Amidst our sophisticated and often unwieldy political system, one imperative to a healthy democracy is oftentimes overlooked. Interpersonal relationships are crucial components of any successful institution, especially one with such immediate personal implications as our government. While it is unreasonable to suggest that representatives know each of their constituents on a first-name basis, the line of communication that they foster with those they are elected to serve should be the main impetus for political action. This way politicians are serving the needs of the community and not their own needs or those of their peers. Perhaps a reason for low levels of congressional approval and voter turnout is the public can sense that our problems and opinions are not valued by representatives.
While interning in the district office of a Congressman, I witnessed firsthand how the relationship between politician and constituent is systemically flawed. When policy is being formulated, representatives and their teams analyze their constituents and notice what problems would be popular to fix. Then they work through various channels to determine what policies to adopt.
I have come to realize that this process is flawed due to one main assumption: that the politicians know best what problems their constituents want fixed. Understandably they might think that since a majority voted for them, they must know precisely what issues are potent. However, people could have voted for them due to a variety of other reasons, and even so, societal issues are ever-evolving. Politicians may have socio-economic, racial, gender, or religious identities and interests that are different from those of their constituents, especially in a diverse community. A more helpful method of defining problems for the politicians to solve would come directly from those who are impacted. It would involve listening.
Following are some spiritual practices which can aid in the listening process and facilitate the redefinition of the relationship between representatives and constituents. Each of them could certainly be used by either group and prove beneficial, but I will propose two practices I think are most appropriate for the politician, two for the constituent, and one for them to try together.
For the People:
First, I should explain the various methods by which constituents can contact their representatives and how that information is processed. Most people communicate by telephone. When you call your representative’s office, it is likely that an intern will answer the phone and inquire your purpose for calling. At this point, if you have a comment for the politician, you will be asked to verbalize it. The intern will then log your name, address (to ensure constituency), and phone number into a database with a short summary of your concerns. (Mrs. Example called to express her support for H.R. 641)
Likewise, comments sent through the mail will be logged into the system. As politicians are becoming more technologically savvy, it might be possible to use Twitter or other social media sources to communicate with them. Alternatively, it is sometimes possible to set up a meeting with your representative where you can share your comments in person. If they are not available, then you can ascertain the dates of public appearances in your area and catch them at an event. If possible, the most effective style of communication is a conversation.
In order to hold a constructive dialogue with a representative or an intern, it is important to consider your tone of voice — and particularly if you come across as being angry. Certainly, anger can be a constructive force in advancing causes that you are passionate about because it can be a great motivator. When used correctly, it also allows others to feel the urgency of your situation. However, a common curb of constructive communication is that constituents tend to focus their anger at the representative or the person they are talking to. This does not further the goal of enhancing cooperation and trust between constituent and representative; it may even spell doom to working together.
The first spiritual practice I recommend to help with this issue comes by way of the esteemed Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hahn. In Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames he explains how mindfulness can help us manage our anger. He uses various metaphors that I find illuminating in conceptualizing my own feelings. Here is one of them:
“Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing mindfully in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away.”
If you find yourself struggling with feelings of anger that are directed towards a politician, use this image to embrace your anger as you think about the root causes of the problems that have upset you. In order to fix them through a political avenue, you need to enlist the help of your representative. Try your best to articulate your anger at the unjust situation, not at the person you are talking with.
Another method of dealing with your anger constructively is suggested by empathy researcher Karla McLaren in The Art of Empathy. Her strategy may be an easier outlet for many, and still involves giving attention to your anger in order to help manage it.
“All that matters is that you’re in a foul mood and have some privacy. Start your complaining with some sort of phrase, like ‘I’m complaining now!’ You can complain to the walls, or furniture, or to a mirror … When you’ve found your perfect complaining site, give a voice to your dejected, hopeless, sarcastic, nasty, bratty self. Bring dark humor out of the shadows and really whine and swear about the frustrations, stupidities, impossibilities, and absurdities of your situation. Complain for as long as you like … When you run out of things to say, thank whatever you’ve been whining or yelling at.”
The important point for a constituent to remember is that when speaking to a representative, if you “consciously complain,” it will not be a constructive dialogue. Use either of these techniques to ensure that you are in a more appropriate headspace before beginning to talk. Try to mention actions that the politician should take that would help fix some of the causes of your anger.
When interacting with constituents, it is crucially important that politicians be good listeners. If they are to understand the problems their constituents face, they need to open their ears and focus on listening during the few occasions that get to interact with constituents.
Two tips for doing so come from The Zen of Listening by Rebecca Z. Shafir. The book was written to help facilitate mindful communication to address the problems plaguing our society. One practice that could be especially useful for politicians is the mindfulness minute. She suggests that for one minute a day, we should “become totally immersed in the task at hand.” Her hope is that “The pleasure from that one minute spent luxuriating in the fullness of the moment, void of negativity, judgment, past, or future, will inspire more mindful minutes down the road.” My hope is that the mindfulness minute will help representatives become better listeners by unlocking their ability to focus intently on one thing.
Politicians would also be wise to follow Shafir’s advice and “keep the conversation away from your (their) agenda. Ask a few open-ended questions that begin with why, what, or how.” This will keep the focus on the constituents and hopefully encourage them to share information upon which the politicians can base their political actions.
Small Group Activity:
I also want to recommend a spiritual practice to facilitate meaningful communication between a politician and a small group of constituents. It is prescribed by Kay Lindahl in her book Practicing the Sacred Art of Listening. “The listening stick” exercise serves to:
- “Give a profound experience of deep listening to your inner self and the soul of others”
- “Create an awareness of listening and being listened to”
- “Deepen your respect for others”
- “Develop a sense of community”
Here are the instructions: “Find an article to use for your listening stick, such as a marker, a pencil, or any small round object. Arrange chairs in a small circle. Do not sit around a table … Give the listening stick to the person who will begin the exercise. As a group, choose a question that asks for a personal reflection.”
When representatives participate in this with their constituents, it will be most helpful if the question covers the specific communication needed between the groups. Other questions, such as “What are you afraid of?” or “Where do you go for support?” or “How do you nurture your spirit?” might be illuminating. You may want to go around the circle to gather some questions to consider. Make sure to abide by the rule that the person with the stick is the only one who is allowed to talk. Everyone else must listen.
When you have settled on a question, you are ready to begin:
1. “If you are the person holding the listening stick, state the question to which you will respond, but personalize it ...
2. “Close your eyes and spend the next 20 to 30 seconds in silent reflection on the question. Take your time, this is not about an immediate answer ...
3. “Notice your immediate response. Go deeper. Trust your intuition. Allow your inner voice to come through ...
4. “Open your eyes. Speak to your group. Say whatever comes to your mind in response to the question. Take as much time as you need to say what there is to be said …
5. “When you’re finished, reflect again. Go back inside and ask yourself: ‘What’s the next question that needs to be asked?’ It will come to you…
6. “Open your eyes and state the question that comes to you and pass the listening stick to the person on your left, who will respond to the new question and repeat the process… When everyone has finished, acknowledge and thank one another. Spend the next 15 minutes debriefing the experience.”
The 15-minute reflection afterwards would be a good time for the politician to ask the constituents about more direct policy ideas that are related to the topics that were brought up and to ask for alternative ideas.