“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?


About the author

Leaders rely on Michelle as an ally because she understands their world like no other consultant. Her clients call her their liferaft, because they have otherwise felt alone in a sea of people. As a senior executive, she was personally responsible for multimillion-dollar revenues; pioneered green business practices; and launched a breakthrough tablet device ten years before Apple introduced the iPad. Through her singular ability to recognize individual potential and bring it to fruition, Michelle’s clients include executives and their teams at Global Fortune 500s, high-potential companies, and non-profits, as well as members of the U.S