the other to be more responsible, but only in very extreme circumstances does pointing that out make any difference at all.  Only in the case of actual clear evil and abuse does it help to completely ignore our own desires which got us here.  This leads to the next point.

3) Stop calling names and using extreme verbiage.

Seriously?  Every single political disagreement is like Hitler, or Jihad?  Every disagreement is based on racism, or socialism, or corruption or evil?  I have heard the term “evil” used to describe people on both sides of the discussion from my Facebook friends and I plead with you to remember friends you have who do not share your viewpoint.  Are they truly evil?.  I am a republican and while I think the strategy of forcing a shutdown was a bad one, I do agree with and understand the motivations.  When you espouse that the only possible motivations for the Republican position is evil racism, or evil control, or evil desires to prevent people from getting health care, then you are accusing me and half the country of  being the same.  My brother is a democrat with whom I rarely agree politically, but I know him to be honorable, generous, loving and smart.  As much as I’d like to blame our disagreements on his evil, stupid nature, there just isn’t any truth in such a claim.  I think it should be a rule that before you post a political position on Facebook you should have at least one friend that is on the other side.  A true friend, a friend that believes exactly what you are about to decry.  And then picture that friend as you speak these words to his face.  If it then seems wrong to do so, stop.

4) Never use never.  Always avoid always.

Its amazing how ruling out certain words in marriage counseling changes the entire tone of a conversation.  As examples, these two, never and always, along with the name calling, creep into even the most healthy marriages at times, and when they do they immediately derail the conversation.  Suddenly instead of arguing the merits of our individual positions we are arguing whether this is precisely always true. A husband who rarely helps out around the house can nonetheless win the argument if it becomes about whether he everhelps out. Furthermore it’s just not true, and believe it or not, truth does matter. I don’t mean nobly matter, I mean it practically matters. Our current governmental stalemate has at least something to do with a lack of complete truth on both sides. Schmoozing the truth in an argument removes power from your argument and makes it unlikely that revelation or enlightenment will come to either of you in that argument.

5) Bottom line: move from adversary to collaborator.

In a difficult marriage every problem becomes intractable because the power of collaboration is lost as your best ally in problem solving becomes your enemy. In marriages where every problem is tackled in partnership, creative and powerful answers are found. As long as the argument is your fault and you are evil and/or stupid, as long as you are the problem, we will never work together to find an answer. Only by making the problem the enemy (even if it is tied to an individual, say alcoholism) and tackling it together is progress made. Countless times I’ve been able to present solutions to couples who are completely surprised there even was an answer. In truth the answer was obvious to me since I was looking at the problem and not trying to win over them. Maybe if you can trust the compassion of your republican friends and the wisdom of your democrat friends we could actually find solutions. Likewise, as long as Obama blames the republican house and the republican house blames Obama, neither is really looking for a solution. Usually political survival leads to finding at least temporary solutions but we need longer term answers which can only be found via collaboration. Believe it or not, the world would not be better off without ideas that dispute, clarify and ultimately shape your own.

Well that’s my thoughts this morning. Feel free to disagree in the comments below. Just don’t call me stupid or evil. 🙂

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for that! The name calling politically has got to stop, and I see it going both ways. I am truly frustrated that this country is in the place it is in because what we would assume to be clear minded individuals have failed to even try for peaceable solutions to differences. So long as one side is evil and one side is angelic, no good can come. We must see how this is dividing our nation, but unfortunately, I do not believe those in Washington are truly interested in solving the rift- they are more interested in winning re-election.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Jennie. I actually suspect if they were thinking about reelection they would get it done. It’s usually reelection that keeps people willing to compromise and negotiate. Dictators never negotiate. But in this case I fear we have two sides, neither a majority who are feeling very principled and foolishly think that is enough to win reelection.

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