A new conversation. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle….or treat name calling as reasoned debate”. Conflict Counsel No 8

Did you notice how many times that President Obama used the word “we” in his inauguration speech, especially in his passionate plea for consensus on climate change, gay rights, wars and a fair and just economy (not just for the rich).

Obama often speaks the language of consensus and collaboration.  Yet he has found it very hard to achieve consensus or even a reasoned debate.

When politicians speak passionately about working together there is often applause.

Why then do they fail in achieving a workable consensus in relation to the most important issues?  It may be that personal interests get in the way. Those interests may include re-election or ensuring that the constituents they represent, be that business or the working class or the military or the masses, get what they want.

Politicians sometimes reject the opportunity to strive for consensus for fear of looking weak.  I remember when Bob Carr (then NSW Premier) suggested to John Howard (after Howard had a resounding election win) that the Australian States and the Commonwealth should “sit down and talk about how education and health should be addressed in our Federal system”.  Howard’s only response was “why would I speak to him” or words to that effect.  This is a demonstration of the failure of our leading politicians to understand how to have a collaborative conversation.

Carr was not telling Howard the answer to the mess that our Federal system has made of hospitals and schools, only acknowledging that there might be a better way and offering to talk about it at a time when Federal decision making might have been simple.  What could be wrong with such a conversation?

To talk with someone and seek a better outcome is not a sign of weakness.  To call them a name is.  That is the point that Obama was making.

Talking with terrorists is not a bad thing…giving in to their demands in a manner that encourages more terrorism might be. Listening and trying to find a peaceful solution could never be wrong.  Isn’t that what police crisis negotiators do every day, with great success?  Police negotiators don’t just speak to people they disagree with.  They speak with people whose motives and actions are often impossible to understand. Crisis negotiators have much more difficult conversations than those between political leaders about climate change or how to end wars.  And yet (as Obama says) our politicians more often than not regress to name calling when what their electors want is reasoned discussion, with all “sides” having the hard conversations and seeking to find the best possible solutions.

How can those difficult conversations occur in politics or in our personal lives?  Do you remember the last time you had an argument about who should perform some task of work or where to go on holiday?

The way to address difference is to focus on WHY something is important.  Why do we need to tackle climate change (for instance)?  List the goals and aspirations for addressing the issue as well as the needs and fears that could be addressed in any solution and then work together to find the best answer or answers.  The best answer is sometimes called “Pareto optimality”.  Why not aspire to achieve it in all areas of public and private discourse.

We can support our politicians to do just that.   We can tell them that we are sick of the name calling and character attacks that have nothing to do with ability to govern.  We can tell them we are sick of the constant derision of ideas without any considered thought or reason being given.  We can tell them we demand that they work harder to agree, not harder to hate.  We can tell them that we want them to address the issues and not “play the woman or man”. This is what we teach our children and aspire to in our personal lives.  Why is it any different in politics?

With more collaboration we get less conflict AND better policy!!!

See the whole of President Obama’s speech;