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Answer The Question

Stephen White
© Marvin Ruiter |

I have many friends who are opinionated, and that is a good thing. Discussing issues of the day with them is always an interesting experience, because discussion without controversy is deadly boring, and they are far from boring. One of them has a pet phrase when he disagrees with a POV – ‘I hear what you say’ he says, but what he actually means is ‘You’re wrong’. 

The problem with opinionated people is that they hear but they don’t listen. There is a world of scientific difference between the two. Hearing is a physical process, listening is an intellectual process. The ancient game of Chinese Whispers exactly demonstrates this. And so does the modern game of Presidential debates, as illustrated by the tussle between Trump and Biden on Tuesday evening.

Never mind the appalling lack of content, the dearth of policy or vision. And never mind the weight of ad hominem insults and muckraking, much of which was undeserved on both sides. The fact is that neither man listened to the other, or to the moderator. They did not answer the questions they were asked because in many cases the answers would have been embarrassing for them.  They did not respond to points made by their opponents because they weren’t bright enough or sharp enough to recognise the real issue being raised and respond to it in a way which was meaningful for the audience. They just peddled their own premixed cocktail of insults, half-truths and lies. It was ugly and mean spirited.

Of course, on our side of the pond, we like to think that we do things differently. Well, to a point Yes, but different doesn’t necessarily mean better. Gillian Keegan, Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills on the Today programme yesterday morning, and then Boris Johnson later on in the morning, both were unable to answer the same question about some specific (and quite technical) regional lockdown restrictions in the North East. Ms Keegan openly admitted that she didn’t know the answer to the question posed and spent her airtime telling the audience why she didn’t know - because her constituency is in Chichester, not Newcastle. The Prime Minister fudged an answer and then had to admit that he had misspoken because the answer he had given was wrong.

If you are struggling to see the connection with the Presidential debates it is this. Both Ms Keegan and Boris Johnson heard the question they were being asked. But they didn’t listen to the question. If they had listened they would have known that the interviewer wasn’t interested in the technical lockdown issue. The question was asked to shed light on how the complexity of lockdown restrictions is preventing law-abiding citizens from doing the right thing because they, like the politicians, are confused about what the right thing is. And the most effective response would have been to acknowledge that problem, sympathise and explain.

Negotiators recognise this problem all the time. How often do we remark at the end of a meeting just how many dumb questions ‘they’ asked?  Unsurprisingly ‘they’ are saying the same thing about us. The solution is simple curiosity. When you are asked a question wonder about the motive behind it. Check the motive and then respond to it. You will find that this revelatory experience will make real progress.

There are three more Presidential debates to come, and who knows how many more changes in UK COVID restrictions. Do you think anything is going to change as a result of yesterday’s poor performances on both sides of the Atlantic?

Me neither.

Stephen White
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