Gridlock in Washington reflects Republicans and Democrats—and many Americans—refusing to listen to each other. It takes active listening to bridge gaps. Many years ago, an old friend revealed a great example.
Sam Smidt was a brilliant graphic designer in Palo Alto with whom I worked early in my freelance career. He told me a story that always stuck with me and should be the subject of a mandatory class for anyone holding political office.
Sam once was designing the gas pumps for Chevron. A major oil company’s gas pumps represent a corporation’s brand. The client, not satisfied, asked Sam to make the logo bigger. Sam complied. The client wanted the logo even bigger. Sam did that. The client remained unhappy. Then the answer occurred to Sam. “You want the logo to be more prominent,” he said. “Yes!” the client answered, realizing that size and prominence don’t necessarily equate. Sam shifted some design elements without supersizing the logo, and the client was delighted.
Often, people get bogged down in specifics without communicating what they really want. This leads to wasted time and energy, and often to antagonism. It doesn’t have to be that way.
In a New York Times interview on Wednesday, columnist Frank Bruni interviewed two Democrats—former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and strategist Joe Trippi. Both agreed that Democrats’ chances in the 2018 Congressional elections hinge on standing for something rather than Trump bashing. Patrick hit it on the nose: “What matters most is that we agree on and fight for the ends, not so much the means. For example, we want every man, woman and child to have access to quality, affordable health care. There’s more than one way to skin that cat, and we should be open to debating all those ways.”
I imagine that Gov. Patrick is willing to listen to Republicans. Would they return the favor?
As with all major issues, politicians—and many voters—too often demand specific solutions rather than define outcomes. This parallels the Chevron executive, who ultimately realized that increasing the size of his logo wasn’t the key to meeting his objective.
Immigration poses this same challenge. Donald Trump wants a wall. It’s “wall or nothing.” But does a wall represent a “bigger logo?” Ultimately, several key questions concern the nation. Should we take in immigrants? Most people would say yes. Should we control immigration? Again, most people would say yes; the numbers and sources appropriate to a separate discussion. What are our immigration needs? What do we expect immigrants to contribute to the nation? And if we make new laws, are we willing to uphold them while finding humane solutions to tricky problems?
Start there, and Americans could find a measure of common ground.
There’s lots to discuss, and no black-and-white approach—pun intended—will serve us well. But rather than demanding the means—a wall or blanket amnesty—let’s discuss the ends. How can immigration strengthen the United States in the next quarter-century and beyond?
If Americans start expressing their vision and listening to each other, we may find our views far closer than we imagined. Then we can forego pumping up the volume and discuss, rather than argue, the practical means to achieve our objectives.
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