(Read this Article to Survive the Convention Season and Feel Better About Politics)
By Cindy Bigbie, Ph.D.
Lucky us. Florida is the birthplace for what passes for political discourse these days. Yep, the Sunshine State is where the modern political era got its start. So you may think I’m crazy for predicting that a harmonious new era could come out of a totally partisan event like the Republican National Convention in Tampa. But I’m telling you that better political discourse is within our reach. I know because of my own journey. I’ve learned a secret to making something positive out of that “sick to your stomach” feeling that comes whenever you hear a political candidate open his mouth.
The 2000 election put my hometown of Tallahassee under the microscope and on the map. Remember all those “hanging chads” and clashing hearts? In the lead-up to the Supreme Court’s decision in Bush v. Gore, if felt as if the entire outside world had come to my sleepy, little city. The downtown streets were clogged with news trucks and reporters. The route I took to pick up my girls from school each day took me by the Supreme Courthouse building, which was overrun with picketers from both sides. I remember rolling down my window and SCREAMING my own opinions towards the people with the signs. I felt so much rage and turmoil inside and such deep despair when my candidate didn’t win.
Now, with the Republican National Convention in Tampa, all eyes and ears are on Florida once again. What if we were able to build a different story this time? It’s possible. The trick is to pay attention to the pain (yes, I’m going to use the word “pain” here!) that political rhetoric may stir in you, but without getting caught up in it. Let’s say you’re flipping through the TV channels and you notice the Republican Convention (or, later, the Democratic Convention) is on. Maybe you hesitate to click because you don’t want to get pissed off. I say “click.” Get to know yourself and the other side better.
That is step one – listen to the other side and, rather than reacting, trying to focus on your discomfort and figure out the need beneath it. As with a pain in your body, the pain you feel when listening to a politician is trying to tell you something. What is the universal human need below your ache? Is it a need for well-being? For security? For safety? As you listen to an opposing viewpoint – and all the spin – imagine you are deciphering another language. Challenge yourself to figure out the universal human need underneath all the garbage. Because this is the astonishing fact: when it is all said and done – both political parties really share the same needs. We are merely divided by arguing about the strategies to meet those needs.
For example, any debate about our economy is REALLY about how we are all scared. We’re all craving well-being and security. We want and need the same basic things. We just get distracted in the fight over our divergent strategies of how to get there and we blame and turn the other side into monsters in the process, making that pain in our stomach gets worse.
“Maybe so,” you may be thinking. “But that’s not going to stop me from wanting to clobber my Uncle Jim the next time he starts talking about his political views. “ In fact, recognizing the needs you hold in common with Uncle Jim will help you in your response to him. And it will help you get clearer on your feelings toward all of the “opposing team” with whom we have to share an increasingly crowded planet. If you can speak with Uncle Jim or anyone from the “opposing team” from that place, there is a much better chance your own views will be honored.
So use the National Conventions as your training ground to start a new habit. What if we were all able to recognize that we are all actually wanting the same things? If we were to get that, not at a cognitive level, but at a heart-felt, human, neighbor-to-neighbor level – we could begin to lead the way for our political leaders. The 2000 election left a huge hole in my heart – but it also led the way to some healing and a new way of being with people of different opinions. I want that for our country. I especially want that here in Florida, a state of almost humorous culture clashes. But we are all neighbors and we’re all in this together. (If you’re like me, I bet you’re pretty fond of your neighbors, no matter what their political stripes.)
For me, that’s the takeaway from all the political drama here in Florida. You can be politically active, internally peaceful, and externally respectful regardless of which side of the aisle you ride. You can do this — we need to do this — regardless of the frenzied political machinery that seems designed to churn up hate. Whether “red” or “blue,” we can all do with a little more nuance, a little more empathy. Let’s teach our politicians and media outlets how it is done. Let’s “be the change we wish to see.”
Cindy Bigbie, Ph.D., spent two decades evaluating educational institutions and social services. In that time, she became convinced that learning NVC (nonviolent communication) processes is the key to stopping the cycle of violence in our homes and organizations. Cindy teaches NVC to high schoolers and teachers. She was recently selected as one of two people nationwide to host a Mediate Your Life workshop led by John Kinyon. The workshop happens this Sept. 14-16 in Tampa.