Home The Dark Side of Political Life: Five ways to promote civil discourse

The Dark Side of Political Life: Five ways to promote civil discourse


Democrat vs. Republican on whiteBy K. Palmer Hartl

Do we have to continue with “I’m okay and you’re an idiot” in our political life? The short answer is no, but getting there will not be easy.  For months now we have been subjected to unremitting political ads that attempt to portray the opponent as a bad person.  “They will do this to you”……   “They are this (negative) kind of person” and so on. As people came out of the polls from the 2014 Midterm elections, one of the common things said was how people were looking forward to the end of relentless attack ads.

We can be assured that the ads will stop, but will the rhetoric and interaction get any better?  I believe it can if people are willing to affirm the essential worth of the opponent or the person with a different idea.

What was remarkable about this campaign was that for the most part there was very little discussion about the key issues that are confronting our country.  The attacks, you see, are all about discrediting the other person, so that we are not even interested in what they have to say.

The solution seems to lie in actually having a discussion about the issues.   We need a conversation about immigration reform, we need a conversation about tax reform, we need a conversation about the role of government in our lives, and most of all we need a conversation about how to deal with the changing economy that continues to not produce the kind of jobs that will allow many people to make a decent living.

To do this we will have to focus on some specific techniques and practices that promote civil discourse.

Stick to the subject: Whenever the conversation drifts away from the topic, the economy, the tax code, etc., someone needs to bring it back to the subject. This mean that all parties must be good at side stepping the temptation to slam the other person and to portray them as stupid.

Tell me more: Use the words – “Tell Me More.” When you hear the other person say something that either you don’t understand or that makes your blood boil, ask them to tell you more about what they are thinking.   Elaborating on a bad idea will eventually show it to be what it is, no good. On the other hand when the person “tells you more”, it may be that you will hear something that actually starts to persuade you that they have a point.

Listen: Listening is not just waiting for the other person to stop talking.  Listening is being able to say back to the other person what it is that you have just heard them say.   “So if I am hearing you correctly, what you are saying is that you think that we need a Value Added Tax instead of what we are doing now.  This is a technique called reflection.    When a person repeats back to you or summarizes what you have said, they can determine whether you were listening or not.  The benefit of this is that people like to be listened to and if they understand that you are listening to them they may do you the reciprocal favor.

Meet with people face –to- face: Our cyber world has created distance in our relationships.  This makes it easier to treat the other person with less respect.  Even though these electronic statements are part of the permanent record, people seem to be willing to say all sorts of things in e-mail and other forms of electronic communication that they would never think of saying in a face- to- face conversation.

Stop catastrophizing: If we are to return to a situation where civil discourse if possible, we need to dial back the dire predictions that we have been making about where the other guy is taking us.   There is little short of nuclear war that will change the face of the world in one day.  The policies that are under discussion and which have brought us to such a state of enmity and dysfunction will not and can not destroy us in one day or one month or one year for that matter.   Almost all of the policy disagreements that face the country will take a long time to play out.   Those who hyperbolize and claim that the sky is falling would have us believe otherwise.  We must confront that kind of thinking and take our time to hear each other out to come to the best solution.

Palmer Hartl, MDiv graduated from Grinnell College and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biological Sciences. He graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1968, where he received an MDiv, with a concentration in counseling and group dynamics. While in his first parish, Rev. Hartl began additional training in group work, team interaction,  and Transactional Analysis. This eventually led to a career as a pastoral psychotherapist and leadership and management consultant to for profit and not for profit organizations.

In 1980, Rev. Hartl began working for Ernst and Young (formerly known as Arthur Young) as a member of their management and leadership training function. This career later led him to Philadelphia, Pa. where he worked as Senior Vice President of Training and Development for a bank holding company. In 1991, Rev. Hartl left the bank and began working as an independent consultant to many businesses and non-profit organizations.

In addition to consulting work, Rev. Hartl is a Parish Associate at Christ Church Philadelphia where he teaches, counsels, and preaches

The Ten Commandments of Management is available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.




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