Capitol Connection – Week 15
At the beginning of the legislative session a friend sent me an article about the importance of listening to others, especially when you disagreed with them. When I first received the article I was inclined to dismiss it, thinking to myself that I always listen to people, then I read it, slowly. The article stuck with me, I printed a copy and brought it to Montpelier and put it in my desk thinking there may come a time when I would need to refer to it. That time came this past week.
Debate was going for what felt like forever over a workers compensation bill. Some of those with opposing views struck me as insensitive, with holier than thou attitudes. Then I caught myself and realized that just because the delivery of the message I was hearing was not appealing there still might be substance to it. I recalled the article in my desk and pulled it out.
I was reminded to breathe, relax, listen deeply, not just to hear the words or get lost by the anger of the other person, but to concentrate intensely on what they were trying to say, to learn from what they had to offer. The seats in the State House are not the most comfortable, the acoustics are not great, but I challenged myself to listen respectfully to the opposing views.
I began to hear the message of those in the minority. It was not that they were insensitive to the plight of the mentally ill, though sometimes their words might make you think so. Their message was the fear of the unknown. What would it cost to provide workers compensation to those who acquired post-traumatic stress from their job? Policemen, ambulance drivers, emergency workers, first responders and many others often endure unspeakable traumatic moments, some repeatedly and it can impact them greatly. The bill we were debating was intending to help them. Some were against it because the full cost was not clear; others were for it because to do nothing for those with mental injuries is costly too. Broken families, damaged marriages, traumatized children and addictions caused by untreated job related trauma carries a high price tag too. Both views had merit; in the end I voted for the bill.
I had another incident where I was thankful for my friend’s advice to listen deeply to opposing views despite the confrontational styles. A fellow legislator was not amused or swayed when I recalled the words of my mother and said to him, “if you point your finger at someone remember your other fingers are pointing back at you.” This legislator did not take kindly to my suggestion that perhaps we could take some of the state spending we give to the University of Vermont and transfer it to the Vermont State Colleges. He exploded with emotion, it was as if I had criticized a family member. His point, made while he was hollering at me, was that I was oblivious to what an amazing asset UVM is to Vermont. I argued back that the value of UVM to Vermont was not the question. The question was whether UVM should get over $42 million a year in tax dollars to educate roughly 4000 Vermont students while the state colleges get $24 million to teach over 10,000 Vermont students. Wagging his finger in my face he said I was comparing apples to oranges because we support not just students at UVM with our appropriation but also the medical school and the extension service.
Neither of us changed our position, he a UVM alumnus and I a Johnson State College graduate. But, I did reflect long on what he said after I decided to let the dust from our confrontation settle. We decided it best to reach out to a neutral party to independently analyze our spending for these two fine institutions to determine if there is a real disparity and inequity as to who is or is not getting their fair share in state funds. So, in a sense though we had a disagreement, we found some common ground.
The point to all of this to me as I try to represent people in Montpelier is to listen deeply and respectfully to all, regardless of their position or hostile style; they could be right!