Talking to people

So, here’s the question: how do we talk about the serious issues our community is facing, such as school capacity, cost of living, raising taxes, affordable housing, equity, a healthy environment, etc. in a productive, respectful manner? It’s tough, but necessary, to address these complex issues directly. And in this time of unprecedented challenges, it’s important to create and maintain a healthy atmosphere for these discussions. I’m talking about all of this now because we’re about to have some very difficult conversations. It's time.

When we talk about the hard stuff, we bring to the table what we think we know, including our personal take on things. Each of us gets our information in different ways. Some of us do our own research. Others consume research done by others. Many of us read the newspaper, attend public meetings, talk to our friends and neighbors, and share our ideas and concerns with decision makers. For many (including me) it’s a mix of all those things.

Recently I’ve read some otherwise well-written pieces in the newspaper and online that are, in my humble opinion, nonsense. Not because the conclusions themselves are right or wrong, but because the facts used to reach those conclusions are incomplete, skewed, or worse, misleading, making it almost impossible to have an intellectually honest conversation. When an argument is flawed in this way, I am unconvinced.

I’m also finding myself feeling turned off to the grievance arguments that we’re hearing so much of lately. I truly wish people would find ways to channel their grievance energy into making positive changes in their community. It’s beginning to feel like there’s more weight given to complaining about problems than solving them. And weight is given to tearing down the people who are working to solve them.

In evaluating my own reaction to some of the things I read, I wonder how we got here. We find ourselves at a new place in American history. The “Information Age” that we looked forward to is fully upon us, and we are awash in information. And opinions.

What we did not count on – and we see it every day now – is that the methods we use to consume and share information can cut both ways. There is no question that having information at our fingertips is incredibly useful. Sometimes, however, the ability to share information becomes weaponized and tribal – you in your camp and me in mine. We find ourselves at an impasse, when defending the imagined turf upon which we have planted our flags has become more important than putting in the honest work to solve the hard issues we are attempting to discuss. We all bear some responsibility for this problem.

We’re a little city with big problems and big ideas, and it’s very important right now to pivot to a healthier tenor of conversation. When thinking about how to do this, I go back to what I learned growing up.

A little perspective on why I work the way I do. When I was growing up, I was influenced by people who were -- shall we say politely -- heavyweights in the reasoning department. It was uncomfortable to be sure. I was told to “Think for Yourself” pretty much every day of my life and not to allow myself to pay attention only to those who are talking the most and pounding the table the loudest. No premise was ever accepted on its face, and these nuggets of advice were constantly drilled into me:

·      “Don’t believe everything you read”

·      “Uncover the facts yourself”

·      “Arrive at your own conclusions based on the facts”

·      “Question everything”

·      “Be willing to adjust your views”

In short, those of us who were influenced by this reasoning were taught to do our own homework, dig into the facts, question assumptions, and arrive at our own conclusions.

There’s a neat little article about “10 Principles for Good Dialog” that makes a lot of sense to me. I’ll just summarize it briefly, and you can read more about it here:

1.     See the value in the discussion – is it necessary to have this conversation, and what is the end goal?

2.     Seek to learn, not to win – good dialog isn’t based on the idea of winning, and if your goal is to win, you are missing the whole point of good dialog

3.     Start with questions – by asking questions of each other, our perspectives are clarified, and we can have a basis for being respectful of different opinions

4.     Find common ground – common values and ideals are a bridge for the constructive exchanges of ideas between people

5.     Separate ideas from people – don’t interpret disagreement as a personal attack, it will cloud your judgment

6.     Use the right tool for the job – the tone of your delivery, if antagonistic, will drive people away, so be polite and respectful

7.     Know your limits – accept what you don’t know, be aware of your potential bias, and be willing to admit this

8.     Be willing to change your mind – you might be wrong, and if you think you are, your counterpart will appreciate that you’ve been paying attention

9.     Learn to adopt a different perspective – try to see things from the other person’s perspective, even if it’s upsetting, it can advance your own position

10.  Discuss the discussion – if the discussion isn’t going well, and you’ve checked all the other boxes in Principles 1 through 9, perhaps it’s the tenor of the discussion that’s the real issue, and you should address that (such as, the tribal analogy)

In the end, if we hope to solve the complex problems we face, without tearing each other down in the process, we must “talk about the hard stuff” in productive, respectful, and intellectually honest ways. We must be prepared to adjust our views and listen to each other. Our best chance of success will come from working together.

Some issues are extremely complicated. I am not one to reach iron-clad conclusions until I have enough facts. I still believe, as I have said many times, that the best approach to solving problems in the City is one that incorporates a Venn Diagram analysis. That involves identifying the issues that are important to you and me (even if our opinions differ), and then asking this simple question: does the solution positively impact more than one important issue at a time?

Oh yes, there is one more maxim that I have come to cherish: “There’s no end to what I don’t know.” That’s true everywhere and for all of us … and I challenge you to prove me wrong!