As soon as the state senator entered my office, I turned and slammed my hands on my desk. One hand was clenched into a fist, the other held a bottle of whiskey. “Fight or talk,” I demanded.
He looked confused. I clarified by saying, “Do you want to just fight and settle this, or should we talk?”
Slowly the confusion on his face melted into a sly smile and he said, “Let’s talk.” Over the better part of the next couple hours and a couple of drinks, we talked, made the deal that resolved a budget impasse, and laid the groundwork for a friendship we still share more than a decade later.
Poor habits of dialogue and engagement are all too common in our public discourse, whether it’s on Facebook or in the legislature. We see nothing beyond what we want. We see others as problems. We engage first the impulse to fight. We reduce our world to isolation, acrimony, and hyper-individualization. We make little room for listening, for dialogue, for compromise, for friendship and dignity.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. My experience in public service — even the rough world of partisan politics — has shown me how to cultivate richer, kinder, deeper engagement with those we disagree with.
One of my primary tasks while chief of staff for the Governor of South Dakota was managing key initiatives during the legislative session. At that time, this task put me in the middle of negotiations over the state budget.
These were complicated and contentious talks because a recession had made money tight and an upcoming election made the environment highly adversarial. Senate leaders were vigorously opposing key aspects of the Governor’s budget proposal and our “discussions” had gotten acrimonious — to the point of people yelling and storming out of offices. We were going nowhere productive, and fast.
I was frustrated when the president pro tempore of the senate angrily insisted on a meeting with me, so I decided to try a slightly different tactic. I don’t know what would have happened if he had chosen “fight” rather than “talk” when I slammed that whiskey bottle on the desk, but my friend made the wonderful choice to talk.
Even better, we didn’t talk about work. Instead, we talked about baseball, our plans when the legislative session was over, our kids, and how long hours in the capitol had left us bone-tired. It was casual, revealing, and fun; both of us were reminded that despite deep entrenchment in opposing policy camps, we were people before talking points and had a lot in common.
We eventually came back around to the budget, identified a couple points we could each bend on, and settled on a plan to fairly resolve the remaining gaps. Over coming days, the budget deal got done; over coming years that senator remains one of my best friends.
I think about this story often when I look at current public engagement. Before we truly talked, my friend the senator and I had mentally backed ourselves into corners where we could see little beyond ourselves, what we wanted, and how others presented impediments to our preferences. We had profoundly dehumanized each other — and by extension, the process and ourselves.
The conversation I had with my friend the state senator suggests some keys to a better approach to engagement.
1. Start with shared humanity
I am convinced that we made progress because we didn’t start with work. We started with our own human stories. We talked about our families, our fears and frustrations, and our goals beyond the immediate issues. We took the time to truly see and hear each other. From that point of shared humanity, we could engage in real dialogue. Real engagement and real progress can only come from that beginning.
2. Give to get
Our negotiations had been horribly stuck because both sides insisted on getting 100 percent of their priorities through 100 percent of their means. In other words: my way is THE way. Very little in human relationships and activity works that way. Instead, when both of us demonstrated the willingness and vulnerability to compromise — not surrender — some of what we wanted in order to advance some of what the other wanted, we achieved most of what both of us wanted. When we gave, we actually got.
3. See a bigger purpose
No doubt about it: as an aggressive, competitive, demanding person, I had let my ego creep into the budget negotiations. I was so concerned with “winning” the politics, the policy, or just whatever point was on the table that I forgot the reality that it wasn’t about me. It was about others and doing what was possible to make life better for the people in the state. Stepping back from argumentative brinksmanship brought me back to that goal. Taking the leap of faith toward the common good is what moved things in the end.
Whenever we step back and see what we have in common, start with what we can give instead of what we can get, and focus on our common good, tremendous things are possible. If we want to talk — not just fight — we have to seek richer, kinder, deeper engagement with each other.