Every now and then, our elected officials provide an object lesson in how not to conduct dialogue. In that respect, the gridlock over raising the U.S. debt ceiling is turning into a classic. Here are a few lessons I draw from the whole dustup (warning to my conservative friends: I’m going to be particularly hard on the Republicans):
- Set aside your preconceptions—however temporarily. By doing so, we can transcend our own filters (through which we see the world), clearing our minds and hearts to listen more fully to other perspectives. Had Republican congressional leaders done so, they might have at least heard the views of some distinguished economists that tax increases should form a part of any long-term effort to address the debt. Instead, the leaders have refused to even consider the notion of raising taxes, dismissing any explorations to the contrary and thereby restricting the potential of the dialogue to reach the best solutions.
- Do not repeat sound bites ad nauseam to address complex issues. The very structure of our news media—fast, brief, pithy, designed for today’s shorter attention spans—puts leaders under tremendous pressure to communicate in sound bites. But while sound bites might illumine an isolated aspect of an issue, there is no way they can communicate the full complexity of something like the national debt. Moreover, when we hear the same sound bites over and over, we begin to assume they are the only way to think about an issue. To borrow a business cliché, these terms set the “box”—and make it more difficult to think outside it. That goes for the people using the sound bites as well as those who hear them. So we need to retire phrases like “job-killing tax hikes” and “balancing the budget on the backs of the middle class.”
- Treat the issue with the seriousness and urgency it deserves. When ice-in-the-veins economists start using words like catastrophic and very significant, one would do well to approach the issue with instant and extreme seriousness. Add in the constraint of a time limit, and there is precious little room for wasted effort. Yet our leaders continue to talk past one another and not with one another. Other dialogues in other settings—a mutual sharing of views in an interfaith forum, say—can take their time to evolve and explore and meander as necessary. Not so here.
- Use anger carefully. Part of being human is that we come with the full range of human emotions as standard equipment. Communication tends to work far better in a spirit of calm and open-heartedness, but sometimes (see above) open hearts and minds are in scarce supply, and intransigence rules. In such cases, a judicious expression of heartily felt anger might be just the thing, on the chance that it could wake people up and reset their orientation toward resolving the issue at hand. That’s why I have no beef with the president’s alleged sharp words to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
I’ll bet you’ve drawn your own lessons from this affair. What have you learned? Do share. And to any congressional leaders who might be reading this: Please. Do the right thing. The debt is serious business; give us serious solutions.