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Saving Congress from Breathing Its Own Exhaust: Deliberation and Democracy in a Polarized Age


With the newly elected 112th Congress convening in Washington this month, I’d like to turn our attention in this blog from the recent posts on education, food and economic policy, to one of the main reasons political decision-making often results in inadequate, strange, or unintelligible policy-making in any of these areas. I sincerely hope this 112th Congress will demonstrate more wisdom in its deliberations than some past Congresses have, but I doubt this will happen unless something changes.

Part of this change will have to involve a change in the atmosphere of deliberation and decision making.  Today there’s something strange about the atmosphere inside the “beltway.”

A friend of mine once described what happens when someone loses perspective on a topic because all they pay attention to is their own view as “breathing your own exhaust.”  When all we do is breathe our own exhaust, the lack of fresh air severely limits insight, perspective or new thinking.[1] Today, we seem to be led by those in Washington who more and more choose to breathe their own exhaust, a life-limiting strategy for a wise democracy if there ever was one.

Writing in the New York Times earlier this year, columnist David Brooks put it this way, “we live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect.  They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality…”  (March 11, 2010, Getting Obama Right).  In a later piece he explains that we have two different ways of relating to one another: as individuals or as members of a group (March 15, 2010, The Spirit of Sympathy).  In relating to each other as individuals, we draw upon our moral code, our sense of decency to one another.  But when we relate to each other as members of a group, there isn’t much of a sense of sympathy or understanding.  Instead we tend to emphasize the “otherness” of the other group.  We stereotype their views and characteristics. “Political leaders,” he says,  “have an incentive to get their followers to use the group mode of cognition, not the person-to-person.  People who are thinking in the group mode are loyal, disciplined and vicious against foes.  People in the person-to-person mode are soft, unpredictable and hard to organize.”

Consciously or not, political leaders have been using the way we behave in groups to shape our political discourse today.  We all have a natural tendency to pay attention to differences wherever and however they occur.  When differing views arise in meetings, we quickly react, either defending our views, attacking the views of others, or even withdrawing from the discussion.

Psychologists can help us understand and change this situation. When we just let a natural tendency to emphasize differences arise, we form stereotypes of those in the other “camp” or position on the topic.  Knowing this, you can design meetings to build better discussions and decisions by respecting the need to differentiate in ways that build the basis for integration.  Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff have made this a cornerstone of their meeting design and facilitation advice (see Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There).

We need more wisdom from Washington, but we have little chance of getting it as long as political leaders (and various special interest groups) play group against group in a battle of stereotypes.  It takes a different, wiser kind of leadership to stop people from breathing their own exhaust, and to really listen to each other.  Nelson Mandela was one such leader, and he sometimes infuriated his followers for his openness to the ideas of his opponents.  In our own country we have had some examples, at least some of the time: Senators Ted Kennedy and Susan Collins come to mind.

Who in the new Congress will stand up to polarized, partisan politics, and search for the wiser answers that come from really listening and building upon each other’s ideas for the benefit of the whole country?  Who will conduct effective committee meetings, meetings where different “sides” get to listen and learn from each other producing more effective, balanced legislative proposals?

One of the reasons we at CAS named this blog an “Economy of Meaning” is that we care about the contributions of different perspectives to helping systems recognize where they are stuck so that they can integrate new perspectives and move forward.  Systems learn to do this when they can incorporate new, or discounted views and build upon many different ideas.  We will continue to share our views on ways to grow the economy of meaning in Washington decision making and elsewhere in this society.

We hope you find it worthwhile to “listen in” as CAS shares its views. We look forward to getting your questions and comments.  How do you see the possibilities for building rich and meaningful dialog in Washington and elsewhere?

[1] Thanks to Jim Van Patten for suggesting this metaphor.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 2011/01/04 9:11 pm

    I strongly agree that we urgently need more wisdom in our leadership. The good news is that practical techniques are available to tap into our collective wisdom and to encourage emergent forms of governance. See my recent article in our local newspaper here in Victoria, BC: We’ve successfully experimented with random selection and dynamic facilitation to achieve qualities of conversation that provide people with opportunities to consistently achieve collaborative breakthroughs and innovative solutions. Old style leaders will increasingly find themselves out-of-touch and out-of-date with their hyper-partisan politics.

  2. Rick Lent, Ph.D permalink
    2011/01/05 10:07 am

    George: Thanks for your comment. Your article has good examples of alternatives to political gridlock.

    I agree completely that there are better ways to conduct effective, creative, deliberation and decision making in even the toughest settings. There are designs for effective meetings that build wiser decisions because they support true dialog, even among those who hold vastly different views. Such meetings have been developed and held more and more frequently over the last three decades. They have various designs and go by names like Future Search, World Cafe, Appreciative Inquiry Summit, Dynamic Self Governance, and Open Space among others. These designs have been used to bring Catholics and Protestants together in Northern Ireland, demobilize child soldiers in Africa, revise a country’s approach to the health of young mothers, and discuss health care, housing, discrimination, and other tough policy issues in this country. In your article you helpfully refer to a number of other examples and Dynamic Facilitation, all of which say the current situation in Washington just doesn’t have to be as it is.

    Yvonne Agazarian (see for example Autobiography of a Theory) and other psychologists have helped us see how stereotyping works in groups. We end up arguing our “side” and learn very little from differing views. The alternative is to form functional subgroups where people holding one view explore their views with each other while others listen in but do not interject. Then the roles change and the other “side” has a subgroup discussion about why they hold their view while the first group listens. Everyone has an ally in the discussion, and everyone gets to just listen to other views. Finally, together, the whole group has the task of making meaning from all that they’ve heard to derive a final decision. Using functional sub-groups in meetings to both explore and integrate differences, we can share our thoughts more productively with one another. The group gets wiser and the decisions get smarter. This is one of the principles behind Future Search and similar methods for helping some deliberative body find common ground and agree on action to move ahead.

    Informed, independent thinking requires a meeting based on dialog. As I once heard Marvin Weisbord define it, ”dialog” means “the ability to speak your truth, knowing that not everyone may share it, and to hear other peoples’ truth though it is different from your own.” We need leaders everywhere to hold more effective meetings, ones that enable the productive use of differences in discussion to promote true dialog that lead to wiser decisions. This is my wish for the new Congress.
    In earlier posts (see for example, What If You Need a Town Planning Decision …) I have described some of my own experiences helping groups arrive at decisions in a wiser way. I also expect to write more about my experiences with these kinds of meetings in coming blog posts.

  3. Bill Mullins permalink
    2011/01/08 4:47 pm

    While there is no doubt that many effective techniques and processes have been identified that can strengthen the quality of conversation and deliberation on important issues, there seems to remain the predicament that those with the greatest power have everything to fear from the outcomes that such added quality would bring.

    I’m happy to encourage any form of grassroots reflection upon the disparity between the needs and wants of the 98% of conventional Americans and those vigorously pursued by the 2% of the population that control 25% of our collective income and an even larger fraction of total reserves.

    I believe we face a Constitutional crisis on a scale not seen since the Civil War – that the periodic excursion of under-regulated wealth outside the bounds of seemliness has reached beyond the elastic limit of the 1787 Constitutional compromise between the haves and those who would expand the nation west in search of their own fortunes.

    The many of us, dissatisfied with the tacit and explicit oppression of those who accumulated overbearing power before we came into our own competence, can no longer “go west” in search of fresh territory to occupy.

    That one familiar political figure is running around Alaska with a camera crew in tow is effective testimony to the wishful thinking many indulge about the return of “frontier opportunity” – the manipulation in this present pretense is as crass any earlier example.

    We are going to have to figure a way to revisit some obsolescent features of the Constitution in the post-expansion, post-industrial America.

  4. 2011/01/17 10:19 pm

    I, too, have been disheartened by the atmosphere of deliberation and decision making at the Federal level, in public discourse, and our fragmentation into narrower social networks of people who think like us. Rick draws our attention to the underlying structure of communication and decision making as a source of the problem. Chris Argyris (see and Don Schon ( ) found that the distinctive structure of most communication is what they referred to as Model I. An alternative to this, Model II, emphasizes common goals and mutual influence, free and informed choice, and the ability to call upon good quality data and to make inferences. It looks to include the views and experiences of participants rather than seeking to impose a view upon the situation.

  5. Bill Mullins permalink
    2011/01/18 8:38 am

    Alas, as you know Clarissa, Model II requires breaking out of the Lie, Lie about the Lie, and Coverup the Lie about the Lie cognitive fortress that Model I erects around otherwise capable actors when its comes to the difficult work of being open to possibilities that might originate in thinking outside our own group. The challenge is developing the commitment – I think the tools exist – two bring our friends and not-so-muches into creative tension long enough to crack the wall in that fortress.

    Perhaps a good opportunity is forming for all those soon to be under-employed boomers to do something constructive with their spare time?

  6. 2011/01/18 10:52 am

    Bill, yes, it is breaking out of a lie. This is already happening. So, too, the walls of the fortress has cracked and crumbled. The current economic system–give life energy (labor) and get money– is only a collective agreement. It is so taken for granted as “Reality” that we don’t realize we can change it. For alternative ecoonomic systems already in use see books and blog posts by David Korten (Agenda for a New Economy) and Juliet Schor (Plenitude) and the New Economy section of the Yes! Magazine site ( We have seen the future and it is all of us!

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