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The Art of Inquiry: Political Communication for the Holidays

Antonio Lambino's picture

It’s that time of year when people in many parts of the world are celebrating the holiday season.   Social calendars are full and gatherings with family, friends, and loved ones are in full swing.  For those of us who find ourselves in this flurry of social activity, what might the study of political communication have to offer?

It is a truism that we are not to talk religion or politics at the dinner table or gatherings of close-knit family and friends.  Findings from the study of political communication back this up.  As Diana Mutz (2006) poignantly discloses in her award-winning book entitled Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy,

“My own political conversations with my father are not always so enjoyable.  There is sometimes the uneasy feeling that perhaps the apple has fallen too far from the tree.  Our conversations take the form of a delicate dance of approaching, backing off, and approaching again, that tension that is so characteristic of relationships involving love and affection as well as disagreement.  In relationships of this kind, most of us understandably find it easier to talk about things other than politics, to seek safer ground.”  (pp. 1-2)

The slew of empirical evidence Mutz brings to bear on this issue suggests that deliberative encounters that often involve the clash of opposing views are best located at less emotionally involved contexts, such as the workplace or serious dinner parties.  It is in these types of social situations where diametrically opposed opinions are worn with less emotional baggage and a little more dispassion.  But these encounters don’t usually lead to fervent participation.  We often need our likeminded tribes to work ourselves up into doing something for a cause out on the streets.

But let’s move back indoors, to the dinner tables and family gatherings this holiday season.  Given personal experience and despite social scientific evidence and Miss Manners’ sound advice, politically charged disagreements are bound to occur.  So before old patterns of behavior and perhaps, inebriation, get the better of us, how might we best arm ourselves for these potentially embarrassing and uncomfortable conversations?

CM (Conflict Management) Partners, an excellent negotiations consultancy, has developed a tool that, if we apply consistently to these discussions, can mitigate the dangers of talking politics with loved ones.  Eric Henry, master trainer and negotiator, calls this tool the “Ladder of Inference”.  In a nutshell, it requires that our approach to communication with those with whom we disagree be one of “inquiry”, not “advocacy.”  Picture two ladders standing side by side.  You are at the top of one, and your loved one is at the top of the other.  The basic idea is to first jump over to the other ladder and, together, climb down slowly.

Instead of accusing one’s mother, father, sibling, or cousin for being “wrong”, we start by exploring and probing their positions with an open mind and non-judgmental questions. 

“Why do you think health care reform is bad?  What about it don’t you like?  Do you think the present system is OK?  What would be your ideal scenario?   What critical factors should it include?”

We are then able to get to the other person’s “available data”, the core pieces of information that serve as the basis for their strongly held opinions and beliefs.  After comparing their data with our own, we can then ascend our own ladder and explain our story in a way that is responsive to the other person’s position and belief system.  And we can do this because we have taken the time and effort to understand them through inquiry, not advocacy.

This is, of course, easier said than done.  But with practice, we might just master the art of genuine inquiry.  And I think even Miss Manners would agree that the approach to a new calendar year is a great time to try out something… well… new.  So happy holidays, and may your dinner table conversations be merry and bright.

Photo credit: Flickr user naughty architect

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