The Art of Shutting Up (and still getting heard)
Silence is an art form – this coming from someone who, by all accounts, can talk a camel into sprouting wings. I’m like most Americans in that I have strong views about politics. Very, very, VERY strong views. And, like most Americans, I had little trouble sharing them. I just opened up and let ‘er fly.
Then God challenged me, two days after New Year 2012: spend the entire year without once sharing my political views. Some of you who know me may remember this resolution, and how it turned out for me.
Talk about your paradigm shifts. For the longest time, I thought I had a corner on political (and otherwise) truth. I had the best solutions, and everyone else was crazy. I know I am far from alone in that flawed sentiment. (If you doubt it, read the comments on the online news sites.) Now, for the first time, I realized that all my political views, even the correct ones, were in some way wrong!
Yup, meet paradox #1. If you think you have the total solution for a political issue, you’re terribly mistaken. This has nothing to do with the absolute/relative truth debate. The best solution does not reside inside anybody’s camp. I can guarantee that every person alive missed something.
Take, for example, the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico. On the one extreme, we have people saying we should close the border. On the other extreme, we have people saying we should let everyone in. Both camps missed something. On the one hand, closing the border is a) a logistical impossibility, and b) prevents legal immigration of some honest, hard-working potential Americans. On the other hand, throwing open the border a) makes smuggling drugs, firearms, and the like a walk in the park for Mexican crime lords, and b) the influx of undocumented individuals, legal or not, overwhelms the system.
Now, I’m not going to say one word about what I think should be done about immigration. That’s not why I’m here. My point is, neither camp has a viable solution, because they both are on opposite edges of a political cliff.
So, where do we find the solution? That leads us to the Paradox #2: Every solution will allow someone to take advantage of the system, and will also leave someone out in the cold. I call this the “Paradox of Policy”. If we seal every possible loophole, more people are overlooked. If we help every person, more loopholes are overlooked. The trick is to minimize this.
Every political “camp,” however, is uniquely aware of at least one situation or loophole the other camps cannot see. This was the entire point of democracy in the first place. If we all compared notes, we could factor in the whole situation, and arrive at the best solution.
Our problem is, we’ve stopped truly listening to the “other guy.” We assume we’re right, for whatever reason, legitimate or otherwise. One thing I learned from my resolution is that, even people whose beliefs and ideas are wildly illogical (at least, as far as I can see) have something to contribute.
It helped me to listen to others when I realized that no ideas are formed in a vacuum. Everyone has a reason for what they believe, and their logic is, as far as they can anticipate, just as sound as you anticipate yours to be. Their ideas are based on their ethics, beliefs, priorities, fears, and concerns. Realizing that helped me empathize with others.
I’ll risk igniting some strong emotions here and bring up a major debate as an example: guns. Again, I will not share my beliefs on the topic, because that is entirely beside the point. However, I want to illustrate that both sides have something to contribute to a well-reasoned discussion on the topic. Whether or not a particular belief is correct, the CONCERN should be carefully considered.
Set aside your own feelings and beliefs before reading, and remember what I just said. Try to put yourselves in the other person’s shoes:
Pro-gunners argue that we have the Constitutional right to bear arms. They are concerned that, if the government begins to regulate and restrict firearms, we are giving up a Constitutional right, put into place to protect us from a political system that oversteps its bounds. They also argue that, if more people have the firepower to protect themselves and others, criminals would think twice before committing a crime.
Anti-gunners argue that some people should not have access to guns – the mentally unstable, people with criminal histories, and young children. They argue that, while criminals will not hesitate to break gun laws, those laws make it easier to anticipate criminal intent before the crime takes place.–
Now, if you just read those as I suggested, you can see what I mean. Both sides have very real concerns. A good solution is one that factors in everyone’s concerns, while also remembering that no solution will totally resolve everything.
So, what does this mean for political discussion? Paradox #3: By actively listening to and considering an opposing viewpoint, you give yourself and your views far more credibility.
People like being heard. I’ve had debates about abortion, immigration, gun control, and the like. By actively listening to the other person, I was able to understand, not just what they believed, but why they believed it. That why is the key: even if I truly did have the best solution in mind, that solution could still be adjusted to factor in their concerns.
Let’s take a semi-fictional debate as an example. On the one side, we have ranchers that need to use pasture land for their cattle. On the other side, we have environmentalists that are concerned about the effects the cattle are having on the ecosystem and groundwater.
If neither side is listening, they begin resorting to ad-hominem (personal attacks) and straw-man (emotionalistic lampoons of the opposing viewpoint) arguments. The ranchers say that the “tree-hugging environmentalists” care more about grass than about the ranchers making a living. The environmentalists say that the “greedy ranchers” want a fast buck, without caring about the future.
Now, how ridiculous do they sound right now? They’ve torn down every bridge of discussion, and a public debate turns into a slime-fest. They attempt to lend credence to their cause by delegitimizing the other side’s needs and concerns.
Now, imagine the two sides are listening to each other. The logical debate progression might go like this:
-Ranchers need a place for their cattle to graze.
-Environmentalists are concerned about the ecosystem and groundwater.
-Cattle can be part of the ecosystem, and provide food for the community.
-The health of the ecosystem ensures the ranchers can continue raising cattle for many years.
-The ranchers need a certain number of cattle to make enough profit to stay in business.
-The ecosystem can handle roughly such-and-such number of cattle a year.
-Can the cattle be spread out over a larger area?
-Can the ranchers improve their profit in other areas?
The debate may lead to a compromise, in which farmers use a pasture, and then let it rest for a period of time to regrow. The environmentalists use their expertise to find ways the ranchers can improve efficiency and make more money, thus they don’t need as many cattle to stay in business. There may still be rough patches that need to be smoothed out, and the fix isn’t perfect (paradox of policy), but the ranchers and the environmentalists still found a mutually beneficial solution.
Look familiar? That’s called compromise. Our society has given that a bad name, equating compromise with selling out. In reality, compromise means that we find a win-win situation by tempering our own desires and concerns to ensure the other party’s desires and concerns are also addressed.
Before any of this can happen, we have to learn to, quite simply, shut up and listen. If we want to be heard, we must first be willing to hear. If we want our concerns taken seriously, we must first take others’ concerns seriously.
Our political climate is like a war zone right now, with both sides in their foxholes, firing at each other. The best solution, however, resides somewhere out there in no-man’s land. Before we can find it, we’re going to have to stop firing, get OUT of the foxholes, and meet in the middle.
You want to know the best way to get someone to stop firing at you? Stop being a threat. Put down the verbal gun and invite them to tell you what they think. Ask questions. Don’t argue with them or share your view right now. Just listen. You might be surprised how much you learn, and doubly surprised when they start asking YOU questions.