Politics doesn’t need to be a zero sum game

Mark Nelson I'm writing to offer some thoughts in response to Kyle Carruthers' column "Non-partisanship is no panacea" from Wednesday, April 22. First, I'd like to express appreciation for Kyle's efforts to create political dialogue about these kinds of

Mark Nelson

I’m writing to offer some thoughts in response to Kyle Carruthers’ column “Non-partisanship is no panacea” from Wednesday, April 22. First, I’d like to express appreciation for Kyle’s efforts to create political dialogue about these kinds of topics. We’re very fortunate to live in a time and place where we can give energy to these ideas.

Kyle’s article is concerned with how we maintain accountability and honest expression in our governance systems. He states that non-partisan, consensus-based systems that focus on respectful dialogue are a naive, feel-good idea, and that “whether we like it or not, politics in more often than not a zero-sum game.” I disagree.

I worry that this belief actually leads us to create win/lose scenarios, to see those we disagree with as enemies, and to overlook opportunities for more collaboration. Decades of research on negotiation approaches illustrate how focusing only on our position (i.e. our particular strategy) creates this problem.

There are great resources out there on ways to reach consensus by focusing instead on underlying interests (which are often shared) – see the Harvard Program on Negotiation’s website. In my experience, everything changes when we shift our mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance, and look for creative ways to meet everyone’s interests.

This is not an easy shift to make, because it requires us to acknowledge that everyone’s interests matter equally, and to put

a lot of hard work into listening. And we’ve all been conditioned to use harsh ways of communication that make listening to each other very difficult.

Kyle laments that partisan systems sometimes lead us to act like children, but he worries about pretending our differences don’t exist in order to smooth things over. Unfortunately, these differences usually take the form of arguments about which position we want, and rarely focus on the underlying interests.

To really strive for consensus, we need to develop our adult skills around dialogue, which is a two-way exchange that includes listening. Unfortunately, our experiences of political “dialogues” are usually just monologues being delivered to an audience.

So I’d like to invite Kyle, our political leaders, and anyone interested to join me in a dialogue. I hear that accountability and free-expression in politics are important to you – and to me, too. I hope you know how important respect, cooperation and peace are to me (something I think we all share).

How can we make sure these interests are all preserved in our political system? Here is a thought I have as a challenge for us all today – consider one political position we disagree with, and try listening behind the rhetoric for the underlying interests. Avoid the trap of arguing why they are wrong (why you should win and they should lose). Consider ways that both their interests and yours could be met. I hope you are pleasantly surprised with the options that open up.

Mark Nelson lives in Whitehorse.