The 'interpersonal gap'
Q: Having failed to stop health care reform, Republican leaders have vowed to make repealing it their rallying cry in the November elections. What lessons could they draw from political history and the experience of leaders in other fields?
If the Republican rallying cry is negative, "Repeal this monstrosity!" it will backfire. The American people intuitively know that a vibrant leadership dynamic requires active followership. The best leaders encourage dissent--to a point. Outside of politics, the best followers support their leaders by providing the unvarnished truth while eschewing the use of polarizing public hyperbole.
If Republicans want to maximize success in this fall's elections, they'd be better served by promoting a positive vision for the future--be it deficit reduction, a jobs bill, national security or, conceivably, a well-reasoned, comprehensive replacement health care bill.
The problem in Washington today is an inability to agree on a common vision. A compelling vision for an endeavor, organization or a country must be values-based. Discussions of conflicting values are often emotional to the point of distraction.
So how can our leaders work toward a common vision?
They must tone down the rhetoric several notches and actively listen to close the interpersonal gap. Psychologist John Wallen coined the phrase "interpersonal gap" in 1964 to describe the gap between one person's intentions and the impact on another person.
One person's private intentions are encoded into phrases based on his filters. Those filters are biases or values based on the sum of his experiences. His public words are then interpreted privately by another person based on her own unique filters. Thus the impact on her can be quite different than his intent.
The power to close this gap is based on our ability to calmly avoid hyperbole, actively listen to, and understand each other. If a conversation overheats--a common occurrence when discussing conflicting values--at least one participant will become adrenalized and the ability to listen will disappear behind a protective wall of rhetoric or silence.
Crying, "It's a baby killer!" or vowing "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year" does not encourage the calm atmosphere necessary for rational discussion. Our inability to discuss issues rationally exemplifies radical partisanship, engendering voter disgust.
Agreeing on a vision requires collegial discussion of deeply held values. Leaders in both parties would do well to take note.
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