Prejudice, discrimination, racism, ageism, and sexism are all fueled by the use of labels. In the political arena, the words left, right, liberal, and conservative often function as polarizing and inflammatory labels. I believe the problems created by the use of such labels far outweigh any potential benefit.
Let’s consider an alternative.
If the main objectives of communication are to share, describe, inform, educate, or influence, then how does the use of labels such as liberal or conservative support this objective? In my experience, they don’t. These labels (sweeping generalizations, actually) serve to constrict, rather than expand, conversation. In practical usage, they often function to hide more information than they reveal. Used in conversation, they tend to distance individuals from one another. They foster less understanding between people rather than more.
During this lead-up to the U.S. presidential election, when millions of people are passionately engaged in political conversations, I suggest that instead of identifying ourselves with the blanket terms of “liberal” or “conservative” we instead focus on discussing specific topics and exploring specific political questions. In this way, we share what is important to each of us—we focus our discussions on what we care about and what we value. And rather than applying these same labels to others, we can take the time to ask other people what’s important to them, what they care about, what they value.
I believe this approach to communicating supports a richer conversation—detail-driven discussions that encourage the sharing of information and emotions rather than stifling it. Instead of getting mired in heated arguments—getting stuck on where an issue supposedly falls on the liberal-conservative continuum—why not instead explore any potential usefulness and practicality of the issue at hand?
The quality of the questions we ask influences the quality of the answers we get.
As many know, the questions we ask often influence the answers we get. The quality of the questions we ask influences the quality of the answers we get. Asking whether a person is “liberal” or “conservative” is a closed-ended question. As such, it provides low-quality, limited information. We can elicit higher-quality information by asking open-ended questions—questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
Whether the topic of conversation is the legalization of marijuana, abortion, gun control, immigration, gay marriage, the national debt, terrorism, universal health care, or climate change, why not first explore our own beliefs and values and then those of others using open-ended questions?
The following open-ended questions can apply to most any issue:
- What do you believe?
- What matters to you most about this?
Seriously. Try it. Chances are, your conversation will be more insightful and productive than it would have been had you approached the topic from a polarizing yes/no, black/white perspective.
I’ll bet if we took more time to ask ourselves and each other higher-order, open-ended questions, rather than relying on closed-ended questions and the shortcut of labels, we would discover much more common ground.
What do you think?
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