News From Terre Haute, Indiana


September 4, 2011

How to listen to a politician

TERRE HAUTE — As summer draws to a close and next year’s political campaigns get down to brass tacks, you’re going to be hearing a lot more from politicians seeking your vote. Given the widespread anxiety about our nation’s course, you’ll no doubt want to know what these candidates actually think.

So here’s one word of advice on how to listen to what they tell you: Carefully.

Most successful politicians are smart, articulate, and highly skilled at parsing their words. Above all, they want to win your vote. So you can be sure they won’t tell you what you don’t want to hear. But this is not the same thing as telling you what you do want to hear.

I still remember, toward the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, how often Republican friends and colleagues swore to me that he had lied to them and reneged on what they remembered as ironclad promises. As it happens, I had sat in on several of those meetings, and I respectfully had to disagree. If my colleagues had really listened carefully, they’d have understood that he was not agreeing with them — he’d left himself outs and plenty of ambiguity in what he’d said. Then he’d skillfully rely on their inclination to hear what they wanted to hear.

An experienced politician is expert at reading the mood of an individual or a crowd, at asking questions that tell him something about how they feel on a given issue, and at gauging how much his listeners know about the issues and policies they’re discussing. Simply by the nature of the job, politicians will often — though not always — know a great deal about the matter you’re interested in, and usually they’ve thought through their position on it. They may sound homespun, folksy — remember, self-deprecation is an art-form among politicians — and no more sophisticated than the average person on the street, but don’t be fooled. They usually know what they’re talking about, are cautious when they don’t know, and are adept at wording their sentences for maximum appeal. After all, they want you to agree with them.

Which means that as a voter, it’s really up to you to be an attentive listener. And the more you know about the issues you care about, the better you’ll be. You want to be able to understand a politician’s positions and be able to sort out where you agree and disagree. Never jump to conclusions. You shouldn’t hesitate to ask questions in order to gain clarity, or to push for clear, concise answers that reveal where a candidate or lawmaker really stands.

You also want to get a sense of what kind of listener he or she is. Is his mind made up? Is she prepared to listen to what you have to say, or does she just want to talk at you? Is he flexible on the issues you care about, and if so, how flexible? The issues that our political leaders confront every day are so complex that sometimes they’re searching for an answer and are prepared to listen to what you think — especially if it’s clear you know what you’re talking about.

On the other hand, sometimes a politician’s position is already settled, whether through conviction, analysis, orders from political leaders, or political expediency. If that’s the case, try to get a sense of how he or she arrived at that position — it will tell you something about the kind of effort he or she will make as a lawmaker.

The point is that as a voter, you should never suspend your critical judgment when dealing with politicians. Give them a fair hearing, but bone up on the issues, know what you’d like to hear and what you don’t want to hear … and then listen with your mind as well as your ears. It’s the only way I know to judge what a politician has to say — and to avoid being disappointed when it turns out that you didn’t actually hear what you thought you did.


Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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