_LMD3983Imagine your CEO, each time he or she was challenged, turning on the person asking the question and proclaiming “you’re a loser” or, “that’s because you’re stupid!” My mother, and probably your own, taught me not to call others names. Someone said “turn the other cheek.” Why in politics is this kind of response apparently acceptable to so many people when it should immediately be recognized as uncivil behavior and a disqualification for any public office?

Debate versus Dialogue

It is, I fear, a reflection of a general culture of debate, rather than a culture of dialogue. My worst fear is that some impressionable person come to believe that this is how we in business talk. I have known many CEO’s and none talk this way! It would destroy teamwork, make problem solving almost impossible, and create a toxic work environment that would destroy the social and human capital of the organization. In business, as well in our society, we need to move toward a culture of dialogue and away from a culture of debate.

It is an axiom in the business world that the results you achieve follow from the process employed. If you don’t like the results, stop complaining and redesign the process! The current process of selecting Presidential candidates is built on a culture of debate, one in which candidates are called upon to proclaim “I am right!” and “You are wrong!Triangle” Debate is a form of gladiatorial combat. Dialogue is the antithesis of debate. The goal of dialogue is to gain understanding, to learn. Debate is about “Me.” Dialogue is about “We.” Debate is thinking alone. Dialogue is thinking together.

A selection process begins with defining the qualities or skills that will lead to success in a job. What are those qualities or skills required of a president and does the current selection process test for those skills? Certainly the candidates must have a strong intellect to comprehend massive amounts of information. They must have an understanding of history and an appreciation for cultures other than our own. And, they must have a strong and positive vision of the future of those they seek to lead. But even those qualities will not produce the best performance in the Office of President. In addition, they must have the ability to learn from others, to persuade others, to listen well and incorporate the ideas of others. They must have the ability to build a culture of unity and common purpose among those with diverse interests. In short, they must have the ability to engage in dialogue.

The Hiring/Interview Process

When hiring consultants I used a group hiring process. I would invite five or six candidates, all qualified for the job, to our office. We would gather them together in our conference room and begin the day by explaining that we considered all of them well qualified and we felt that they were capable of helping us to decide who should be hired. We told them that at the end of the day we would ask each candidate to tell us, in writing, which of the other candidates they would hire and why. We explained that, instead of their expected individual interview, their job was to both demonstrate their ability to learn about the other candidates and to make a sound judgment and, at the same time, to impress the other candidates with their suitability for the job. We first invited them to ask questions about the company. We then turned the tables and announced that it was their turn to both present themselves to the other candidates and to interview each other. I explained it was up to them to decide how to proceed. With that, I moved my chair back from the table, folded my arms, and waited for the candidates to take the initiative. A few nervous moments followed until one of the candidates took the initiative to organize the process. What followed over the next few hours was a demonstration of exactly those communication skills, listening, sharing, demonstrating empathy, and performing under pressure that were those qualities that led to success as a consultant. Boasting or debate never won. Arguing or demeaning another candidate was certain to leave a bad impression. Drawing out the best in others, expressing support and empathy proved attractive to fellow candidates.

And, how do we interview candidates for president? Our essential and most visible process is to broadcast “debates” among the candidates. The assumption is that the candidate who “wins” the debate must somehow be more qualified for the job. But, have they demonstrated any ability to listen, to learn, to understand and appreciate the views of others? Have they demonstrated the capacity for dialogue that is most important for a president? Our next president will not bully our allies into a better trade agreement or halt immigration by forcing others to build walls. That is not the age in which we live. He or she will succeed by engaging in deep listening, building unity of purpose and action, and demonstrating respect for the views of others. We see none of these skills in the current gladiatorial contest we call Presidential debates.

What is a “Debate?”

In a debate there is a zero sum assumption. Someone will win and someone will lose. There is no possibility of shared success. In a debate you prepare the “right” answers beforehand and practice presenting them in a way that will make you look superior to your opponents. The game is to demonstrate how confident you are in your and how wrong your opponent is. Debate is egocentric, like the child proclaiming “It is mine! Give it to me!” Dialogue is about we, not me. Debate highlights division, differences. Dialogue seeks unity and learning.

We train our children to share and respect others so they can achieve not only the independence of adolescents, but the mature interdependence of the adult, essential for marriage and career success. Should we expect less in a candidate? Why does our process ask for demonstration of individual ego rather than ability to forge interdependent relationships?


The bust of Alexander Hamilton

The best of American politics is the ability to respect and appreciate those with differing views. It is Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” The political parties go back to Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and their differing visions of the role of a central government. While Hamilton and Jefferson could not have been more opposed in their views on matters that would shape the future of the country, this debate did not result in the humiliation of one over the other. It is symbolic of the quality of this contest that in the entrance foyer to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, he placed the bust of his great adversary, Alexander Hamilton. Why would Jefferson choose to so honor his adversary? The answer is fundamental to the very understanding of democracy held by the author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson knew that the quality of decisions, the ability to maintain the unity of the nation, required a process by which one could offer his views, and argue them forcefully, without fear of personal humiliation.

Dialogue Behavioral Characteristics

(For a more comprehensive discussion of dialogue and a description of the behavioral characteristics of debate and dialogue, click here: Dialogue)

The process of debate as it is now practiced represents and reinforces the worst tendencies in our political life. Let’s redefine the process.

Let us imagine a dialogue among the candidates. Here are the rules: The goal is to demonstrate your ability to learn from others and to generate plans of action that incorporate the thoughts of the other candidates, plans upon which they can agree. You earn points by identifying elements of unity with other candidates of both your own party and with candidates of the other party. You lose points if you comment on the faults of others. At the end of the dialogue each candidate will be asked to write down the other candidate who he or she would hire as President and why.

The moderator will not direct a question to an individual candidate, but will ask the group a question and ask them to reach agreement on a course of action. For example:

“We are a country of immigrants and many of our great companies were founded or led by immigrants (such as Intel, Google, AT&T, Ebay, Yahoo, Dupont and Goldman-Sachs). Attracting entrepreneurial immigrants will be a key to our competitive advantage and economic success. What policies would you adopt or change to maintain this competitive advantage.”

While some candidate will immediately speak up and forcefully proclaim his or her right answer, the moderator will only ask if others are in agreement or if they can reach consensus on a course of action.

You can imagine other questions that would require the candidates to consider the complexities of the world the next President will have to navigate. For example:

“No one questions the superiority of America’s military might. However, one cause of the rise of violent fundamentalism and anti-American sentiments in the Middle East is the perception that we are bullies and seek domination over the region. What would you do to both reduce the threat of violent fundamentalism and to reduce the perception of America as seeking domination over the less powerful?”

Of course, the dialogue on each question would require more time than is customary; perhaps a half hour per question. But these are serious issues that require thoughtful engagement, not pre-packaged sound bites.

When the debate is over the moderator would ask a panel of journalists and retired politicians to reflect on what they observed. They should not seek to identify who won or who lost. They should consider the following:

  • Who demonstrated that he or she learned from another candidate and incorporated his or her views in the solution?
  • Who helped bring out the views of others by asking questions that allowed others to express their views?
  • Who conducted themselves in a manner that would create unity with leaders of other countries or with other political leaders who might have very opposing interests?

The viewer can then decide which of the candidates demonstrates those skills that are most suited to the office of president. Most important, we the voters must engage in our own thoughtful consideration about the qualities that are most important to a future president.

I am certain that many politicians and journalists will consider this proposal to be naïve and impractically idealistic. We are cynical about creating any substantive change in our system, while at the same time complaining about its faults. In the business world you change or die. Dr. W. Edwards Deming said “You do not have to change. Survival is not mandatory.” In the business world you must change your processes to produce the desired result. It is the ultimate of practicality, not idealism. It is time we did the same in our political life.