"I'm Not Listening to You!" Why Political Conversations Are So Volatile

Political discussions reveal how we share a nationality but live in parallel political cultures. In the U.S. we have 536 elected officials running the largest economy ever to exist, and they cannot communicate with one another. Here's a simple way to create change.

Have you ever had a political conversation where you felt like the person you're talking with was living on a different planet? I mean, here is an intelligent person you're talking with who must have cleverly disguised antennae because what else could explain his or her alien version of reality? There's a reason that the admonition for generations has been not to talk about politics—although it's probably not in an effort to conceal a Martian invasion.

Political parties have their own world view that creates shared assumptions among members—in other words they have their own culture. Political discussions reveal how we share a nationality but live in parallel political cultures. While it could be interesting to watch an impassioned debate over whether Swiss culture is superior to Belgian, realistically we would never expect a winner because no culture is inherently superior to any other. They're just different. Any belief in the superiority of one over the other is a reflection of our personal culture bias.

The same goes for politics. Having coached elected officials at the national and state levels, I wholeheartedly believe that the overwhelming majority of elected officials are optimistic idealists who want to create a great future. However, these officials are separated by cultural differences about the future they envision and how they can make it reality. It's the mix of passionate optimism and cultural differences that makes communicating about politics so potentially volatile.

In the U.S. we have 536 elected officials running the largest economy ever to exist, and they cannot communicate with one another. Since those of us who vote are doing the hiring and firing, we can demand that our representatives improve their skill set. (Of course according to surveys, 25 percent of people think things are running peachily as is, but this article is for the other 75 % who aren't so satisfied.)

I admit that it would be unfair to fire the people working for us without giving them the tools for professional development, so here goes. The main skill that would vastly improve political communication is cultural agility. Culturally agile leadership is the ability to create highly functioning relationships with anyone anywhere by quickly understanding and adeptly responding to differing cultural assumptions. The recipe is simple:

  • Be curious enough to understand the assumptions and contexts that other people are working from, without imposing your own personal judgment.
  • Be self-aware about your own cultural biases.
  • Adapt your communication to be relevant to the people you want to communicate with.

This doesn't mean everyone suddenly agrees on everything. It does, however, infuse communication with a healthy dose of rational humility. This is desperately needed to successfully run an organization that's the size of the U.S. government.

If you want our elected officials to create better results, don't wait until the next election in the hopes a new cast of characters will suddenly change things. Start with the people who are serving you now.

My simple request is that if you agree, send this article to your representatives and tell them leading with culturally agility is how they can garner your support. It's a 30 second way of taking a stand.

More importantly, practice culturally agile leadership yourself. It only takes 3 % of people to start an avalanche of change. Pursuit of happiness, anyone?

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