The Inigo Montoya problem: I do not think it means what you think it means.

Quotes from old movies don’t become new Internet memes unless they address a common experience–often a irritation. Throughout the 1987 comedy, The Princess Bride, one hapless character used inconceivable to describe every event. The lead character, Inigo Montoya, finally remarked: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Two decades after Montoya spoke those words, Internet posters picked  up the phrase as a humorous shorthand way to question the use of specific words.

Different meanings crop up nearly continuously in all but our simplest conversations. For example, consider:

  • “I never want to change others.”
  • “Using force isn’t a good way to achieve our goals.”

SpeakerCatThose statements were spoken at a weekend conference I recently attended, which was billed as a series of “participant-driven dialogues.” The full weekend of nonstop conversation provided plenty of examples of effective conversation skills, but both those statements led to unsatisfactory exchanges. In each case, the key words held a slightly different meaning for the speaker and the listener.

But the different meanings weren’t the problem. The problems occurred because the participants resisted clarification.

ListenerCatThe person who said, “I never want to change others,” might have meant that he wanted to avoid manipulating people, or that he wanted to let others be wholly themselves, unaffected by his presence. It was unclear from the context he supplied. When a listener interrupted to ask him to clarify, he responded with only, “Let me finish,” and went on talking.

As a witness to this exchange, I was startled and distracted. What did the speaker think he was accomplishing by continuing to talk while not being understood? Was his intention limited to self-expression, regardless of whether his listeners caught his meaning? Notice that his curt imperative, “Let me finish,” drove both me and questioner out of the conversation. The questioner had already admitted he wasn’t following the speaker’s point, and as I started to wonder about the speaker’s motives, I stopped listening for any meaning.

Skillful conversationalists remain continuously aware that words and phrases may have unique meaning for each person. Open the dictionary or thesaurus to any word—particularly an intangible like ‘change’ or ‘force’—and you’ll find a long list of possible meanings. Verbal misunderstandings provide grist for thousands of jokes: Mom sends young Johnny to check on their frail elderly neighbor: “Go find out how old Mrs. Johnson is,” and Johnny returns with, “She says it’s none of your business how old she is.”

The consequences can also be tragic, as when a social worker returned an injured child to his parents after being told by a physician to “rule out child abuse.” In medical-speak, that phrase means “investigate to make sure it’s not child abuse before you suspect any other cause.” The social worker, however, understood the physician’s instruction to mean, “Don’t even consider child abuse; that’s not the problem.” The child died.

In the second example from the weekend conference, the participants were clumsier than those in the first. Upon hearing “Using force isn’t a good way to achieve our goals” as if it meant “We should never do anything more assertive than ask politely for what we want,” one listener challenged the speaker (me): “No, force is useful. Labor unions need to be willing to use force to get their goals.”

Instead of pausing to resolve his misunderstanding, I tried to dismiss it quickly.  “You and I seem to be thinking about slightly different things when we say force,” I said, and went right back to making the point that giving an opponent no options in the resolution of a dispute will prolong hostilities even if the immediate goal is won.

Basic knowledge of standard human behavior should have enabled me to predict what came next. Now intent on pressing the point I’d brushed off, my challenger increased his insistence on correcting my statement. I tried one more time to help him realize he was arguing against a meaning that he, not I, had supplied. But my initial dismissive reaction had raised his hackles and closed his ears. For the sake of other listeners, I soon gave up, because no one enjoys listening while others talk past each other.

Blogger Michael Webb has written that one of the “trickiest barriers” to effective conversation is “a misplaced trust in the precision of words.”

It is naive to assume, he wrote, “that words themselves contain absolute meaning. If the listener hasn’t had the experience the speaker is using the word to point at, then the word points at nothing. Worse, the listener may quietly substitute a different experience to match the word.”

So what do we do about it?

Skillful speakers watch their listeners for signs of incomprehension, and might pause to ask for feedback: “Is this making sense?”

Skillful listeners will first try to discern the speaker’s meaning from context. If that doesn’t work, they interrupt briefly to ask for clarification: “By change, do you mean manipulate, or do you mean something else?”

If a listener asks for clarification, a skillful speaker does not respond as if he or she has been rudely interrupted, but takes the request as the sincere compliment that it is: The listener is demonstrating an active desire to receive the speaker’s message exactly as the speaker intends it.

Regardless of whether a listener asks for clarification or says something that reveals he or she misunderstood an intended meaning, a skillful speaker will not merely brush the remark off as I did, but will pause and try to find a helpful way to clarify.

Finally, when both speaker and listener realize they hold different meanings for the same word or phrase, neither should assert that one is right and the other wrong—even if a dictionary would confirm that. Unless the explicit topic of conversation is the meaning of the word, starting and resolving an argument about the dictionary definition is just a distraction. The important thing is that they understand each other within the immediate conversation.

Both should work to understand the referent of the word the other is using (e.g., “When you used force in that sentence, were you thinking of something more like assertiveness, or more like coercion?”) or agree on a label for the thing that they are both referring to (e.g., “When we mean ‘trying to change someone in a deliberate, stealthy way’, let’s use the word manipulate.”)

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Political conversation in action: Once spoken to, Larry Orr now speaks for peace.

ImageLarry Orr was not born to speak for peace. One of his first, strongest memories is of being a 3-year-old playing in his back yard in Muscatine, Iowa when two P-38 fighters flew over at treetop level.  Their deafening noise didn’t frighten the toddler.  They made him want to be a pilot.

Nor was he raised to speak for peace. His favorite boyhood comic was Steve Canyon and he joined the Civil Air Patrol in high school, thrilled at the chance to fly a jet trainer at such a young age.

Finally, he wasn’t trained to speak for peace.  He joined the Air Force before completing college, intending to train as a helicopter and small craft pilot. His military career instead took him to Russian language school and to work as a linguist and military analyst.

Yet here he was, representing Vietnam Veterans for Peace, educating my community group in January 2014 about the low-key but persistent American peace movement. He told us that he had come to a turning point when as a young Air Force trainee in 1965 he attended one of the earliest campus teach-ins about Vietnam.

As a student of political conversation, I wanted to know more about his path. What had he heard at that teach-in that changed his course, which had been set toward the military since he was barely out of diapers?

A few weeks later, I joined him over the noon hour on a downtown street corner to hand out pamphlets about America’s killer drones. Afterwards, we sat down for lunch at Madison’s Great Dane Brewery. Here’s a distillation of our conversation.

Image

Larry Orr speaking up for peace on the capitol square in Madison, Wisconsin.

Karen: How did one teach-in change how you thought about war when you had been set from such an early age on a military career? What did they say? How did they say it?

Larry: First I should say that I went to the teach-in as a military man, but with no preconceptions. I was willing to hear what they had to say. They made me think for the first time about certain things, like injustice and moral issues. Like many in the mid-1960s, I had simply been assuming America would always do the right thing, and I’d been assuming I’d be helping to do it. The teach-in didn’t change my thoughts as much as it made me think.

Karen: Okay, then, what did they say that made you think about things you hadn’t thought about before?

Larry: The speakers were dispassionate, thoughtful. They made a logical presentation about something they wanted us to understand. They were university people, professors and grad students. They weren’t preachy. They didn’t get on a soap box. They just explained the facts about Vietnam clearly, like you would to a class of undergraduates. With undergraduates, you don’t go in with a ‘You should already know this” attitude. You don’t put people down that way. They respected our intelligence and our desire to learn. They presented facts that showed me there were bigger issues I wasn’t aware of, and they did it without embarrassing me.

Karen: That word—dispassionate—surprises me. I’ve always sensed that a certain amount of passion is necessary to give a message resonance and credibility.

Larry: Absolutely. But passion should be communicated through actions, not by talking about it. When someone tells me “I’m passionate about” something, it sets off warning bells. Like the guy who said, “I’m passionate about food co-ops” and then bought them and turned them into profit-greedy grocery stores. Don’t say you’re passionate; don’t get dramatic about it. Set an example.

Karen: When you spoke with my community group, you also mentioned hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, and remembering that as another event that helped turn your path to peace. Do you remember what he said or did that shifted your trajectory? It never hurts to learn from a master.

Larry: Not specifically. I do remember he gave all who were present that night the courage to speak up about what we believe. I think that was in 1963, when he spoke in Cedar Rapids. I was still in college in Iowa City, in a fraternity during a time when many fraternities discriminated on the basis of race. It bothered me, but I hadn’t talked about it before I heard Dr. King. He changed my willingness to talk to people about what I believe.

Karen: And talking about something often helps to clarify and strengthen our beliefs.

Larry: Yes, indeed, and it opens the way for new ideas.

Karen: You said that you went to the Vietnam teach-in as a military man, but with an open mind. Tell me more about that. “Military man” and “open mind” aren’t phrases that often go hand-in-hand.

Larry: I know exactly where that came from:  My freshman rhetoric teacher. On the first day of class, the professor had us list the magazines and newspapers we read on a regular basis. I read standard stuff for early 1960s Iowa:  National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, my hometown newspaper, and the Des Moines Register. He took the lists from us and the next day gave us each a list of other periodicals we might want to read. Commonweal, Saturday Review, The Nation, Daedalus, and many others I had never heard of.  It was a two-page, mimeographed list, and I started reading right away, began to encounter new ideas. I was still tied up in the military perspective—the professor told me later that semester that I saw the world through Air-Force blue colored glasses. You know, like rose-colored glasses? But the discussions in that class changed my life, opened new horizons, made me want to associate with wise people.

Karen: The other thing I wanted to make sure I asked about was your experience with on-the-street conversations. You’ve spent dozens, maybe hundreds, of hours doing things like we just did, standing on a corner handing out peace literature. Surely, you’ve learned a thing or two about starting political conversations and keeping them civil and productive.

Larry: Actually, what we do on the street doesn’t create many conversation opportunities. You give flyers to the people who will take them, and hope they look at them when they get back to their desks. But it’s not disheartening. It’s like I said about passion—the important thing is that you embody it, demonstrate it. Be there, be present.  The good conversations happen elsewhere.

Karen: I’m still thinking that you have more experience with political conversation than most people, even if it doesn’t happen on the street corner. You spoke with my community group, for example.

Larry:  Like everyone else, most of my opportunities for political conversation come with people who already agree with me. But yes, I have enough conversations with people who want to challenge my beliefs.

Karen: What makes those conversations fail? What makes some succeed?

Larry: You need to try to find common ground, but you can’t tread too lightly. You need to speak up for what you believe. When you’ve been too agreeable, you come away knowing you have not shaped the other person’s thinking, while worrying that they left believing they convinced you they were right.

You have to question certain statements, but not in a bombastic way. You can’t try to “win” an argument; that produces resentment, not agreement. If I find I’m raising my voice in a political conversation, I know I’m losing out. Ears close up when conversation gets strident. Timing is important, too. If someone isn’t willing to listen, they won’t.

Karen: Well, thanks. It’s good to know the peace movement is still out there witnessing for nonviolence.

Larry:  You remember Orr, the character in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22? The one who crashed his plane and rowed to Sweden? I like it that he and I have the same name. “Or” reminds people we have choices. We can keep fighting insane wars, or we can row to Sweden. We can tell ourselves we’ve always had war, or we can say, “Let’s quit.” It’s our choice.

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George Lakoff recommends…

George Lakoff was in Wisconsin for the past few days lecturing at several different events. While I didn’t hear him say anything that wasn’t in at least one of his books and don’t agree with everything he teaches, the question-and-answer periods gave me a much deeper understanding of his theory and his message.

I will write more about what he said and what it made me think in later blog posts. But most people attended these lectures for the ‘so what:’ So what should progressives say?  I’ll start there.

I can summarize his take-away advice in four steps.

1.            Pay attention to your own deep values. Understand the moral foundation of your own political beliefs.  Reach your own understanding of why you want good public schools. Why do you care about the fact that CEOs take home 457 times the income of the average American worker? Why can’t you just be happy for the CEOs?

2.            When you engage in any political speech, make sure to express your values among the first things you say. All human beings are continuously processing their thoughts through moral filters; we cannot stop it. Our brains instantaneously categorize everything we encounter –including the things others say to us—as good or bad, so we need to bring the deep values into our conversation explicitly and promptly.

These first two steps are not our current habits, so they won’t come easy. Our most deeply held values–the things that truly motivate us–are the things we take for granted. Because we take them for granted, we often wrongly assume these values are as alive for the listener as they are for us. But they might not be. Expressing our active values awakens them within the listener’s frame of reference.

3.            When you are promoting your own ideas, never even utter phrases or words that have been solidly defined in the listener’s mind in ways that are incompatible with your message. (Lakoff calls these moral frames.) One of many examples: job creator and job creation have been so effectively defined by pro-business conservatives that even the mention of those two words as a single phrase awakens  assumptions incompatible with a progressive message. In the frame activated by the phrase job creation, big companies with lots of jobs are more valuable than smaller ones.  The frame activated by saying “job creator”–regardless of what you say about it—awakens assumptions that businesses exist to serve our community by giving us jobs, and that Americans need to deploy our shared public resources to support these patriots who want nothing more than to strengthen our economy. All this is relentlessly reflexive and almost always subconscious.

Calling up incompatible assumptions doesn’t just weaken your persuasiveness. Lakoff stresses that it helps to strengthen the opposing idea. Don’t speak the phrase even when you argue against it. Think of Richard Nixon saying “I am not a crook.” Don’t speak the phrase thinking you will use their words to help them see the value in your ideas. Look at what the phrase “tax relief for the middle class” implies about the patriotic act of contributing to our community’s well-being.

The more often people hear the phrase “job creation” in any context, Lakoff argues, the more deeply embedded will be the underlying big-business-does-what’s-best-for-us assumption. So do not even utter the phrase unless you want to strengthen the power of  big business in American political life. (Lakoff made only one exception: skillful political satire along the lines of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert seems to be effective in undermining the strength of the frames they ridicule.)

4.            Find and define ‘uncontested concepts’ that awaken and strengthen our own values. Progressive values rest on many moral frames that have a truly shared core meaning for most Americans: freedom, love of community, love of country, clean air, safe streets, opportunity, hard work, responsibility, peace, justice.

To stick with the example, job creation as now defined in American culture doesn’t work for progressives because they do not, in fact, value pampering global corporations to bribe them into putting environment-destroying mines in our communities that will transfer the value of America’s resources to the bank accounts of the mining company’s foreign investors and offer low-wage employment for 3-5 years until the mine plays out.

Instead, progressives value the employees whose hard work creates the wealth that keeps our nation strong. Each American child deserves to grow up in a safe community  and to be successfully educated to be a good citizen and contributing member of society. When that child grows up and is ready to join the work force, we value opportunities for his or her employment in solid, secure, productive, and sustainable jobs that pay enough to buy a home and start a family.

You get the idea: you cannot use words and phrases defined by corporatists to communicate a vibrant message about what’s good for American wage-earners.

Lakoff concentrated on ‘freedom’ as the most likely candidate for a moral frame that progressives could define solidly in a way that evokes progressive, populist values.

For example, when partisans discuss American abortion laws, they use either right to life or choice. Lakoff recommended that progressives drop the word choice, which brings to mind a moral frame no more compelling than shopping. He recommends we substitute freedom to control our bodies, or reproductive freedom, or freedom from laws controlling our bodies. (An aside of my own: Did you notice that I wrote “…discuss American abortion laws,” rather than “…discuss abortion”? Do you see how that subtly shifted your frame of reference from one about a woman’s personal conduct to one about the power of the State? Do you see how that set the stage to evoke a freedom frame?)

Freedom from control by the wealthy and powerful is, in fact, a core value for progressives and a widely shared value that is likely to resonate at some level with every American who  is not wealthy and powerful, and even some of those who are.

My reaction:

YES!!! I’ve been recommending that we speak explicitly about values for years, and have wasted enough breath to float the Hindenburg trying to convince people it’s counterproductive to throw facts and logic at people before you’ve attempted to understand or shape the reasons why they should care, before  you sense they have a moral framework available to them in which those facts have meaning.

Seriously, I would sacrifice twenty years off the end of my life if doing so would transform American political dialogue into a values-based discourse. It would heal our nation and put us back on the track to a shining era of peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Lakoff even missed some of the benefits of speaking explicitly and sincerely about our values. The practice increases the listener’s  trust in the speaker. When we express our values out loud,  the listener can almost always recognize some value that he or she shares.  Even if the listener shares none of your values, he or she will have a more accurate understanding of your motives and a greater appreciation for your sincerity, two things that always contribute to constructive dialogue.

Speaking about values right up front also helps the dialogue focus on mutually desired goals, rather than becoming a dispute focused exclusively on conflicting policy alternatives. I am sure you have seen or participated in a contentious, possibly hostile, political debate over the equivalent of whether to take the Interstate or the back roads, in which the participants never even notice they both want to get to Chicago. Those sorts of conversations rip at the fabric of American democracy; they impair our collective ability to self-govern.

Finally, speaking explicitly about values makes political conversation more fun. Values are, by definition, positive things. Dreams, ideals, goals. Cherished hopes for the future. Reasons for deep gratitude in the present. Putting those things on the table at the start of any conversation calms people down and sets a constructive, positive tone for everything that follows.

None of this is magic; there’s a lot more work to do beyond learning a few messaging tricks. But please tell me that it’s as self-evident to you as it is to me that identifying and clearly expressing progressive values is better than beginning every conversation or speech by sharing Scott Walker’s latest outrageous lie about his job creation record.

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If you’re not a paid pundit, don’t talk like one.

BlueFramer

One of my favorite grassroots citizens’ groups is creating a “Progressive Freedom Values Dictionary”, which members will use to “speak consistently to others…about what’s at stake in 2014.” The dictionary will be a set of phrases that present issues in a way that promotes the progressive point of view. For example, we will be encouraged to speak exclusively of “privatization of our community’s schools” instead of the more neutral “private school choice” or the Republican phrase, “parental choice.” The group’s effort is part of the growing interest among politically active citizens in “messaging” and “framing.”

ParentalChoiceFramer

I couldn’t gather much enthusiasm for the project despite my full agreement with the list of values statements that accompanied an invitation to participate.  Here’s my problem:  I will reluctantly concede that professional politicians benefit from speaking in carefully crafted political spin while avoiding give-and-take civic conversation, at least in public. Ever since America’s civic journalism gave way to commercial infotainment, avoiding actual conversation may be the only way elected officials escape being ridiculed for gaffes and going “off message”.

Don’t get me wrong: I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that every American citizen should know the techniques of modern American political message-spinning.  I object only to the notion that we should do it. It’s bad enough that our candidates and elected officials are now trained to speak only talking points framed for them by the market researchers, which has destroyed the value of candidates’ debates and press conferences for helping voters understand what the candidates truly believe and think. Our democracy will deteriorate even farther if regular citizens train ourselves to do the same, even in our personal political conversations. We need to understand our neighbors more than we need to debate them.

And if our intention is regrettably limited to selling a political message, speaking in spin won’t work anyway.  If you’re suspicious of taxpayer subsidies to big business, how do you react when your neighbor uses the phrase “job-creator”? If you are eager to reduce domestic government spending, how do you react when your cousin talks about “investment in America”? We perceive any regular Joe who uses recognizable partisan talking points in conversation as a brainwashed message-bearer who is not truly present in a sincere exchange of personal thoughts and feelings. In conversations between friends and neighbors, that sort of talk no more influential than elevator music.

We do need to learn to recognize manufactured and focus-group-tested jabber; we do need to know when someone is trying to manipulate us. As Frank Luntz, one of the leading writers who promote and profit from the growing interest in political messaging, wrote in Words That Work, “The tools and techniques invented on Madison Avenue firmly took hold in Washington during the Reagan years, and they continue to drive our politics today.”

For example, when paid pundits debate the “Affordable Care Act” and “socialized medicine”, a naïve citizen won’t recognize that both are trying to manipulate more than to educate, and that neither is likely to deliver straight talk about the national law that now governs the private health insurance market.   (Yes, it’s a fact that “Affordable Care Act” is the actual name of the legislation. Even our laws are now named by spinmeisters.)

Luntz’s book is a revealing look inside the Orwellian business of manufacturing public opinion, 324 pages of uninterrupted civic amorality. If you think my use of the adjective ‘Orwellian’ was hyperbole, think again. Luntz writes: “When someone asks me to illustrate the concept of words that work, I tell them to read Orwell’s 1984.” Asked to explain his admiration for Orwell’s vision in a 2007 radio interview, Luntz responded, “To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.”

So don’t look for the words truth or honesty in Luntz’s book. He cannot get past the second page of the introduction without claiming his manipulation skills are useful even in what he considers to be “a day-to-day event like talking your way out of a speeding ticket.”

Fortunately, the group creating the Progressive Freedom Values Dictionary is inspired not by Luntz, but by the teachings of George Lakoff, the leading political-messaging voice from the left. Where Luntz is a technician who cares only that his words work regardless of whether for good or evil, Lakoff emphasizes “Politics is about moral values…  In America today, moral issues are central.” Where Luntz considers sincerity irrelevant if not dangerous, Lakoff argues that political communicators should “Be aware of what you believe and repeat it out loud over and over. Be positive. Be authentic. Bring it home. Say it simply.” And where Luntz’s experience is limited to political marketing, Lakoff has the advantage of years of research in cognitive science. His explanations of human thought processes are fascinating and useful.

EnergyIndepFramerBut Lakoff’s metaphors have their own dangers.  We regular-Joe people need to create and strengthen connections among ourselves. To create connections, we need to learn the skills of constructive interpersonal political conversation. And of all the bad habits that prevent connection through conversation, two of the most detrimental are:  1) Trying only to get your own message across rather than engaging in respectful give-and-take dialogue; and 2) Perceiving your conversation partner as an opponent and a caricature rather than as a unique human being with legitimate needs, concerns, and interests. Lakoff’s instructions fall short in both those areas.

FossilFuelFramerBoth Luntz and Lakoff approach political communication as if it was entirely a matter of crafting the perfect outgoing message. That works if we’re writing a letter to the editor or scripting a political commercial. But engaged, give-and-take conversation among friends, family, and acquaintances requires listening to our conversation partner and framing not only good statements but good questions.

More troubling is Lakoff’s relentless framing of self-government as a contest between two-and-only-two opposite perspectives and caricaturing them both. Listen to Lakoff and you will learn that “Conservatives and progressives do not just have different goals or values. They have very different modes of thought.” You will learn that “For progressives, democracy begins with citizens caring about each other, taking responsibility both for themselves and for their fellow citizens,” while “for conservatives, democracy is about liberty, individual responsibility, and self-reliance—the freedom to seek one’s self-interest with minimal or no commitment to the interests of others.”

To be fair, Lakoff acknowledges that very few of us are walking, talking caricatures; most of us can and do use both of those models at different times. But still, I doubt you can read one chapter in any of his books without encountering at least one sentence that illustrates the only-two-sides metaphor that keeps our political culture in this seemingly endless dispute mode. If I’m going to have a constructive political conversation with my neighbor, I will do much better if I ask him, not Lakoff, about his values and beliefs, and then listen to my neighbor’s answers without filtering them through any Lakoff-coached preconceptions.

If a wish-granting genie allowed me to give every American the understanding contained in just one political-communications book, it would not be Lakoff’s most recent book, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic. (Why write for only partisans when the discussions in that book are valuable for our entire nation–as they are? Why not write The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking for Democracy?)

Instead, I would ask the genie to give every American the insights in Deborah Tannen’s The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words. She writes:

Philosopher John Dewy said, “Democracy begins in conversation.” In conversation we form the interpersonal ties that bind individuals together in relationships; in public discourse, we form similar ties on a larger scale, binding individuals into a community.

In moving (toward dialogue and) away from a narrow view of two-sided debate, we need not give up conflict and criticism altogether. Quite the contrary, we can develop more varied and more constructive ways of expressing opposition and negotiating disagreement.

We need to use our imaginations and ingenuity to find different ways to seek truth and gain knowledge, and add them to … the ingredients for our dialogue stew. It will take creativity to blunt the most dangerous blades of our argument culture. It’s a challenge we must undertake, because our public and private lives are at stake.

The fabric of democracy will always be more of a crazy quilt than smooth satin or bleached muslin. What it cannot be is torn into disconnected pieces.  Operating and preserving a government of the people, by the people, for the people requires that we find ways to weave our  varied interests, concerns and values into a fabric of rough consensus, and we cannot do that if we study only how to win at messaging while neglecting the skills needed to connect with our neighbors in constructive political conversation.

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Political conversation: How to win every time

Whenever I start a presentation or discussion about political conversation skills, participants inevitably have one major ambition: They want to learn how to win.

Winning3So here it is: Decide what prize you want to win, and then pick the appropriate conversational strategy. Different strategies win different prizes.

You could seek to win quiet resentment from your conversation partner: “I sure got her to shut up about her (liberal/conservative) B.S.”

Or you might want to win satisfaction with your talk-radio-ready skills, as in “I got in the best zingers.” I suspect zinger-production is a talent not a skill, and I don’t have it. So I never try to win that prize. If you’re good at zingers, you probably already know that pursuing that prize puts you out of the running for prizes like new knowledge or understanding. Humans close their minds, not open them, when zingers fly.

I’m not being entirely flippant. Every one of us sometimes engages in conversation seeking nothing more than emotional satisfaction. That impulse isn’t going to go away. So we might as well acknowledge it and work with it.

But with the exception of diagnosable bullies and paid rabble-rousers such as talk show hosts and professional Internet trolls, most of us enter most of our political conversations hoping to win better shared understanding of the civic choices facing us as a self-governing people. If the conversation goes well—that is, if the participants stay interested, calm, and collaborative—people rarely have trouble keeping their eyes on those prizes, and they usually win them.

It’s only when our conversation partner begins to evoke unpleasant feelings—anger, frustration, embarrassment, whatever—that we switch to pursuit of ‘wins’  having to do with individual pride.

In this blog, most posts (and comments, I hope) will explore the skills needed to win conversational prizes related to connection and understanding.  Hanging on to the attitude and behavior compatible with those will win them every time, even when your conversational partner is pursuing his or her own emotional self-satisfaction, and the prize you win is nothing more or less than a better understanding of why he believes those crazy things.

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My evening with the Tea Party

TeaCupLast night I attended my first Tea Party event. A right-wing flame-thrower local radio talk show host, Vicki McKenna, had put together a lecture on the 3,000-year history of freedom and liberty with an attorney friend, and had asked the Dane County Tea Party group to host it.

It was advertised as free to the public. So I braced myself and went, hoping to strike up a few conversations with my fellow citizens, get inside their heads, identify some common ground, and try to figure out some sources of our differences.

About 250 people showed up at the local restaurant. Consistent with the authoritarian nature of today’s conservatives, however, the meeting was not structured to encourage discussion. With the exception of a few round tables, the room was set up classroom style. The presenters told us to hold our questions until a 15-minute period following their 90-minute PowerPoint lecture, but half the audience left immediately after the lecture and only one of those who remained asked a question. Although I looked like I fit in—I’m white, middle-aged, and my clothing, hair, and makeup are pretty conservative—no one around me seemed at all eager to chat even about the weather. Any sort of “So, what do you think?” conversation would have been unexpected conduct.

I did, however, have a convergence of purpose with my fellow citizens. I was there to try to figure out why they think and believe as they do, and they were there in response to publicity that asked, “Have you ever wondered why liberals seemingly reject the fundamental concepts of liberty while purporting to stand for freedom?” Perhaps it’s the Pollyanna in me, but I have to take some comfort in knowing that American citizens still do want to understood each other, despite the energetic efforts of the powerful to keep us fighting among ourselves.

As someone whom they would consider a liberal, I can tell you this for sure: If any of them believed the presenters’ explanation of why liberals believe what we do, they left the meeting more misinformed than when they came in. I, however, think I got several insights into the Tea Party brain—or at least the local Tea Party opinion-leaders’ brains.

Before the meeting, I understood that right-wing political beliefs exhibit a lot of exceptionalism—the way of thinking that assigns value based not on the merits of the proposition, but on whether we or our opponents are doing it. (“Opponents” loom large in their legends.) I came away from the meeting with an understanding that exceptionalism may be more than a characteristic of their belief system: It may well be at the bedrock foundation.

When McKenna or her attorney friend, Jim Troupis, were not explicitly proclaiming American or conservative exceptionalism, every argument they made was based not on any consistently applicable criteria, but on the assumption that if “we” (either America or conservatives) do it, it is the best thing and if our opponents do it, it’s either wrong or worthless.

For example, none of McKenna’s remarks painting Obamacare as thoroughly evil and dangerous exhibited the slightest whiff of acknowledgement that its major features were developed in right-wing think tanks to benefit private insurance companies and were (before the Obama Administration adopted the plan) promoted by Republican politicians as the “free-market” solution to America’s health care woes.  The fact that the program expands the role of profit-making insurance companies in our health care system and creates marketplaces to promote competition is utterly irrelevant for McKenna–what matters is that the program now belongs to her “opponent.” I would bet my life that if the program was still being promoted exclusively by free-market conservatives, she would support it out of her belief that “if our side backs it, it is good.”

In addition, McKenna alleged that if a nation does not allow its citizens the freedom to get sick and die without health insurance, every other freedom and liberty will deteriorate. McKenna spoke and the audience nodded as if they were unanimously ignorant of the co-existence of political freedom and universal health insurance in every other developed nation on this planet. When you view the world through the prism of American exceptionalism, knowing what goes on in other nations is useless information, worth no more than a few neurons out of the billions available to you.

Both McKenna and Troupis offered multiple other examples of exceptionalist thinking, but I had a hard time stifling a chuckle at one. In explaining the value of the ancient Greek political systems, Troupis hammered on the quotation “Not a single civilization untouched by Greek heritage has developed freedom as we know it”—putting it on his PowerPoint slide and repeating it several times.

“Gosh!” he wanted us to think, “Those Greeks sure were exceptional, and we’re just so darned exceptional to be their political descendants!”

But as I stared at the PowerPoint slide, I had to wonder whether everyone would be equally impressed with the news that not a single civilization untouched by French heritage has ever developed language as the French know it, or that not a single civilization untouched by Indian heritage has ever developed religion as the Hindus know it.

We’re all exceptional; get over it.

Well, I take that back. They are not going to get over it. Given a chance for a one-on-one conversation with any of my fellow citizens in attendance, I am now convinced that I would surely have blown it had I said anything inconsistent with American or conservative exceptionalism. When we try to remodel each others’ political beliefs, we might be able to suggest the equivalent of replacing the drapes or even knocking a new door through a wall. But if we suggest messing with the foundation–saying something that sounds like “Move the basement walls farther out”–the conversation will be over forever.

How then can we speak sense to them? How do we, as my friend Jim put it, “come up with the words that might start to alter the trajectory of their thinking?”

Just as I cannot see any way to talk to them that directly challenges the unique values they hold, I cannot see that any way that doesn’t start with highlighting our shared values. They spoke of the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address with the same passion that I do, and for the most part seemed to understand them pretty much the same way I do. Despite McKenna’s and Troupis’ claims, progressives do in fact value freedom and liberty, with largely the same definitions that they use. (Exception: We don’t place such a high value on freedom from affordable health care.)

And–again contrary to points they made–progressives have no more belief than they do in any “inalienable right to freedom from want,” which they defined as the “right to have everything we need supplied by others,”  or in the ability of scientists and academics to perfect the human race by taking away our freedom of choice. (They were not talking about abortion.)

One of my most interesting experiences while I was collecting signatures for the Walker recall was when I was confronted by an angry fellow citizen on State Street, who loudly accused me of being a “union lackey” interested only in “sucking at the public tit.” I let him rant and rave until he ran out of steam (if you don’t yell back, that happens pretty quickly.) At that point I explained to my accuser that I had never been a union member, never wanted to be, and that my husband and I were mostly living on the proceeds of the sale of the business he began as a start-up entrepreneur. I explained that I wanted Walker recalled not because of what he was doing to the unions, but because of what he was doing to Wisconsin democracy. I explained that citizens like both him and me were for the first time in a century being excluded from meetings at which our laws were being debated and voted on, while lobbyists and campaign contributors were coming and going freely from the Capitol. That was why we needed to recall Walker—to preserve our freedom of self-government.

My accuser was shocked into silence and politely said good-bye. Of course he didn’t say anything remotely resembling, “I see your point,” nor did he apologize. But I did connect with him, in a fellow-citizen sort of way for a moment, and I hope I made a crack in his willingness to assume he is getting the whole truth from right-wing talk radio.

My more recent experience petitioning for a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United showed me the broad common ground in our desire to restore citizen control of government and get the money out of politics.  Our local community group got an 87% success rate as we knocked on doors throughout our village—close to nine out of ten people who answered the door supported the proposed amendment. All but a few of the remaining 13% among the people with whom I spoke had reasons other than opposition for declining to sign. In a village as thoroughly purple as the one in which I live, that 87% had to include many conservatives.

There’s no question that our fellow citizens hold some values that we do not, and vice versa, and there’s no question they are being lied to about who we are and what we believe. But we have plenty of very significant common interests and shared values. We just need to find the opportunity to talk to them and the serenity to be able to do it without getting upset.

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Every utterance has a purpose. Figure it out.

Joanne and Kate don’t talk about Obamacare and contraception any more. Both were  frustrated by a short conversation about six months ago, and now the topic is closed for them. It didn’t need to be that way.

Joanne started the conversation with a remark that she felt Obamacare violated freedom of religion, because it makes no exception for Catholic employers to its requirement that large employers provide coverage for contraception. Kate replied that she could see several reasons why the new law needed to make no exceptions for any employers that were not actually churches. Their conversation went back and forth via email for two days.

Kate explained that the law needed to require basic set of covered services because if it didn’t, employers could pay for only immunizations and gym memberships and claim they were providing ‘health insurance.’ Exceptions for personal beliefs would allow things like Seventh Day Adventist CEOs to have their companies provide ‘health insurance’ that covers only faith healing, or a corporate board claiming an intense belief in animal rights and refusing to cover any drugs or procedures that had been tested on animals.

Joanne replied she hadn’t thought of those possibilities, but she still perceived the requirement as an infringement on religious liberty, particularly since women would be free to obtain contraception elsewhere. Kate responded that the same could be said of any medical service.

Joanne responded again that she hadn’t thought of that, but still perceived the requirement as an infringement on religious liberty. Kate replied by pointing out that corporations have never before been allowed to exempt themselves from laws based on personal beliefs and that even on the individual level, religious liberty has never excused Americans from certain responsibilities as citizens. Quakers pay taxes that support the military; Orthodox Jews pay taxes that support Saturday police protection.

Joanne, irritated, ended the exchange by writing, “I can tell your mind just is not open on this, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.” Kate let it go, feeling irritated herself because she perceived Joanne to be the one with the closed mind.

What went wrong with this conversation? Both Joanne and Kate respected each other and remained civil. Neither lied or made anything up, misunderstood the other, or tried to make the other look foolish. Yet both left the conversation feeling it had been a failure.

The problem was that neither Joanne nor Kate seemed to be aware of either her own reason for participating in the conversation or the other’s. Working at cross-purposes is a sure path to frustration. But what is obvious when one person is, say, trying to paint the walls and the other trying to wash them is rarely evident in conversation.

Even if we’re not aware of it, our every utterance has a purpose. “Please pass the salt” is obvious. “Excuse me,” when brushing past someone in the aisle is motivated by a desire not to be perceived as rude even by a stranger. “How was your day, honey?” is motivated by a desire to get a sense of what mood your partner is in.

When Joanne brought up the topic of health insurance and contraception, she was acting on what might be the most common reason for starting a political conversation: She was seeking reassurance that others shared her concern for religious freedom.

When we are disgusted, outraged, or scared by some news, we hate to feel alone in that reaction. So we talk about it with people who are likely to agree, hoping for a response along the lines of “Yes, ain’t it awful? Boo, them!” The same thing happens when we’re pleasantly surprised or pleased. We want to hear others say something that roughly translates to, “Yay, us!”

Kate, however, had a very different purpose for entering a conversation about contraception and health insurance. She was already aware of the issue before Joanne brought it up, but she perceived it as something the Republican leadership was deliberately framing as a clash of values and then promoting for the purpose of undermining productive, problem-solving discussion. Kate’s motive in responding to Joanne was to counteract what she saw as inflammatory messages and provide Joanne with an opportunity to consider the policy question in a more thoughtful way.

Both Kate and Joanne value religious liberty, and both would be happy if no federal policy ever caused anyone to feel forced to do anything they consider immoral. Had Kate been more attentive to Joanne’s unspoken request in starting the conversation (“Reassure me that we all still value religious liberty!”), she might have been able to respond in a way that satisfied both her objectives and Joanne’s, even if she did not share Joanne’s reaction to that particular policy. Kate could easily and honestly have given that reassurance to Joanne before beginning to talk about the policy considerations that she wanted Joanne to be aware of.

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