Who can hear us?

Who can hear us? Here’s my new proposal: anyone who holds a leadership position of any kind should have to speak (let’s say, no less than three times a year) before audiences they know disagree with them, or are even hostile to their views. I’ve been thinking about this idea for awhile; but I was reminded of it again as I watched President Bush speak before the annual NAACP convention last week.

For six long years the president refused to make the trek to the NAACP podium. Indeed, NAACP and White House officials have been squabbling since day one of the administration. Who knows exactly who or what started the descent into disrespect? But the political calculations worked out this year and the two groups finally got together.

Let’s face it many leaders do everything they can to avoid audiences that hold opposing views. Such venues can be uncomfortable. It’s not unusual to hear leaders offer up contorted and silly explanations for why they can’t make an event.

But there are important reasons why we must force ourselves to enter into these uncomfortable spaces. Too often in public life and politics, we find ways to avoid one another; we too easily detach ourselves from the concerns of others; we can come to see people merely as opponents; we demonize people without second thought or reproach. Under such circumstances, the “other” becomes objectified – someone who lives outside our realm as if they occupy a different orbit.

Now, sometimes leaders split the difference and find ways to attend uncomfortable events. The conventional wisdom can be to go to the event, make nice, smooth over differences that may exist, even seek to appease the other side. It’s all an exercise in dignified civility. The question here is, when does civility become an excuse for failing to face up to our real differences?

So, I have something different in mind when I propose that we force ourselves to speak to audiences with whom we have disagreements, even where hostilities may exist.

    • The mere act of showing up, and making oneself present, is a public acknowledgement of other people’s humanity – a very human signal of respect that despite our disagreements, we live in a common space.
    • The pointing out of why real disagreements exist requires a leader to offer an idea, a line of thought, an argument and thus for others to see that there is a thoughtfulness and thoroughness that informs that individual.
    • There is a kind of entreaty at work in this approach – a call and the potential for a response. Even if the response is negative, we know there has been an exchange.
    • Clearly demarcating where there are real disagreements in ideas or policy allows for a discussion to be joined – there is something to be discussed and debated, even if it can’t be readily resolved.
    • Showing up means that any attempt to demonize others must be done with full accountability. If you want to take the tough shots, you must be present.
  • Finally, entering these less-than-supportive environments forces the speaker to use language that serves to engage and not push away people. For after all, the speaker seeks to illuminate his or her views, to take care in what they say, and to strive to be understood rather than to obfuscate or serve up platitudes.

Think about someone you know who gives speeches, maybe even yourself. Then consider the depth and resonance of their voice if they were present in the setting I’ve described. Would their voice quiver as their words ring hollow, or would their speech reveal the forthrightness and passion of their views?

Three times a year we should give such talks and listen for the sound of our voice. Who can hear us?