Stakes are high in the federal election campaign. With so much riding on the outcome, we’re seeing a number of politicians rolling up their sleeves and trotting out some of the oldest tricks in the political playbook:
- Distorting or misrepresenting the facts around specific issues
- Playing the candidate rather than playing the ball
- Questioning the personal integrity their opponents.
Of course, these are exactly the behaviours that inflame interpersonal conflict. When we distort the facts, we create arguments that no one can win, because they’re not grounded in reality. Besides, why bother with facts when you can demolish your opponent with a sly put-down? Then it’s easy to add their moral failings into the mix. But the more you question your opponent’s integrity, the harder it becomes to rebuild the relationship.
This is why it’s important to intervene as early as possible in a conflict–so the issues can be addressed before real damage is done. Mediation is the opposite of politics as usual. In mediation, we help people who are in dispute to:
- Separate facts from emotion; to realise that their interpretation of events may be more damaging than the events themselves
- Focus on the expectations they have of each other, rather than launching ad hominem attacks
- Understand that all human behaviour–even behaviour which we may find deeply offensive–is simply an attempt to meet a need. Our indignation at other people’s perceived immorality prevents us from seeing their needs clearly. It also blinds us to our own failings.
Of course, moving from conflict to understanding takes time, insight and courage. But that initial investment results in a greater shared appreciation and a more resilient working relationship, which pays dividends down the track.
Not that these benefits seem obvious to our politicians. At the hustings, they like to appeal to our tribal instincts, to the issues that divide us rather than the issues that bring us together. Verbal fisticuffs and bruised egos are all part of the sport, and many people enjoy seeing a cocky politician publicly shamed. While this behaviour might garner a few votes, it also deepens the mistrust between political parties. But here’s an uncomfortable truth about politics: once elected to Canberra, our politicians have to work together to govern the country. And negotiation can be difficult at the best of times, without bringing deep and abiding personal hatreds to the table. So when politicians slander each other, they’re acting against their own interest, and the interests of this nation.
And before you say, ‘Well, that’s politicians for you,’ remember one thing. We’re all politicians. Sure, we may not be vying for the Lodge, but we all have needs which we expect other people to meet. We’re all capable of sinking the boot in if we feel aggrieved. That’s why we hold politicians in such low regard. At their worst, they hold up a mirror to our own at times unpleasant behaviour. But once we realise how unattractive such behaviour is, we have a choice. To keep playing politics. Or to reach out to others–even those we believe to be hostile to us–as allies and collaborators.