On Thursday, May 2nd, Beyond Civility held its first Back-to-Back event featuring  Democratic State Representative Denise Driehaus and former Republican State Representative Lou Blessing.  These two intrepid politicians met on the stage of the College Theater at the College of Mount St. Joseph to engage in a kind of reverse debate in which they accepted the challenge of explaining the opposite Party’s views on hot button political issues.  Not only was each presenter asked to explain the other party’s position, and it’s rationale, they had to state it to the other presenter’s full satisfaction!

This made for some mind-bending experiences as long term Republican Lou Blesssing explained how expanded school vouchers threaten the Constitutional separation of church and state, while Denise Driehaus presented the case for lowering corporate taxes to spur hiring.  Each displayed an impressive grasp of their opponent’s views on the issues, and everyone had fun in the process.

Their mastery of the public policy issues and their willingness articulate the other Party’s position displayed confidence, political acumen, and a kind of statesmanship not commonly witnessed on today’s national political scene.

The evening began with two now familiar Side-by-Side questions about the presenters’ early formative experiences, enabling the audience to get to know them more personally.

Denise told stories about growing up with seven siblings, of her father running for Congress in the 1970’s, and of how living on the Westside of Cincinnati grounded her in conservative, Republican political views.  Lou recalled how his idyllic childhood ended abruptly when an auto accident killed his mother and severely injured his father.

The format of the program was inspired by an approach that sometimes improves negotiations in mediation when two sincere lawyers are absolutely convinced they’re right.  Each lawyer is asked, in turn, to present the other side’s argument so thoroughly and convincingly that the other lawyer can say “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Three things happen:

1) The lawyers come to a deeper understanding of the issues–both intellectually and emotionally.

2) Knowing their opponents understand what they’ve been trying to say, they can stop shouting their arguments and even listen.

3) Having heard the other side’s case articulated by their own lawyer, clients get a more objective view of the case and a more realistic sense of how the arguments might sound to a third party.

Not all lawyers or politicians (or polarized citizens) will be willing or able to do this.  It calls for levels of self-confidence, courage, and professionalism that not all possess.  Kudos to Lou and Denise for their willingness to demonstrate this depolarizing exercise.  Hopefully others will be inspired to try it themselves.