Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy -- Power and Rights v. Interest-Based Approaches to Political Discussion


Citation: Kenneth Cloke. Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy.  GoodMedia Press. 2018. From Chapter 3, pp. 62-66.

Ken Cloke wrote Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy, which was published by GoodMedia Press in 2018.  It is a fabulous book, stock full of ideas about better ways of engaging in politics that will help save our democracy--and that of others.  While we obviously cannot post the whole book on Beyond Intractability, Ken generously gave us permission to post several sections, of which this is one. The other excerpts, and a link to the book's page on GoodMedia Press (where you can buy the whole book for just $24.95!) are immediately below. 


Buy the Book | Table of Contents 

ExceprtsIntroduction | Power, Rights, and Interests | Truth and Falsity | Meditative, Interest-Based Approaches to Political Conflicts | Power, Rights, & Interests in Political Discussions | 20 Ways to Talk about Political Differences, | Algorithm for Political Dialogue | Global Pandemics, National Borders and Political Problem Solving


This excerpt is from Chapter 3, pages 62-66.


In power- and rights-based political debates, opponents often issue loud protestations and harsh denunciations of moral lapses and transgressions by others, along with simplistic claims of uncompromising toughness and unyielding stands regarding complex, subtle, multilayered problems. Each of these undermines political discourse and makes dialogue and agreement much more difficult.

The language, syntax, metaphors and narrative assumptions that are common to power- and rights-based political speech make it more difficult to prevent or de-escalate violence, or transform debates into genuine dialogues, or come to grips with the exhausting, often painful issues that underlie our most important political choices. Power- and rights-based conversations are fundamentally competitive, and therefore turn into power contests, while rights-based approaches incite each side to claim the moral high ground, act unilaterally, trivialize discussions, manipulate processes, dominate relationships, seek legalistic solutions, control decision-making and duck responsibility for outcomes.

Interest-based approaches, on the other hand, design processes and foster relationships that support social equality, economic equity and political democracy, and are inherently respectful because they are able to benefit diverse constituencies simultaneously. They dismantle domination and control in large and small ways, aiming at their sources in anger, fear and disgust, and for this reason, make it possible to shift the language of political dialogue by reframing the metaphors that define their meaning, the processes that guide them and the relationships they nurture.

It is possible, for example, even with hardened political adversaries, to identify ground rules, agree on forms of communication and reach process agreements that invite everyone to constructively share their experiences and perceptions about the issues. It is possible to break up highly adversarial advocacy groups, put them into small diverse teams, ask them to identify and analyze aspects of the problem that need to be addressed, and brainstorm possible solutions; to meet as separate or mixed groups and agree on the words that describe the kind of relationship they most want to have with each other, then list the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving it, or the behaviors their side engaged in that they think may have been counterproductive or disrespectful to the other side, present these to their opponents to see how accurate they were and discuss how to move their communications and behaviors in a more constructive direction.

Mediation has demonstrated in countless disputes between feuding neighbors, divorcing couples, entrenched litigants, labor-management adversaries and advocates for hostile political constituencies that people can stop yelling, insulting, blaming and accusing each other and start listening — not by advancing hostile and adversarial political arguments, which are nearly always experienced personally as confrontational, disrespectful and ineffective, but by being honest, authentic, empathetic and open to exploring both sides’ issues.

Dialogues often take the form of stories, empathetic questions, searingly honest discussions, emotionally vulnerable revelations, admissions, acknowledgements, confessions and openhearted apologies. These, in turn, commonly lead to listening, informal problem-solving, collaborative negotiation, personal requests, sincere promises, honest disagreements, acceptance and heartfelt declarations.

The shift from single to multiple truths happens automatically when we ask questions that do not require a single correct answer. If we ask, for example, who is the oldest person in the room, there will be a single correct answer, but if we ask instead, “What does your age mean to you?” or “What issues are you facing at your age?” there will be multiple correct answers that are not mutually exclusive or in conflict, but additive and multiplicative. In political conflicts, there are many such questions, including these, which I find useful:

  • What life experiences have led you to feel so passionately about this issue? 
  • What is at the heart of this issue, for you as an individual?
  • Why did you decide to participate in this dialogue?
  • Why do you care so deeply about this issue?
  • Do you see any gray areas in the issue we are discussing, or ideas you find it difficult to define?
  • Do you have any mixed feelings, uncertainties, or discomforts regarding this issue that you would be willing to share?
  • Is there any part of this issue that you are not 100 percent certain of or would be willing to discuss and talk about?
  • Even though you hold widely differing views, are there any concerns, principles or ideas you think you may have in common?
  • What underlying values or ethical beliefs have led you to your current political beliefs?
  • Do the differences between your positions reveal any riddles, paradoxes, contradictions or enigmas regarding this issue? Is it possible to view your differences as two sides of the same coin? If so, what unites them?
  • Can you separate this issue from the person you disagree with? Is there anything positive or acknowledging you would be willing to say about the person on the other side of this issue? What processes or ground rules would help you disagree more constructively?
  • Instead of focusing on the past, what would you like to see happen in the future? Why?
  • Are you actually disagreeing over fundamental values, or over how to achieve them?
  • Are there any facts or arguments that could convince you that the other side has a valid point, or that there is more than one way to address this issue?
  • Is there a way that both of you might be right? How?
  • What criteria could you use to decide what works best?
  • Would it be possible to test your ideas in practice and see which work best? How might you do that?
  • What could be done to improve the other side’s ideas?
  • Could any of the other side's ideas be incorporated into yours?
  • Is there any perspective or aspect of this issue that either or both of you have left out?
  • Are there any other alternatives to what you are both saying?
  • Do you think it would be useful to continue this conversation, to learn more about each other and what you each believe to be true?
  • ​How could you make your dialogue ongoing or more effective?
  • What could you do to improve your process for disagreeing with each other in the future? For encouraging future dialogue?
  • Would you be willing to do that together?
  • What are some next steps you might take together to better understand the issues and how you each see them?

In these ways, interest-based processes such as dialogue, collaborative negotiation and mediation make it possible for people to discuss difficult, dangerous and complex issues, and to reach consensus on common approaches in spite of significant differences in their political beliefs, values, cultures, races, genders and other types of diversity. They make it possible to bridge the gap between ordinary language and political discourse by shifting the communication process from debates over who is right, to dialogues over what is best; and focusing on what needs to be done and how to achieve it, without destroying each other in the process.

Once people accept an invitation into authentic, interest-based dialogue or mediation, their lives are nearly always touched and transformed, often in small ways. They enter an interactive, collaborative, mutually defined space that invites them to surrender their stereotypes, biases, assumptions and preconceptions — even their sense of an entirely separate and exclusive self -- and discover truths that seemingly lie outside them, and may even feel foreign, yet resonate and reverberate deeply inside them. They begin by creating a conversation, a joint understanding of the problem and a search for meaning that synchronizes their diverse interests, moderates their identities as opponents or adversaries, and subtly unifies and transforms their antagonistic, divided views about themselves, each other, the issues, and even the world they live in.