Exploring the Rules of Engagement for Healthier Political Discourse, Third Query.
I’m still working on how to balance it all. Every day I wake up and before long I feel tense, asking myself, “What can I do today to make a positive difference to our country? How can I make my voice, calling for collaboration and connection, heard?” It’s a struggle to extricate myself from that, and be present to work, family, chores, etc.
But I think I’m doing better. Every day I feel an urge to write. I have ordered postcards with the Healing Through Connection photo, title, and URL, to write to Congress. I figure, if I’m going to write to them, they might as well know who I am and what I stand for (which, I hope, this blog makes pretty clear).
I’m never sure how effective it is to send emails via senators’ and representatives’ web pages, does anyone know? Well anyway, it probably can’t hurt, and it makes me feel better that I’m doing something. Today I started with my US representative, writing about Donald Trump’s conflicts of interest and ties to Russia. I then copied, pasted, and edited to send to each of my senators. I noticed that each time I revised, I added a sentence or two that brought my personal perspective on government into clearer relief. It’s not just about policy. It’s about how policy gets negotiated–which is about communication and relationships. Finally, I wrote to Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The letter is below. Ironically, I forgot to include the link to this blog. But that’s okay, I’ll probably write him again soon.
I’m pretty proud of this letter (email). I think it’s respectful and validating, while also challenging. I tried to imagine Senator McCain actually reading it. I want him to feel seen–to understand that though I am not his constituent or a member of his party, I still appreciate him as a person. We are all in this together, and I want him to feel supported by people ‘on the other side.’ I want to embolden any part of him that wishes to make an emotional appeal to his colleagues. Whenever we see the word ’emotional’ we immediately, subconsciously, also think ‘hysterical.’ They are far from synonymous, and I want to take that stigma away.
Two articles I read this week support my conviction for taking an emotional/limbic approach to political conversations. The first was a detailed piece in The New Yorker that describes the science behind why facts don’t change our minds. Second was an October article in the Harvard Business Review on how to engage and make it safe for people (Trump supporters in particular) to change their minds and positions. It does not specifically reference the Harvard Negotiation Project, but it reminds me in many ways of the book Getting to Yes, written by HNP founders William Ury and Roger Fisher. I plan to write more about principles from this book in the coming weeks. I have listened to it again since the election, and it helps ground me.
I thought about sharing my letter on one of the many secret, liberal groups on Facebook, and/or on my personal page. But somehow it felt more appropriate to share here. I am aware that this makes me vulnerable to public attacks on my politics and positions. With engagement comes risks, so boundaries are in order. My boundaries here are the same as on Facebook:
- No ad hominem.
- Keep your comments respectful and civil.
- Read the entire post before commenting.
- I reserve the right to remove comments that violate the requests above. Commenting on this blog is like coming into my home and talking to me. I would not allow you to fling fecal words in my home, at me or my other guests, and the same principle applies here.
What do you think?
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Dear Senator McCain,
Thank you for your decades of service to our country.
I am a liberal independent from Chicago, a woman, a daughter of immigrants, and a physician.
I remember the 2008 campaign and how you treated Barack Obama with respect and professionalism. I remember how you corrected the woman at a debate when she claimed he was an Arab. You made a deep impression on me that night, for manifesting integrity with unwavering conviction. I see you doing it again now, as we face the profoundly alarming and appalling existential threat of the new administration.
I write today to request that you consider how best to use your influence and credibility, with your longstanding tenure in the military and the Senate, to encourage and empower your colleagues, especially those on the right, to stand up for the conscience of the nation. We need a comprehensive, bi-partisan investigation into Donald Trump’s many conflicts, and especially those with Russia. I know you already support this.
I have no idea what it must be like in your work. But as a primary care physician, I talk to people for a living, trying to help them change their behavior to more closely align with their long term health goals. It takes kindness, persistence, patience, presence, and trust. Simply arguing facts and positions does not work. We need to appeal to people’s emotions–to their deeply held (and perhaps forgotten or buried?) values of integrity, responsibility, accountability, and conscience. We humans are emotional decision-makers, though we think ourselves so rational. Research tells us that much of the time, we simply rationalize. Thus, to change people’s behavior, we need to shed emotional light, with compassion and empathy, on the discrepancies between their actions and their integrity. And we need to make it safe for them to admit to those discrepancies, rather than shame them for it. Only then will they, slowly, make meaningful change.
I imagine that over the years, you have cultivated the relationships with your colleagues that paved the way for the important conversations that must happen now. Please, for all our sakes, engage with your colleagues around your common humanity and shared mission of protecting our democracy, and of showing the world that our government is one of integrity.
Thank you, and best wishes to you and your family.
Catherine Cheng, MD FACP
Beautifully conceived and written letter, Cathy. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it will get past all his screeners and into his hands … and then also have the desired result. We need someone of his stature and nature to stand up for integrity and the truest American values. I hope you’ll let us know if/when you get a response from him.
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Thanks, Donna! Would it help if I also sent a snail mail version, do you think? Or maybe if I sent a similar letter to others in Congress?
That should definitely make an impression if he ever gets to read it. I think you should also send it via snail mail in case he prefers to read things in print rather than on-screen, you should send it to as many politicians as possible!
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Thanks, Heidi! I now have a handwritten version addressed to his Phoenix office, and a postcard to Tucson. And maybe I’ll print one to send to DC? Can’t hurt, and only costs a little time, paper, and a stamp… It feels good to be sending a positive message. 🙂
I suspect that sending it snail mail increases the chances that it will also get into his hands. As for sending it to others, if you can personalize it to them, and if you really do respect them for their service and principles as you refer to in the McCain letter. Sending the exact same letter to any Senator or Representative–regardless of their behavior or positions–doesn’t feel to me like a genuine exchange. What makes your letter special is its authenticity.
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Yes, of course! That’s what makes this so fun, is finding new examples of leadership I would follow, and praising them individually for it. I wrote a second letter to Senator Tom Cotton, thanking him for showing up to his town hall of 1400 contsituents. I watched most of the 1:43 meeting, in which I heard him say, “No American should be thought of as another American’s enemy,” and, “I don’t care if you were paid to be here or not, you’re all Arkansans.” He was professional, calm, and respectful to the attendees. And though I disagree and could argue against many of his positions and assertions, I admire him as a person and as an elected leader. 🙂
Great job Catherine. I think a letter writing campaign is a great tool we could all use to make our voices heard. I have written to Donald Trump about the beauty and necessity of our National Parks and to my representative in Washington about some of my concerns. It feels more productive and positive than just posting on FB to my friends, most of whom have completely disengaged from politics since the election. Thanks for all the great references for reading material also!
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Hi Ilona! Thanks for the encouragement. I agree, it does feel productive. And I feel like I’m hitting my stride with it now, too. Can’t wait for my postcards to arrive! 😊
That’s a good letter. It is certainly the approach that should get a response.
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Thanks Mick! I’ll keep y’all posted! 😊
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Excellent letter, Cathy. I like how you state your positions firmly & candidly, but with respect and civility. And yes, the personal touch is crucial. I hate the expression, “it’s not personal, it’s just business.” That’s b/s. It’s all personal. What is business or politics but a collection of people interacting?
You asked about how to reach elected officials,whether snail mail or email or other. Here’s an article my husband shared with me with good tips: http://lifehacker.com/how-to-make-your-voice-heard-in-politics-between-electi-1791424641 (and be sure to link to the Emily Ellsworth article too).
The article says phone calls are best. I’ve experienced busy lines, but I guess the best thing is to keep redialing. Also, I haven’t confirmed this yet via a google search, but I’ve heard that postcards are better than letters in envelopes because it is much easier for a postcard to be screened for potential bio-hazards (such is the sorry state of things).
Keep up the good work!
Thanks, Nancy! I also heard that postcards are better–hence the ones I ordered. I have also taken to writing folded notes, and sealing them with those perforated circle stickers on three sides.
Thanks for the link I will check it out. I have also downloaded the Indivisible document(s), so I will review those as well. It’s just that the things I want to tell them are not just ‘vote this way on this issue’–I really want to encourage a new way of interacting with one another and with the public in general. Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂
We had a meeting with our residents, and they said that what helped ease their sense of futility was to contact their legislators. One resident makes it part of his routine, every day, to call his senator and representative with his most pressing concerns.
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Hi Keith, and thanks for stopping by! I think I have found my stride. I look for legislators working together, or opportunities for them to do so, and I write or calm to praise and encourage. It satisfies my need to participate, feels positive, and this aligns with my personal mission to contribute to progress and healthy connections for all.
And I’m glad that medical leaders are taking the initiative to talk with trainees. We all need to take care of ourselves and one another in order to do our best for our patients!
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