The Political Helium Stick

The more people on both sides of the political aisle of the U.S. call for calm, the more partisan rhetoric rises like the rod in the leadership exercise, The Helium Stick.

If you are unfamiliar with the Helium Stick exercise, two lines of people face each other about 2-3 feet apart.  They extend their forearms from the waist and a stick is placed horizontally resting across their collective outstretched index fingers.  The goal is to lower the stick to the ground while keeping it level and without losing contact between the stick and their index fingers.  Inexplicably, the group finds the stick rising and rising, the opposite of what they are striving for, thus frustrating the participants.  Everyone understands what needs to be done, but not only does lowering it elude them, the situation actually becomes worse.

The same is happening in the political realm with divisive political rhetoric rising and rising, the opposite of what people are calling for, further exasperating them.  Everyone understands that the rhetoric must ratchet down, but not only does lowering it elude them, the situation becomes further inflamed.

As a facilitator I have used the Helium Stick exercise with many groups.  Nearly every time the members devolve into blame, criticism and the impugning of others to explain the failure of lowering the stick.  Astonishingly they are oblivious to the fact they too are standing there, arms raised over their head, holding the stick even further from the goal.  Sometimes members of the group are so unaware, they are on their tippy toes, unconsciously straining to reach the stick, contributing to make it rise while continuing to place blame elsewhere.

These same factors are reflected in the political arguments taking place in the country.  People place blame and criticize others for the rising political rhetoric.  They impugn those with different views and ideas for failing to lower the rhetoric.  All the while they are oblivious to their own contribution through disparaging comments and the passing of judgment that further kindles the situation.

In the Helium Stick exercise, success is obtained when the group begins to communicate at a high level.  Discussions and, most importantly, listening takes place leading to self awareness, mutual learning, and collaboration.  General consensus materializes and a plan comes together about how the group will collectively lower the stick to the ground.  Leaders emerge and the plan is executed achieving the stated objective.

To lower the divisive political rhetoric in the county, the same principles that lead to success in the Helium Stick exercise have to be applied.  We must find a way communicate at a high level, most importantly listening; not  listening to respond, but listening to understand.  Lest we forget what Stephen Covey taught us in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: we must first seek to understand.  We need to be self-aware of our own actions and words, and how they contribute to the problem instead of the solution.  Finally, apply the mutual learning gained from listening in a collaborative way to foster the teamwork required to achieve the stated objective.

Collectively we understand the upward spiraling political rhetoric is unsustainable and could potentially cause irreparable harm.  So while we engage to discuss and deliberate the important issues before us in the country, remember to apply the lessons of the Helium Stick of highly communicative, collaborative mutual learning that fosters teamwork to achieve our goals.

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