We get it. Presidential debates are organized for the specific purpose of showcasing the differences between the candidates. And it's a great idea. Our system is built on the premise that voters decide who gets elected. (OK, we know how the electoral college works'¶ but just bear with us on this.) Having the candidates speak openly in a forum designed to highlight their differences is a great way to enable voters to gather information and make their judgments.
At the same time, aren't you just a little dismayed at some of the antics and behaviors of our candidates? There is no question that John McCain and Barack Obama have conflicting views. Each wants to convince us that his views are better than the other's. The winner becomes arguably the most powerful person on the face of the earth for goodness sake. What won't they do to win?
There are many ways to handle conflicts, even between candidates for office. Essentially, there are two broad categories of conflict: constructive and destructive. Constructive conflict enables an examination of differences and disagreements in ways that focus on exploration, dialogue, and curiosity. Most often, constructive conflict results in new ideas and satisfying solutions. Destructive conflict is characterized by blame and criticism. The result is often frayed emotions, indecision, and diminished commitment to outcomes. With these concepts in mind, here are just a few observations from the town hall style debate of Oct. 7.
Both candidates spoke frequently about trust. Unfortunately, in their zeal to win, the issue of trust was reduced to a game of showing why you can't trust the other guy. It doesn't matter much who said what. "He voted 24 times to raise your taxes and now he says he's going to reduce taxes." "He supported the failed policies of the current administration for the past eight years and now he wants you to believe he's going to change those policies." The blame game only serves to demonstrate that there is little trust between these two obviously powerful men and their respective parties.
At the root of most destructive kinds of conflict lies trust issues. Wouldn't it be amazing for our country if the two candidates could share their differences without criticizing and blaming one another? Is it possible that the two candidates for president could model constructive conflict behavior? Might such behavior actually encourage more trust of our leaders? Open discussion of differences, without blame, provides an opportunity for constructive conflict. That seems like something our country could use these days.
Both candidates also seemed to enjoy pointing out their "fundamental differences." If only they could stay focused on the differences rather than each other! Every time we heard the phrase "fundamental difference," we yearned for a true examination of those differences. Unfortunately, the candidates quickly stooped to characterizations of one another as "inexperienced," "rash," "unpredictable," and "irresponsible." We'd rather they have laid out their perspectives clearly and left the analysis, judgment, and any criticisms up to the voters. Constructive conflict focuses on content issues. Destructive conflict focuses on personal issues. Don't we, the voters, deserve more focus on content?
One question from the audience provided a glimmer of hope. A woman inquired about the heavy economic burden of taxes and health care. Both Obama, then McCain, addressed the woman with empathy. They used phrases such as, "It's easy to see your frustration," and "I can sense your cynicism." Constructive conflict behavior includes the ability to empathize and understand the perspectives of others. Both candidates demonstrated empathy in their responses. We hope whoever wins the election uses empathy and perspective taking as they maneuver through the many conflicts facing our nation.
As the debate ended, Obama and McCain strode to the center of the stage to shake hands (which interestingly never happened as Obama offered his hand but McCain apparently didn't notice), blocking moderator Tom Brokaw's view of the teleprompter. As Brokaw struggled to read his concluding remarks he laughed and motioned for the candidates to move. Obama and McCain, realizing their error, quickly and in perfect synchrony, pivoted away and apologized. Order was restored. In this moment of genuine, human, unintentional misunderstanding and subsequent resolution, we all smiled. Perhaps there is hope.
We'll see on Wednesday night.