Last month I attended a meeting that could have been ruined by the type of finger pointing and adolescent truculence that characterizes most of our political debate and diplomacy these days. But remarkably, what transpired should serve as the model for civil discourse between people holding opposing world views.
We were at the chamber of commerce offices in Burlington for a discussion on trade, economic development and the value of citizen engagement with Chinese Consul General Ping. It was hosted by the Vermont Council on World Affairs, and attending with me were business leaders whose companies either conduct business in China or are part of the international supply chain. Given China’s alleged involvement with pirating intellectual property, concerns over human rights protections and commodity dumping to establish global pricing, the potential for acrimony was high.
And to be honest, at times it felt just below the surface. Forced relocation is not a topic that’s devoid of passion. But much to my delight, the debate remained on the high road with challenges that were rooted in facts and not ruled by emotion. Each side sought to understand the other's perspectives while searching for principles upon which to establish common ground.
To begin, the Consul General offered a China-focused framework for infrastructure development, environmental protection, citizen relocation and international trade policy. Then we all engaged in a discussion that was robust and forthright, about market destabilization, the theft of intellectual property, civil rights abuses and the need for greater citizen engagement.
We can’t claim that this one encounter changed the world – or even each other’s hearts and minds. But we were absolutely successful in modeling the type of discourse where people with intersecting interests could learn, grow and begin to navigate future relationships.
I left wondering how it can be that listening has become so difficult for individuals and politicians alike. None of us had the ultimate answer to any of these issues, but I do know this. We need to stop trying to play “gotcha’; or craft the perfect Tweet, or luxuriate in our own self-importance or promote our personal ‘brand’.
We must learn to listen. Whatever the challenge at hand, that’s an excellent place to start.