Enlighten Me! A Mid-Term Election Perspective

With mid-term elections finally concluding perhaps we can all get a little peace – fewer flyers in our mailbox, visitors ringing the doorbell, disruptive ads on television, and so on. (Although that’s all being quickly replaced by holiday shopping promotions!)

The democratic process is absolutely critical as is our right to free speech.  What I would like to imagine is that if we have to endure a prolonged period of debate, let’s at least have the discussion be substantive so that we can actually have a prayer of understanding the interests of the represented sides.

When things get heated and we don’t see eye to eye, it’s really important to analyze the situation. Ask yourself what is going on that you’re having such a strong reaction to someone else’s perspective: 

  1. I don’t understand it?
  2. I don’t like it?
  3. I don’t like her/him/them?

Each of these underlying questions will lead you to a different option. If you don’t understand something, a logical solution might be to get more facts. If you don’t like the opinion expressed, more facts might help, but more than likely you need to look at your fears and determine the basis for them. If you don’t like the other person and yet you still need to work together (especially in the case where the other side wins the vote) then you need to figure out how to start a reciprocal process of building trust and earning respect. 

From my perspective, these three probing questions are listed in order of degree of seriousness and the harm they can inflict on reaching a mutually satisfying agreement. As important as it is to reflect on what’s driving your reactions to them, remember that you can also try to anticipate what is happening for the other side and be ready to address their concerns with a strategy that best suits the situation. If someone is having an emotional reaction, more facts may not help immediately as what they really want is for someone to show they are listening and perhaps demonstrate empathy. Conversely, if the other party is lacking information, your objective data might make the difference in their level of understanding instead of taking their attention away from the facts by distracting them with feelings and opinions.

In my small town in northwestern Vermont the biggest issue on the ballot last week was the proposed merger of six independent elementary school boards representing five towns with the existing unified 5-12 school board. In the last month or so, I was feeling inundated with a combination of reports and opinions. Finally I decided to see and hear for myself what the opposing sides in favor or against the merger had to share via an informational session. (Also, as a professional in the realm of negotiation and influence, my curiosity was piqued as to the process they would use during the public forum.)

Overall, I wasn’t unimpressed with the conduct of the different sides. I did not witness personal attacks. As expected, there was a combination of missing or inaccurate data as well as fear and conjecture without factual basis. So, for the most part, as a community we were dwelling in the zone of “I don’t understand it” and “I don’t like it” but we stayed away from “I don’t like you.”

Now that the results are in and the merger was approved by a margin of 2:1, our community will begin to work on the long road of implementation. Some might believe that the hardest part – winning the vote – is over. But the way I see it, since the vote wasn’t unanimous, we still have plenty of work to continue to influence people who held different perspectives and help them adapt to the new reality that was not their first choice.

Is there a scenario below that resonates for you? How might you assess and respond to the situation?

  • The CFO has moved up the due date for final budget submissions by 2 weeks.
  • The VP of Sales has approved a deal that requires customization and resources that are out of scope.
  • Your project team has missed a major deadline and weekend work is required to avoid client cancellation.

In environments where parties will continue to work together it is important to remain aware of who are the supporters and detractors, why they hold their perspectives, and what is an effective method for getting / keeping them on board. Ideally, they “understand it,” “like it,” and “like you” (and the same is true for how you feel about the other side.)

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