This is mostly a letter to my kids or grandkids. I don’t have kids or grandkids, and am not married. So I don’t know exactly to whom I’m writing yet. But, I want to tell them what their dad or granddad was thinking and doing at the time uncivil discourse was rampant in American society and a demagogue was approaching the presidency. More importantly, I want them to understand my commitment to contribute to a solution. Especially because what I’m about to say is counterintuitive: the solution to uncivil discourse is not civil discourse.
This is March 2016. Gerrymandered voting districts and lack of term limits have contributed to a polarized and unaccountable Congress. Decades of biased media and spokespeople have fanned the flames of partisanship. People’s belief in the effectiveness of government is at an all time low. And now, the incivility and brazen rhetoric of a vocal minority in the Republican party is rising to a boil in the highest stage of American politics: the race for President of the United States. Donald Trump is currently the leading and presumptive Republican presidential candidate while calling for a wall between the USA and Mexico, saying Mexican immigrants are racists and murderers, arguing to keep out all Muslims, and stating he’d like to punch protesters (and cover the legal fees of any supporters who would). Trump is so secure in his support he’s said he could shoot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York and not lose any voters.
To some usually-partisan leaders’ credit, calls for denying Trump’s candidacy are mounting. It’s obvious, expected, and good that Democrats and many non-Republicans are speaking out against Trump. But many Republicans are as well. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are just two, joined by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. A major faction of the responsible Republican base is working against Trump’s nomination, including 22 conservatives who wrote essays against Trump in one issue of the conservative National Review. I applaud these people.
With Republican leaders and spokespeople on the frontline, there is a diverse, multi-partisan coalition of thought forming around one shared belief: the best of American values is not represented by the Trump campaign. This coalition is united in this single thought, and not united in shared action at this point. Some are protesting at Trump rallies, some are funding anti-Trump Super PACs, some are avidly supporting their alternative presidential candidate(s). One refrain, though, is becoming more and more common from the coalition’s membership: the uncivil dialogue must stop, i.e. we must commit to a more civil discourse. There are calls almost hourly for civil discourse, and tamping down the rhetoric, for fear it will boil over.
This isn’t a new refrain – there have been advocates for civil discourse for as long as there as been uncivil discourse, which is probably close to as long as humans have existed. I believe in the refrain. For my part, I worked with some friends in 2003 to create more civil discourse about the then-pending war in Iraq (the second one, kids). We handed out orange strips of fabric on our campus for people to use to signal their willingness to have a civil conversation about the war, and particularly seek out people with whom they disagreed in order that a civil discourse could ensue. About 2,000 people took OrangeBands in four days. Six years later, 10,000 people had OrangeBands to use to spark civil discussions about any topic. People in ten states formed OrangeBand chapters to model civil discourse by organizing community panels, educational debates, and public forums. I learned of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation, and their 2000-person network working on civil discourse in communities, business, education, and government. Since 2003, I’ve personally coordinated and moderated over 300 community dialogues aimed at creating this civil discourse. I also became mayor of Harrisonburg and am finishing my eighth year on city council, having run local campaigns in hopes of contributing to a more civil discourse in local government. Through this work, I am aware of many thoughtful civil discourse advocates who have nuanced and expansive understandings of the term civil discourse. These people, though, understand a different kind of civil discourse than the simplified type being called for by well-meaning leaders, media personalities, and everyday Americans.
Civil discourse, in response to Trump’s language, generally means, “Don’t be mean, don’t say racist things, don’t call people names, don’t interrupt, don’t punch people, don’t yell, don’t show emotion, and don’t make people uncomfortable.” In short, civil discourse, for many, means, “Speak politely.” Speaking politely is certainly a noble pursuit, and politeness would indeed be a refreshing departure from the rhetoric in our politics in general and in the Republican debates specifically. Politeness can contribute to respect, trust, and even resolution to some conflicts. There are actually plenty of examples of polite speaking while disagreeing. Every Sunday morning ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’ Face the Nation, CNN’s State of the Union, and Fox’s Fox News Sunday feature people with disagreements stating their opinions rather politely. Add to that NPR and PBS, and there’s actually plenty of polite talk out there.
But asking for more polite speaking doesn’t seem to be motivating anyone. In fact, the more uncivil Trump and his crowds are, and the more calls for civility are made, the more fervent his supporters get. Speaking politely, it seems, is not an inspiring request to the frustrated Trump supporters. To better understand this, consider another term that is very close to “civil discourse,” and notice its similarity to Trump’s very justification for his candidacy: “political correctness.”
Political correctness is laughed at (literally at Trump rallies) by millions of people in America. It’s perceived to be weak, ineffective, and soft. But more, many conservatives don’t just dismiss political correctness – they hate it. Political correctness is perceived as a threat to their own God-given and constitutionally-secured right to their freedom of speech. Political correctness, i.e. speaking politely, is not perceived as a solution to anything. It’s experienced as the very essence of the problem in America. As Trump says, the time for political correctness as a way to create solutions is over. People are offended too easily, and political correctness – civil discourse – is in the way of getting real, getting down to business, getting to solutions, getting things done, and, of course, making America great again. But why is there such a negative reaction to being asked to speak politely?
Let’s talk about speech for moment. Speech is speech, right? Words. Sentences. Speech lets people share their voice, express their opinion, explain disagreements, and tell people their frustrations. Freedom of speech is necessary so people are not marginalized, opinions are not suppressed, and government cannot silence its people. But, speech represents a lot more than just the literal words, ideas, and opinions. Speech can represent emotions, values, dreams, and worries. The words people use honor their own experience, their past, their heritage, their culture, their family, and their values. Speaking is an attempt by people to be relevant, to contribute, to participate. People aren’t just speaking words and simple opinions, they’re attempting to manifest who they believe themselves to be at that moment. Speech is how people show they are alive. Speech is self-identify, speech is Self. Freedom of speech is freedom, period. Thus, when someone’s speech is frustrated, offensive, rough, demeaning, angry, or fearful, it’s also something else: it’s honest and authentic.
Incidentally, that’s why people are so concerned about Trump’s words: his words can manifest as reality, his words are who he is. That is why the signs in Chicago at the disrupted Trump rally said, “TRUMP = HATE.” And that’s why there is extra frustration and growing impatience with Trump’s apologists, those remaining Republican and independent supporters who give him a pass by suggesting he does not really mean what he says and he will change his language in the general election. Those apologists, like Ben Carson and Chris Christie, are asking people to give “the other Trump” a chance to come around in a general election. If words are reality, these apologists are literally asking Trump opponents to suspend reality and to pretend to be in a world that Trump’s words literally do not create.
So, when frustrated Trump supporters are asked to be more polite, to be civil, to be politically correct, what is really being asked of them? Asking them to chose different words, lower their volume, or be less emotional is really asking them to restrict who they are. Asking someone to stop cheering when Trump says he’ll build a wall between the USA and Mexico, or immigrants are rapists and murderers, or Muslims should be banned from entering the USA is actually experienced as asking them to not be themselves. And, by not be themselves, I mean not fully exist. Asking someone to be polite and tone down their rhetoric, stop offending people, and be civil can be experienced as a threat to their existence. And, if voting is how people are supposed to let their voice be heard (i.e. exist) in the political system we have, asking a Trump supporter to change her vote is akin to asking her to kill her freedom of speech, and, in some way, kill her Self. That may sound extreme, and likely isn’t how many people look at it, but the struggle for many to speak their mind is experienced as a struggle for life itself. And, for Trump supporters, “the right to life” is something worth fighting for – and maybe not just with words, but with punches or even guns.
Ah, guns. Let’s think about that for a second: words can be weapons, right? Guns are weapons. With that, is it surprising that Trump’s Second Amendment enthusiasts are reacting vehemently against being asked to speak politely? To them, calls for civil discourse and political correctness are the same existential threat posed by gun control. Asking someone to change their vote is akin to taking their guns away, so they can be controlled and maybe even killed. Calling for civil discourse in this environment is as ineffective as calling for moderate gun control after mass shootings. The calls for gun control aren’t just ineffective, they backfire: gun sales increase every time! Is it any surprise Trump’s rhetoric continues to escalate and his supporters get angrier and more resolute with each call for civil discourse? These are the same people buying more guns and ammunition every time President Obama says we need more sensible gun laws after innocents lose their lives to gun violence.
“Boiling over” is a frequent word choice for describing the threat of violence from uncivil discourse. It brings to mind a pot of water. Let’s call this pot America and let’s call it, say, a melting pot. The Melting Pot of America is getting hotter and hotter, beginning to sporadically bubble. The black protesters being punched at Trump rallies seems like a bubble. The peaceful Muslim woman being asked to leave a rally seems like a bubble. The older white man punching the young African American being escorted out of a rally seems like a bubble. The Chicago rally getting shut down seems like a lot of bubbles. There are many other examples of incidents that suggest the anger is indeed about to boil over into violence – and the prospect is frightening. The Melting Pot of America feels like it’s getting ready to boil over, or maybe worse.
Here’s the problem: calling for civil discourse to stop the threat of uncivil discourse is like putting a lid on top of the pot to stop it from boiling. Every call for civil discourse is more pressure applied to the lid. Every person calling for civil discourse is increasing the pressure on the lid. The Melting Pot is full of millions of Trump supporters who need to let off steam and there are millions of Trump opponents standing on the lid. The lid is not helping – it’s making it worse.
Not only are Trump opponents increasing the pressure with calls for civil discourse, many are stoking the fire under the pot itself. These people, whether calling for civility or not, are (however politely) blaming, persuading, arguing with, and proving wrong Trump and his supporters. Some explain Trump supporters are stupid, uneducated, racist, scared, and not really Christians. Justified or not, this language is denying Trump supporters their self-identity, even their dignity. President Obama and Senator Elizabeth Warren have recently come out with widely-circulated and rather civil speeches stating the Republican rhetoric and obstructionism from the last decade is to blame for Trump’s rise, so Republicans have only themselves to blame. Can’t you feel both moderates’ and Trump supporters’ blood heating up when they hear this?
The blaming and judging is adding heat under the melting pot, while the calls for civil discourse are pushing down on the lid. The result is predictable, isn’t it? And the result is ironically and tragically counter-productive: the Melting Pot of America violently explodes – exactly what Trump opponents want to avoid.
So what are we left with? Obviously, the incivility, rudeness, and threatening language warrants a response. It’s unhealthy, dangerous, and unacceptable. It’s hurtful, embarrassing, and disappointing. There is indeed reason for concern that the rhetoric will boil over into violence – it already is. Suppressing uncivil talk and proving Trump wrong risks the very violence we fear – but history shows ignoring such speech as it ascends to power can result in horrific and wholly unacceptable outcomes. So, we certainly can’t do nothing. We have a problem that we must solve, and solve quickly.
Einstein, a rather effective problem solver, said we can’t solve a problem using the same thinking that got us there. This suggests that if we’ve talked our way into the incivility, distrust, sadness, hurt, anger, hopelessness, partisanship, and divisions in our country, we can’t (however politely) talk our way out of it. If we can’t talk our way out of it, what can we do? If holding down the lid isn’t the answer, what is? We know judging, arguing, persuading, and blaming won’t work – those just apply more heat. What is the action we can take that relieves the pressure and heat? In short, how do we, as Trump opponents, lift the lid of the Melting Pot of America before it explodes? If talking isn’t the solution, what do we do?
Let that sit a minute.
To respond to uncivil discourse, we need not just to speak politely, we need to listen. An initial reaction might be, “Well, of course – that’s what civil discourse means. Civil discourse includes listening.” I concede a degree of listening is intended by many who call for civil discourse, but I believe polite speaking is a fundamentally different goal than deep, patient, and respectful listening. Listening to someone can make them feel alive and valued. Trump’s rhetoric is effective not because he’s persuading anyone with this policy arguments – he virtually doesn’t have any! Instead, Trump’s words are making people feel heard, understood, and empathized with. In short, Trump’s words demonstrate he listens and understands and respects his supporters. His listening is literally giving them life. He’s making it easy, with his simple language, for people to articulate themselves with the cumbersome tool of speech.
While speech is what we have at our disposal to be ourselves, words and language are imperfect. Speech is actually a terribly limited way for us to express ourselves. Speech is limited by vocabulary. Speech is limited by time. Speech is limited by circumstance. Speech is limited by understanding. Speech is limited by the receiver. Thus, speech rarely is able to give someone the opportunity to fully articulate their position, reaction, thoughts, reasons, and emotions. To fully explain ourselves takes time. Especially when speaking is an attempt to explain who we are.
Freedom of speech requires listeners. Freedom of speech does not matter without listening. Somewhere along the line, being a citizen in America has been equated solely with speaking freely, and the requirement for listeners has been forgotten – or never thought of in the first place. Free speech is supposedly the essence of American democracy and opportunity, but it actually requires listeners for it to have any impact. People who want to empower fellow citizens and make America great don’t need to think of the right thing to say, they need to think about the right way to listen. People only have three options when they are not listened to and get sick of trying polite speaking: shut down and disengage, get louder and more dramatic, or get violent.
And Americans don’t listen – and it’s not just a conservative problem. Perhaps the pressure cooker in the melting pot isn’t solely the result of callous Republicans scheming against Obama and using words to de-legitimize his presidency, as Senator Warren proposes. Perhaps the pressure and heat in the Melting Pot of America is built up because know-it-all, smug, self-righteous liberals are too smart, too uncomfortable, and too arrogant to sit down with a Trump supporter, crack open a Budweiser, and shut the fuck up for 15 minutes. (Yes, that made me feel alive, and was not civil. Don’t kill me.)
So the solution is simple: everyone listen. Not exactly simple.
I define listening as what it takes to make the speaker feel understood and respected. This sounds simple, but it is actually incredibly complicated. Think listening is easy? Check out this list of traits for an effective listener:
- Listener is receptive to the speaker and has an (unbiased) open mind
- Listener uses nonverbal communication
- Listener asks questions to clarify
- Listener critically evaluates speaker’s information
- Listener indicates to the speaker that the listener understands and is listening
- Listener has an unlimited (sufficiently large) amount of time and is available to listen
- Listener is patient and/or provides a comfortable, open, and encouraging atmosphere
- Listener makes eye contact
- Listener concentrates and/or pays attention while listening
- Listener understands main ideas
- Listener understands speaker’s feelings or emotions
- Listener summarizes, restates and/or paraphrases the speaker
- Listener is not distracted while listening
- Listener gives speaker clear feedback
- Listener uses and/or understands the speaker’s language (meaning of speaker’s words)
- Listener remembers points (main ideas) and/or details
- Listener understands speaker’s tone of voice and nonverbal communication
- Listener evaluates and recognizes speaker’s credibility, lies, and/or inconsistencies
- Listener listens to the entire message (including every word)
- Listener uses exploring (open-ended) questions (questions for additional information)
- Listener understands when speaker withholds information (information is unsaid)
- Listener enjoys and appreciates listening to the speaker
- Listener does not interrupt
- Listener is polite and avoids arguments
- Listener uses words that are understood
- Listener speaks at proper volume
- Listener is not tired while listening
- Listener gives proper responses with a proper amount of response or feedback
- Listener is free from internal distractions such as wandering thoughts
- Listener encourages speaker to speak freely
- Listener is relaxed and comfortable while listening
- Listener understands and takes into account the speakers perspective (personal or cultural) or point of view
- Listener expresses his or her own feelings or emotions
Broken down this way, listening involves much more than many of us have ever considered. And, to show how little handle we have on listening, the source of the list above is a combination of two tables in a research article from November 2015 that compares 53 different listening assessments and concludes, among other things, that there is not one listening test out there that measures all these aspects of listening. (Source: Tables 2 & 4 in Fontana, Peter C., Steven D. Cohen, and Andrew D. Wolvin. “Understanding Listening Competency: A Systematic Review of Research Scales.” The International Journal of Listening. 29.3 (2015): 153, 159. Note: much of the language in the bullets is taken word for word from the article but I added some words and left out the quotations for readability.)
This is the kind of deep listening I mean when I say listening can lift the lid off the overheating melting pot. This is the listening that can create new possibilities. This type of listening has the potential to leave people respected, understood, whole, and alive. Literally, because this type of listening can let a person more fully express their Self, this deep listening can acknowledge them in a way manner which polite talk and censorship never will be able to. One vital, exciting possibility is this listening can reestablish something that calls for polite speaking actually threaten: a sense of dignity.
Dr. Donna Hicks explains in her TED Talk the nine elements of dignity. As a conflict resolution practitioner, she realized progress is not possible if someone feels an element of their dignity has been violated and this violation is left unaddressed. Her list of Essential Elements of Dignity and suggested actions to honor dignity is here (this is all taken directly):
- Acceptance of Identity—Approach people as neither inferior nor superior to you; give others the freedom to express their authentic selves without fear of being negatively judged; interact without prejudice or bias, accepting how race, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation, age, disability, etc. are at the core of their identities. Assume they have integrity.
- Recognition—Validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness, and help; be generous with praise; give credit to others for their contributions, ideas and experience.
- Acknowledgment—Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating and responding to their concerns and what they have been through.
- Inclusion—Make others feel that they belong at all levels of relationship (family, community, organization, nation).
- Safety—Put people at ease at two levels: physically, where they feel free of bodily harm; and psychologically, where they feel free of concern about being shamed or humiliated, that they feel free to speak without fear of retribution.
- Fairness—Treat people justly, with equality, and in an evenhanded way, according to agreed upon laws and rules.
- Independence—Empower people to act on their own behalf so that they feel in control of their lives and experience a sense of hope and possibility.
- Understanding—Believe that what others think matters; give them the chance to explain their perspectives, express their points of view; actively listen in order to understand them.
- Benefit of the Doubt—Treat people as trustworthy; start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.
- Accountability—Take responsibility for your actions; if you have violated the dignity of another, apologize; make a commitment to change hurtful behaviors.
This is a significant list. Trump telling a Telemundo reporter to go back to Mexico, imitating a disabled person, tepidly denouncing white supremacist support, or inciting violence certainly attacks people’s dignity. His supporters punching people, yelling racial slurs, and not listening certainly violates others’ dignity. It violates my dignity, and I’m a middle class, healthy, well adjusted, confident white guy. I can’t imagine how undignified it feels to have a leading candidate for president say and do such things and be black, brown, poor, Muslim, disabled, or female. But, dense government bureaucracy, inaccessible and unaccountable leaders, decisions supporting only the wealthy, and calls for civil discourse are making Trump supporters’ dignity feel violated (sounds a lot like Bernie’s supporters’ frustrations, doesn’t it?).
It strikes how much those elements of dignity, and the outcomes of listening, align with my understanding of American values. That probably explains a whole additional level of frustration than just my own individual dignity being violated: I feel Trump and his supporters offend the dignity of the entire United States of America. Their holding up of the American flag as if their words and actions represent American values is borderline unbearable.
And, these are the people I’m saying Trump opponents should listen to – the people who’ve violated our individuals and country’s dignity? Yes. Trump opponents should sit down and listen to Trump supporters and listen. We should listen as long as it takes. We should listen as much as it takes. We should work through our justified sense of violated dignity, and practice listening anyway. We must get over ourselves and show the respect we want. We must be the change we want to see – or hear.
By “we”, I may give a pass to people whose dignity has so been violated by Trump’s rhetoric that they cannot yet stand to listen to a Trump supporter. I don’t blame them. By “we”, I mean individuals who have the capacity and ability to get over the violation of their dignity. I mean people, and also mean organizations. The absolute worst offenders of this needed listening approach actually might have the most to gain: local Democratic party committees. Local Democratic committees have a chance in their communities to lead a sustained, authentic, difficult, and dignifying listening campaigns in their local communities to people they have never reached out to before. Incidentally, so do the Republican committees, and the Libertarians – as well as any place of worship or any civic organization. But it’s not easy, and will take effort.
What’s extra challenging about listening is we’re not taught how to listen in any substantial manner in most schools: we don’t know how to deeply listen because we never learned. Most communication, leadership, and business courses overemphasize speaking, persuading, presenting, and selling. If they focus on listening, it’s usually for a small portion of the class – and not on as comprehensive a list of traits as listed above. The fact that deep listening is at the core of functioning democracy, relationships, businesses, conflict resolution, and learning itself makes it infuriatingly dumbfounding that a complex and challenging listening skills and habits course isn’t required in every school in the land, and maybe in each grade level. Anyone who has read this far who influences a curriculum of any kind should focus on one thing: putting a full listening course into that curriculum and make it required for all students.
And I should start with myself. To be clear, I’m definitely not a great listener. Sometimes, I’m great; sometimes, I’m terrible. But I know it’s a worthy goal at all times, whether I’m failing or succeeding. I’ve created a listening curriculum to help improve listening in individuals and teams. I’ve coached people in listening. I’m planning to coach many more people in listening, especially business leaders. I plan to facilitate a lot more civil discourses with special attention on letting people be listened to rather than just talk. I created the Listening Café method for small groups to use to listen and have better meetings. Practicing listening anyway is the last step in a simple four-step listening process I created to simplify listening habits. I just returned from the International Listening Association Convention and plugged into an inspiring group of listening champions. And OrangeBands are back as reminders to listen. Soon, I’ll start a new OrangeBand Radio podcast aimed at featuring the transformation listening can make in our lives, businesses, democracy, and relationships.
So, to my future kids and grandkids, these are the steps I am taking to contribute to the solution to the problem of the Trump campaign. I’m not arguing against Trump on Facebook, not protesting, and not calling for civil discourse – and that’s because I do not agree with Trump and don’t want to see him elected. I’m going to do my best to do something that might actually work: practice listening anyway, and invite, motivate, and support as many others as I can do to the same. Hopefully, by the time I meet you, this country will be stronger and citizens will feel empowered, because we have a nation of listeners that lets freedom of speech matter.
To start, anyone reading is invited to sign up for my newsletter, get an OrangeBand, try the Listening Café, or become a coaching client. But, mostly, anyone interested should get a couple Budweisers, sit down with a Trump supporter, and listen.
As always, thanks for listening.