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Capital Chatter: Capitol workplace issues go beyond harassment

Scant attention has been given to the broader issue of creating a respectful environment throughout the Oregon State Capitol.

Longtime lobbyist Annette Price made a crucial distinction while testifying to Oregon legislators this week.

The anti-sexual harassment and respectful workplace efforts underway in the Joint Committee on Capitol Culture are not mutually exclusive — but they are very different issues.

Most news coverage and public scuttlebutt has focused on sexual harassment, which led to the forced resignation of Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, and the Legislature's recent $1.3 million settlement with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Less attention has been given to the broader issue of creating a respectful environment throughout the Oregon State Capitol. The statehouse is a unique workplace — one that is dominated by political power, political differences and sometimes political subterfuge and retaliation.

But that broader issue has been brought to the forefront by opponents of a controversial vaccination mandate House Bill 3063. They filed complaints with House Speaker Tina Kotek saying they were treated rudely by a few legislators and legislative staff members.

Sexual harassment is a legally defined behavior, as House Democratic Leader Jennifer Williamson of Portland noted while chairing Wednesday evening's meeting of the Capitol Culture Committee.

Rudeness, however, can be nebulous.

And because of social media — which has made Capitol interactions infinitely more difficult and complex — parents are not the only ones who believe they are mistreated. So do some legislators, who have been subject to comments that are beyond rude. It is appalling what people will say on social media.

One curiosity — or maybe an irony — of the Capitol is that it is a place where people strive to change others' minds while usually being unwilling to change their own. That reality goes against that oft-proved behavioral principle that people dislike being told what to think or do.

The soft-sell approach usually is more politically effective than the hard-sell.

Mothers opposed to the vaccination mandate visited legislative offices to hand out flowers and present their views. They said most staffers were receptive. Some brushed them aside, and some legislators refused to answer their questions.

Regardless of the merits of their specific complaints, it does seem clear that some staff and legislators need to work on their effective-listening skills. So do many of the rest of us.

People want to be heard. Discussions are worthwhile. However, rarely does it do any good to argue with people, which irritates them and — according to research — further cements their stance.

I suggest these principles for legislative staff, members of the public, legislators … and all of us who venture into the Oregon Capitol.

• Do not interrupt someone else's conversation. It's impolite.

• Respect everyone's time. Everyone has a zillion things going on that are just as important as your particular issue.

• Never say anything to anyone — in person, in a text or on social media — that you would not want to see repeated on the front page of your local newspaper or displayed on a billboard next to your mother's house.

• Before you text, post, email or pass along an angry comment, let some time pass so you can evaluate the wisdom and civility of what you are about to do.

• It is rude to text, do email, etc., when people are talking with you — whether in a legislative office or in a legislative hearing.

• If a legislator or staff member is not interested in talking, don't force it. Ask about arranging a more convenient time. If you approach a legislator who doesn't want to talk, do not take it personally.

• Above all, instead of arguing, listen. Seek to understand why the person has come to his or her belief. People want to be heard. Even if they staunchly disagree with you, they will respect you for letting them be heard.

• Heed the legislation being considered by the Capitol Culture Committee: "The Legislative Branch emphasizes the importance of fostering an environment where all viewpoints are welcomed and respected, as disagreement does not equal harassment."

Or, to put all this another way, be one of those rare individuals who actually follows the Golden Rule.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.