We lost two of my heroes this week. Stephen Covey died on July 16th (my birthday) and William Raspberry died a day later on July 17th. Stephen Covey was a management professor who wrote the best-selling book – Seven Habits or Highly Effective People. William Raspberry was a newspaper syndicated columnist writing mostly on political issues. So what do these two people have in common? Steven Covey wrote eloquently on the habits that should make us effective. William Raspberry practiced them. If a columnist is supposed to get people to think in ways that lets them understand the issues of the day better and help bring people of different viewpoints closer together, then Raspberry was probably one of the most effective in the business.
The Tulsa World on the 18th reran a column written in 2005 after he had announced his intent to retire. He said that after he announced his retirement he received many letter from readers. The dominant theme of those was that people appreciated his “attempt at balance and fairness and , most of all, thoughtfulness”. Others apparently felt as I did, that even though they might disagree with him, they learned things. We learned such as the logic of their positions, and how different experiences and assumptions about the world can produce reasonable beliefs. He told about how he came to not like the sharp, combatant form of debate that TV seems to favor. He concluded that those sharp exchanges tended to not be helpful in understanding issues and alternatives and tended to move people further apart. He decided that more thoughtful discussions of issues might actually make a positive difference in bringing us together. So he decided to try to write in such a way that people who didn’t agree with him, might at least listen. When he did that, he found that they were actually talking back in similarly civil tones. The problem, as he state it is that:
..”such an approach is unlikely to produce winners and losers, and we’ve come to think that producing winners and losers is the essence not just of politics but also of life. It isn’t. Making this country work for everybody is and it would be a good thing if all of us – journalists emphatically included – remembered that .”
Like others of his readers, I didn’t always agree with him, but I never missed a column if I could help it. Whether I agreed with him or not, I always learned something and he no doubt influenced my thinking.
Stephen Covey wrote that we live in an interdependent world and being able to work effectively with others is essential to getting reasonable solutions to many of our problems. His 4th, 5th, and 6th habits speak directly on how to do this. In Habit 4 – think win-win – he says that much in our society tends to make us think of win/lose being the only outcome. But often, maybe the vast majority of time, its possible to find win-win solutions. There doesn’t have to be a winner and a loser. To do this we need to do habits 5 & 6. Habit 5 is to seek first to understand. If people feel like we understand their positions – which are reasonable – then they feel secure in opening up to what we have to say. It’s this open exchange of views which allows us to understand our common ground and makes possible the result that habit 6 – Synergize – says we should seek. Covey said in Habit 6 that effective people look for the “third alternative”. That is a different solution alternative than either of us probably started with, but is one that will work for both of us.
I thought enough of Covey’s habits to volunteer, in addition to my regular job, to be a certified facilitator for Covey leadership courses that my company used to train most of its employees. Raspberry obviously understood these ideas and practiced them in his writing with very positive results.
I was lucky enough early in my adult life to have an experience that both of these gentlemen, in their own way, have validated. It happened when I was a young 2nd Lt. at Fort Sill – outside Lawton, Okla – going through an eight week Artillery Officer Basic course. This was a TDY (temporary duty) assignment which meant that none of the officers had spouses on site. We all lived in the BOQ (bachelors Officers Quarters) together and on the week-ends several of us ended up spending Saturday nights in Lawton. The class room material was relatively technical and there was a Marine 1st Lt. in our group who impressed me in class a being particularly sharp. Those who have been there know there’s not much to do in Lawton, so we ended up spending some time most week-ends in the Ramada Inn Bar – a quiet, friendly place to have a drink. It was an election year and without cell phones, iPads of a TV in the bar, we had to talk to each other. The conversations got quickly to politics and I discovered pretty soon that this Marine Lt. and I had opposite views of most issues. On some of these I could not see how one could logically and rationally come to some of his positions. But this seemed like a rational, smart individual so I was curious enough, and we had time enough, to ask the “why” questions (why do you think that?).
As I heard Stephen Covey say years later, getting to the core of one’s feelings and beliefs is little like getting to the core or an onion. You peel off a layer at a time. It took us about three weeks (and an unknown number of drinks) to bet back to what I called our beginning assumptions. My friend grew up in center city Philadelphia in a working class family. His experiences in that environment were necessarily different from mine growing up in a small rural town in central Florida where the economy was primarily orange groves and cattle ranches. Our view were directly related to our experiences which shaped our assumptions about people and human nature. I had never know anyone from the environment that he had grown up in and I don’t think he had any experience with mine. What dawned on me at some point is that neither of us could “prove” that our assumptions were the predominant state of nature, but if you took our starting assumptions, there was a logical and rational extension to our conclusions about political issues. I doubt that either of us changed our opinions, but we had more respect for each other and became good friends.
I learned a lot about how he got to his positions and why they were not unreasonable. But, maybe more importantly, I also learned a lot about how I got to mine. As William Raspberry said, maybe the problem often is that we have not thought through our own positions well enough to have a thoughtful in-depth discussion. So it’s easier to make snide remarks and believe that the other side is not smart, or not rational, or has some ulterior motive. But this is generally, I believe, not the case. So as Stephen Covey said, if we are to be effective people, we need some different habits.
Not too long ago, I was involved with a digital discussion group where most of the communication involve “zingers” and name calling. I resigned from the group, but decided to leave them with what I think are eight reasonable ground rules for having a productive discussion of issues. I may share those in a subsequent post.