My Story for Empathic Storylistening

During a series of Identity Workshops, we used personal stories of significance to identify the beliefs that are important to a workforce community. The technique we used was empathic listening…the act of listening for what a story means to the storyteller and what it tells you about what they might believe in. I thought I would share my story.

The following two paragraphs opened a September, 2009 article in the Chicago Tribune.

In the race for alderman of Evanston’s 6th Ward, a slew of issues – including how to spend federal stimulus money and whether city resources should fund public art – generated passionate debate. But candidate Mark Tendam’s sexuality wasn’t one of them.


It was never mentioned, says Tendam, who eventually beat out two other challengers last spring, quietly becoming the city’s first openly gay alderman.“The story was, there was no story.”

I was one of those “two other challengers.”

When you make a decision to run for public office, you make a decision pretty quickly about the type of campaign you want to run. To be honest, running in Illinois makes this choice that much more important. I believe that almost everyone starts by saying they are committed to running a positive, respectful race. There are many things, however, that can quickly derail that aspiration.

The fact of the matter is that elections, for those running, are really personal. You are putting yourself out there…spending an unbelievable amount of time reading legislation and public opinion…forming opinions and blogging into the late evening hours…going door-to-door with piles of literature…and addressing people who walk right up to you and say, “I’m voting for the other guy.”  You can’t help but feel that, sometimes, the eventual vote is a referendum on your own worth and value. So, the deeper you get into it…the more you really want to win. For some, it grows to be winning at all costs. You’ll throw just about anyone under the bus if you feel it is what a debate crowd wants to hear or if you are standing on someone’s porch asking for their vote. I believe there is a specific point in everyone’s campaign that shapes how it goes.

For me that point was a cold January Sunday when the campaign team was gathered for a weekly strategy session. It had been a rough couple of weeks…more spending then we had wanted and winter was proving to be brutal for canvassing. We had entered the race late and this meant that we were way behind in key local endorsements. Local labor unions had made their decisions before we even had official filed for candidacy. It was everything someone needs to make the wrong decision.

What is interesting to me now is that the actual question never was voiced. The agenda topic was, “do we need to do a better job at differentiating ourselves from our opponents?” No one spoke for a little while…I have no idea what was actually in individual minds but am sure it didn’t stray too far from what was in my own. My daughter was sitting in a corner watching…wearing a campaign button she had made with a few friends from school. Having just come off the huge publicity of a Presidential campaign, I am sure she thought I was running for something far more significant in stature than I actually was. But she was who I had in my mind.

“You know,” I said, “at the end of the day, no matter what the results are, we still will be living here. How we do things is how people will silently think about us when they see us on the street, on the playground, in Starbucks.”

We moved on to discussing lawn signs.

Committing to a direction is freeing. It helps you appreciate small things in a whole new way. I remember walking one day in the far reaches of the 6th Ward. I climbed a hill to a house that you would never pay attention to unless you were searching for a vote. The man who answered the door was silent as I introduced myself and finally asked me to come inside. This can always go a number of different ways…you either get caught in a 30 minute debate on the need to save old  elm trees or you get a good lecture on the deterioration of our government. He said nothing, just led me into his kitchen and pointed to a cluttered bulletin board. There, in between a recipe for garlic chicken and a photo of what I assumed were his grandkids, was a sample ballot with my name circled. 

“I’ve read your stuff and think you have some good ideas.” I did end up having to stay that 30 minutes to listen to his political stories. Turned out, he was an Alderman in 1952. But, it was a good 30 minutes.

On election day, I took my two children, ages 8 and 10, to the polling place and they stood next to me as I voted. It is strange to have your name on a ballot. It was quiet around us as people were stopping by to quickly vote before heading off to work. I walked outside and asked them what they thought. My son looked at me and said, “Well, to be honest, I only came for the speech. There was no speech. Is that all there is?”

Yep. That’s all there is. 

Chris @ sr4