If politicians had focused more on finding a solution than on winning

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • August 7, 2011 - 2:51 PM

So they got the job done in Washington -- but only after frightening the American people and undermining world confidence in the U.S. economy.

The debacle was more than a failure to listen to the other side. If only those politicians had sat down with a skilled mediator, some people suggested, Congress could have worked things out like adults rather than behaving like children.

What we witnessed was not a failure to communicate. Both parties knew what they wanted and understood the other side's position. What we witnessed was the application of power.

How might things have gone differently in our nation's capital?

The political showdown might be compared to what happens in a court of law. Legal debates are adversarial. They involve three entities, two of whom -- the prosecution and the defense -- aren't looking for a solution to a problem. They're looking for a win. They aren't talking to one another. They actually don't care what their opponent thinks. What they do care about is what's going on in the mind of the third entity -- the judge or the jury. In Washington, the third entity is the electorate.

Things might have gone differently if the emphasis had been on finding a solution rather than on winning. And solutions, many have argued, are more likely to be found in non-adversarial situations.

Non-adversarial communication involves not three but two entities. In this give-and-take style of discourse, each party seeks to arrive at a win-win conclusion. The goal is to resolve rather than to vanquish, to reach out rather than to prevail. Because psychologist Carl Rogers suggested a kind of step-by-step protocol for this type of non-oppositional approach, it's sometimes called Rogerian persuasion.

I believe that the American people understand this approach. It's certain politicians who don't get it. This point was brought home to me by a reader named Kim, who wrote:

"The Internet seems to have encouraged a lot more talking, talking, talking, and I doubt a lot more real listening. Call it an avalanche of 'talking at.'

"For nearly 15 years [as a volunteer], I took technical questions from people all over the USA about their cars. Sometimes I had to deliver significantly bad news. The pattern was clear to me. If I jumped right to the solution (which was often more expensive than they wanted), they'd react as if I hadn't heard them, often starting to explain [their problem] all over again.

"If, however, I repeated what they had said to me back to them, in a sufficient way, so they had the experience of being heard by me, then they tended to accept the answer much more quickly.

"You can be as right as you want, but what if the other side can't hear it? Sadly, that seems to describe what passes for much of public discourse these days.

"I found that [my approach] saved both of us a lot of time and stress. It seems such a simple principle, doesn't it?"

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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