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Three Things Congress Can Do (But Probably Won't) to Stop Vitriol

01/12/2011 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Open Letter to Congress:

I know you're scared.

One of your members was gunned down in public. Six people are dead, including a nine-year-old little girl, a third-grade student council member who wanted to see democracy in action.

You can pretend this was an isolated incident.

Or, you can act like real leaders and have the courage to confront a root problem.

Your lives may be at stake. Not just your political life, your real life.

Do you really want to continue to claim that vitriolic and violent language isn't a problem?

If your words have no power, then why did we bother to elect you?

You're our leaders. Your language sets the tone for our national conversation. Your sound bites fuel the dialogue at backyard barbecues and PTAs.

Yet how have you been modeling democracy?

Did you call upon us to respect each other's differences? Do you ask us to come together and listen to the other side?

No. You demonized each other. You hurled insults the likes of which would get a 7th grader sent straight to the principal's office.

I've watched people use your words -- your exact words -- to accuse their neighbors of "not sharing our values." Your rhetoric gets people foaming at the mouth, so full of self-righteous indignation that they can't even bear the thought of sharing their country with someone who disagrees with them.

You led us down this path. But to be fair, we followed.

Polarizing politics wouldn't work if it didn't tap into the very worst, most primal human instincts. The belief that "I'm right so you must be wrong" is as destructive as it is predictable.

Intellectually, you may have known the extremists were reckless and that your opponent was actually a thoughtful person who cares about this country as much as you do.

But that doesn't get you re-elected or fill your campaign coffers.

So instead of calling upon us to be bigger people, you helped us become smaller.

But it's not too late. We, the people, are aching for REAL leadership.

Here are three things you can do right now to elevate the dialogue:

1. Replace "Yes but" with "Yes AND"

When one side says, "All children deserve healthcare," respond with, "Yes, AND we need to balance the budget." It's one little word; yet it's powerful because it advances the conversation instead of polarizing you into a stalemate.

Why it's a political liability: Railing against "them" makes the evening news. Collaborating takes longer, and it makes for really boring TV.

2. Stay firm on values and flexible on solutions

A "My way or the highway" mentality halts creative thought. Complex problems require complex solutions, solutions that come from the best thinking on both sides.

Why your base won't like it: Listening to the other side feels like betrayal. They want you to agree with them, not challenge them to consider other options.

3. Be the hero -- start first

Real leaders don't wait. They don't pander to public opinion; they shape it. They act in the face of adversity. They peek around the corner to see where we need to be, they don't encourage us to stay stuck.

Why most of you probably won't: It's too easy to blame the other side. When I teach these principles in The Triangle of Truth workshops, people often say, "I'm willing to do it, but what if they won't?"

Someone has to go first. What I'm suggesting is hard work, and it may even jeopardize your re-election.

I'm hoping you'll do it anyway.

We the people need leaders. We need real leaders.

How many of you are ready to stand up and act like one?

Lisa Earle McLeod is a conflict resolution expert and author of The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret To Resolving Conflicts Large and Small. She conducts workshops worldwide. Download free tips at www.TriangleofTruth.com.