Politics plus humanity (no, not an oxymoron, or any type of moron, really)

If you’re like me, seeing this form arrive in the mail and noting it’s yet again a leap year (and therefore a presidential election year) leaves you with a certain feeling of… well, as un-civic as it is, dread. It feels like in these years, we lose a little bit (or a hell of a lot) of our humanity.

I lived overseas for 12 years. In that time, I missed two US presidential election cycles. Don’t get me wrong, I voted, but I escaped the utter torture that election year has become. I did not miss the hate-mongering and the othering and the vitriol with which we (all) tend to paint the “other side” (regardless of what the other side is).

Instead, I witnessed first-hand national elections in the UK, Australia, and Singapore. They are flawed countries and imperfect political systems (spoiler alert: so are we). But the vitriol wasn’t there. People heartily debated, but without the need to paint the other side as stupid or even &*@&* (I missed Brexit, so I’m giving the UK the benefit of the doubt that their debate-don’t-hate approach continued).

While overseas, I also became an expert in human-centered design, or design thinking. For those who don’t know it, it is a tool used to really, deeply, understand people and their needs: by listening, by showing up where they live, by observing, by asking open-ended questions. By getting curious, I’ve learned a ton about the world and about other people.

Here’s one of the most important lessons I learned: you understand people through how they live, act and speak. Through how they treat others. Surveys tell you only what you want to hear (asking close-ended questions is an easy way to manipulate the answer). Reports and articles written by others tell you what the writer wants you to hear. Only individuals themselves tell you — and often show you — who they really are.

Here’s another lesson, learnt at my alma mater, IDEO, where we tackled everything from overhauling emerging middle class education in Peru to adding humanity back to immigration in Singapore: solving the world’s stickiest challenges does not happen on a debate stand, or in a conference room (even a very fancy one in the Capitol building). It happens out in the real world, one prototype at a time, experimenting against people’s pain points: does this solve your problem? No? How about if we tweak this? Over and over and over again.

We have a choice, America, this year. Now. We can spend the next eight months hating and not listening, or we can take back our democracy, and really hear each other out. And, importantly, hear our candidates out.

And then, once they’re elected: we can sit back and wait for them to work magic. Or we can roll up our sleeves and help them.

As a registered Democrat voting in California, I have a chance to shape Super Tuesday. Based on human-centered design, here’s how I approached my vote, and some humble suggestions for how you, too, might pick the best candidate for you:

1. I thought about what I wanted in a leader

It’s easy to find fault with every leader, because they’re not perfect (news flash: people aren’t perfect, not a single one of us). Instead of drawing up a laundry list and ticking it off, I considered how I wanted my leader to make me feel: proud, safe, and confident to start. Also, for anyone who has ever had a job, have you noticed it’s *never* what you think it is? So, I wanted someone who was going to be open, flexible, willing to learn and adapt. In short, someone who leads with care and curiosity.

Ask yourself: how do you want your leader to make you feel?

2. I went to the source

I’ll be honest, I took the path of least resistance first, letting the Washington Post give me 20 questions that would guide me to my candidate. Luckily, the first answer they gave me felt so wrong that I abandoned that approach.

Then, I went to debate tapes and really listened. I heard how the candidates answered the questions, but I also watched how they behaved with each other (a proxy for how they’ll engage their House and Senate), how they showed up, and even what they wore (if you don’t believe clothes can speak volumes, Elizabeth Holmes (no not that one) will set you straight).

Ask yourself: how can you hear directly from the candidates?

3. I tuned out of social media

This may be apparent from point two, but it’s worth underlining: I stopped reading social media posts. No. One. Else. but the candidates can bring me an unbiased view of who the candidates are.

While there’s nothing wrong with hearing from others (be they reporters, friends, family or eloquent strangers), you have to recognize every opinion has a filter. For me, I find those filters distracting. And in social media, downright confusing, because separating fact from fiction is so fraught.

I get that others might find opinions helpful: but just remember, peel back that filter, or notice it’s there, because if it’s not a filter that resonates, it could lead you astray.

Ask yourself: what would serve you better, time listening to debates and reviewing candidates’ source material, or time navigating others’ opinions?

4. I went with my gut.

I matched up what I wanted to feel with what I did feel when I listened.

Note what this means: I did NOT think about electability. I did not vote strategically. I voted for the person who fit my feeling of what a leader should be. And I believe that if all of us do that, really listen, really feel who resonates, we will elect the right person for this country.

Interestingly, I did not agree with this candidate on every policy. In fact, this particular person was pretty far down Washington Post’s list of people with whom I’d connect.

But when I heard this presidential candidate speak, what I heard was openness. Ability to take in new information and adapt to it. A deep reasoning that stemmed from the knowledge that absolutely nothing on a president’s to-do list is easy to solve, nor will be resolved without a great deal of creativity.

I heard care and curiosity.

Ask yourself: what does each leader make you feel? Which feels best?

As a human-centered designer hoping to help make our election cycles feel full of possibility again, I offer up these tips. I hope they help bring some humanity back to our political cycle, and to our election year lives.

While this article is not about who I voted for, if you’re curious how my interest was piqued, read on. At least now you know my filters, so you can match them against yours! If not, stop reading here. Either way, I hope you can go to the source, listen to your heart, and find the candidate who speaks to you.

I chose a candidate who:

  • makes it clear she* listens to others (*how great that this pronoun alone doesn’t narrow the field to one!)
  • builds people up (e.g., supporting fellow candidates on the debate podium)
  • does NOT have all the answers, but asks hard questions and clearly considers all the nuances and angles in determining a path forward
  • made a truly inclusive statement with her clothes (in the last four debates, she wore purple (what do you get when you mix Republican red with Democratic blue?), red (the Republican color), purple again and red again. And remember, these were DEMOCRATIC debates. To me, this is a clear signal that she hopes to unify, not divide
  • did not have policy plans I fully agreed with, but spoke instead of the merits of all options and of creatively navigating to the right solution for all

I help companies weave in kindness, creativity and humanity using human-centered design. Founder of Nau (www.inthenau.com) and Creative Collisions, IDEO alumna.