Moving Beyond the Nation's Impasse: Shutdown Week 3

In traveling the country, I've repeatedly been asked: What's going on with the government shutdown and the country? Are we as a nation falling apart? Now, in the third week of the shutdown, the answers to these questions can help explain where we are and how we can move forward. Without such clarity, our actions could put us on a collective march of folly that will only lead to deeper frustration and alienation.

The first step is to put a label on where we are so that we can make sense of what's happening around us. Right now, we're at "impasse," a stage that has been taking shape over many years; we’re now witnessing the manifestation of a much longer trend. It is similar to the impasse stage I have found in my work over the years helping communities across the country identify their challenges and move forward - from Flint, Mich. and Youngstown, Ohio to Las Vegas, Nev. (You can find the Five Stages of Community Life here.)

In all of these places, people uttered a common refrain: "Enough is enough! We can't go on like this anymore." This stage is marked by pent-up emotions and little patience for change. We’re hearing that refrain once again nationwide.

In the impasse stage, a community – or in this case, our nation – undergoes a shakeout which can feel like things are falling apart. They often are. Moving forward requires a change in public discourse, how we engage with one another, the behavior of leaders and trust in institutions, among other key factors. Of course, all of this takes time. Right now, the immediate question is:  What can our leaders in Washington do to get started so things feel more promising, secure and hopeful?

At this point, most leaders and groups make the classic mistake of over-reaching to create the biggest, most comprehensive changes possible, believing that will finally break the logjam and address people's anger and frustrations. But it won't, because it can't. At this stage, there usually isn't enough trust and political will for people to come together and reach such an agreement. If there is agreement at this point, oftentimes it's not durable and sustainable enough to stand the test of time. One could argue that the Affordable Health Care Act is now suffering such consequences.

To move forward from our current impasse, I urge our leaders to take three key steps:

1) Focus public discussion on people's shared aspirations for moving the country forward. Continuing the endless debates about our ills and who is to blame will only produce more finger-pointing, acrimony and divisiveness. Our shared aspirations tell us what we hold in common and serve as the foundation for moving forward. In my recent work with a Hartford, Conn. neighborhood, for example, people there said they want a safer, more connected community. That had implications for how neighbors and police need to work together to combat crime and create more visible gathering places where people can come together and build a stronger community.

2) Name the (often taboo) issues that contribute to the impasse. Some progress has been made on this front, with people from all sides of the political debate saying that entitlement programs must be revamped. But in the impasse stage, it's easy to mistake agreement on a topic that requires our collective attention with a clear understanding of what people feel is genuinely at issue, and a consensus about what to do. In my work for several years in Flint, Mich., for instance, people at first said the need for jobs was foremost on their minds. But when given the opportunity to dig deeper, people said they feared the community was losing its children due to poor parenting and a lack of community support.  They also said they were afraid to come out from their homes because of crime and mistrust, and that the community was not taking responsibility for moving itself forward. These were the underlying issues people wanted to address.

3) Find actions that set a new direction and build confidence.  Time and again the president and some congressional leaders have sought a "grand bargain" on budget issues only for it to fall apart in the eleventh hour; perhaps another try will yield different results. But the fact is that moving through the impasse stage (to the next stage, called "Catalytic") will not come from any single action. Positive movement is, instead, the result of a collection of actions over time that demonstrate there is a new path to take and that grows renewed trust, relationships and confidence.

The impasse stage offers a golden opportunity for our leaders to put the country on a better path. (Much of the action needed to do this will come from our local communities, but today I am focusing on our national leaders.) But this can happen only if our leaders have the courage and will to embrace where we are and its implications. Otherwise, the landscape will be littered with false starts, broken promises and dashed expectations. We can't afford much more of that.