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A conversation—a missed opportunity

Rick Deines, a conversation facilitator with The Zeidler Center for Public Discussion and a Milwaukee resident for 33 years, imagines what a meaningful conversation with Gov. Scott Walker and other politicians would look like.

Leslie Flores, 13, of Waukesha, confronted Gov. Scott Walker at a campaign stop in Iowa on July 14.

“Governor Walker, why are you trying to break my family apart?”

Walker: Thanks, Leslie for being concerned about your dad’s future. That’s refreshing to hear. Tell me more about what you are experiencing?

Leslie: He supports our family and contributes to the U.S. economy, but he is considered an ‘alien.’ Our family is what we live for and you support policies that force us apart.

Walker: Your point of view is important and your voice needs to be part of the conversation. We do need to follow the law, but sometimes the law is not fair. We need to work to change that. You can be part of that change.

Leslie: Thanks, Governor Walker. Can you suggest ways that I can be part of shaping these new approaches you want?

Walker: My staff and I are working hard to build relationships with people like you. I’ll have one of my assistants take down your information so we can keep in touch. I’m really interested in how you think we can move forward on this. There is nothing more important to me as a public official than the public. I can’t promise you immediate results, but I can invite you into the conversation.

Unfortunately, this is not the conversation that took place. Walker followed the line of most politicians and quickly used the power of his position to keep Leslie in her place. Instead of a discussion of a fair and just law, he hid behind the law. He used the trite, “I sympathize with your situation” to communicate compassion while showing no real concern for the person standing in front of him.

Leslie is left with nothing but more anger and frustration. She is a citizen, but in this exchange her voice does not count. The governor is not interested in her, her experience, or her point of view. He may not have meant it, but in essence he is saying, “You are not important to me or to the country. I must defend the law, just or unjust. Compassion is for the weak. Good luck to you and your dad. There is no future for you in my plans.”

This is not Walker’s problem alone. We are all complicit. It is not us vs. Walker, or pro-Walker. Our inability to have meaningful exchanges is more widespread and damaging than this one instance.

Would other politicians have handled it differently? Who really knows?

Imagine if the next 18 months were an exciting adventure of conversation and exploration with the candidates running for president in the primary

Public figures bend over backwards to be regular people and nice human beings. It is de rigueur to call for a “national conversation” on just about everything these days—race, health care, education.

However, there are no political figures on the horizon who use an intentional and true conversational method.

Press conferences, town meetings or discussions of neighborhood problems are occasions for civil discourse. However, there is no obvious commitment from public officials or candidates to take on the challenging task of getting below the surface of the relationship.

What an improvement for our democracy if we had open, honest exchanges based on mutual respect and civility? Learning to say “please” and “thank you” is not just for preschoolers.

We can develop more creative approaches. We need leaders who can engage us in new ways of thinking and acting together. This is so much more than agreeing or disagreeing on policy.

What we have now is not conversation. Tainted by “gotcha” questions, the responses are too often mini-lectures, jingoistic positions and accusations against anyone who disagrees. The country is torn further apart partly because we think that what we have to say is more important than how the conversation is conducted.

Nothing new and useful can emerge when we engage one another as opponents. Formats that invite either applause or catcalls are not conversations. We only diminish ourselves by doing that.

Three hundred people gathered to support a politician who tells them what they want to hear is not a conversation.

A conversation strengthens the public when it engages the public. It is an exchange, not just of ideas; the exchange itself is marked by mutual curiosity and interest in what others have to say.

The art of conversation requires a “take it slow” approach that flies in the face of popular conversation. Firing off ‘tweets’ with no holds barred or accountability can be a dangerous freedom. We are fed by frenzy. We are sustained by the irritating edge of disagreement. We find an energized self when we have a clear opponent.

But conversation is about being responsible citizens, whether we are leaders or “regular” folk. Investment in a new kind of conversation would be worth the effort, however long it takes.

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