New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a column on the economic crisis titled “Why How Matters.” After reviewing the “hows” of why our financial markets ended up in disarray, he concluded: “We need to get back to collaborating the old-fashioned way. That is, people making decisions based on business judgment, experience, prudence, clarity of communications and thinking about how — not just how much”. “Why how matters” in our political life as well. There too, we need to get back to collaborating the old-fashioned way, and we need judgment, experience, prudence, and a clarity of communications.
The public seems to be ready. In our recent national elections, candidates that emphasized hope, community and a lessening of fear-based partisan attacks prevailed. President-Elect Obama emphasized these themes in his acceptance speech when he encouraged us to “resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long”. He went on to say that “This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”
McCain reflected a similar sentiment in his concession speech when he urged “all Americans who supported me to join me not just in congratulating [President-Elect Obama], but in offering our next president our good will and earnest effort to find ways to come together, to find the necessary compromises, to bridge our differences, and help restore our prosperity, defend our security in a dangerous world, and leave our children and grandchildren a stronger, better country than we inherited.”
Civil dialogue builds the trust necessary to form the bonds of community and tackle complex issues. Dialogue encourages us to listen to the thoughts and experiences of others, and helps us to discover new ideas and ask better questions. With dialogue, we are more likely to think about how our decisions might affect others and identify unintended consequences. This in turn is likely to lead to wiser decisions. As Daniel Yankelovich stated in, The Magic of Dialogue, “An ideal use of dialogue is to reconcile conflicting systems of social values”. Using dialogue to both inform and engage a broad group of citizens is part of the “how” that will allow for change. By listening, sharing, and working together we are more likely to find and promote the public good, and to make sustainable decisions.
December 12, 2008 at 3:56 pm
All of us can do better at the techniques of presenting our thoughts in a good way, listening effectively, showing respect and cultivating an attitude of finding common ground. These are techniques that can be learned. And there does seem to be a growing openness for this. But there is a more difficult aspect to this. How do we draw in people who are not part of the dialogue or discussion? Not just people who are out of it because they are too busy or indifferent, but those who are in a state of “autonomous withdrawal” (as the sociologists say) because they are overly committed to a spirit of independence? Or those who are convinced libertarians and believe that it is wrong to try to have any policies to take action for the common good? It will not be easy to get these people into a dialogue, whether on local matters (how can we improve our neighborhood or school) or bigger questions (how can we have a fairer tax code), but shouldn’t we try?