The human mind (yours and mine) and conflict

I wish I could find an article like this every day.

Humans share a tendency to simplify and demonize, it’s true; but we also share a desire for understanding. Encouragingly, perhaps, we are starting to see sporadic examples of high-profile journalists trying to break through the tribalism.  Even Glenn Beck (yes, Glenn Beck!) has tried in recent years to get his audience to stop demonizing the other side and hear more complexity.

In all these encounters, the media personalities seem to have good intentions. They want to do this differently; they just lack the skills. It’s like watching your grandfather use Twitter; he could learn but it probably won’t happen naturally.”

Read this article: Complicating the Narratives, subtitled “What if journalists covered controversial issues differently–based on how humans actually behave when they are polarized and suspicious?”


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What not to do: Focus on what not to do.

In brief: This post discusses–and demonstrates–the importance of emphasizing the positive rather than the negative–that is, building an shared idea of the desired goal, not just than commiserating about the problem; focusing on what we could be doing, not just setting out prohibitions.


In this post, I’m going to break a basic rule of effective political conversation.  I’m going to focus only on the negative.

Don’t do what Laura Parrott Perry did in this tweet. In reference to the US policy of  separating refugee children from their parents at the US Border, she wrote, “Not sure a country that has a history of selling babies away from their parents in slavery, sending native children to ‘boarding schools’ and separating families in Japanese internment camps gets to clutch its pearls and cry, “this is not who we are.” It’s who we have always been.”


With this tweet, Perry turned the focus from a current crisis (separating refugee parents and children) to harms done long ago. In doing that, she turned a manageable civic task (taking action to end the family-separation policy) into a nearly impossible one (confronting and altering an enduring flaw in our very nature.

Read through Perry’s writings on Twitter and elsewhere, and you’ll see that she is a person of good will. I do not doubt her motive with this tweet was to spark action to end the family-separation practice.

I’ll also grant that—for whatever reason—she got almost a thousand retweets and  Facebook shares for this tweet.  But with every share and retweet, what did this sentiment accomplish in the larger conversation, beyond the venting of anger?

  • For Americans who are not yet aware of the new family-separation practice, the tweet says nothing. For them, it is an out-of-the-blue reminder of their forebears’ sordid conduct.
  • For Americans who are aware of the family-separation practice and who support it, Perry provides validation. This new policy is no more outrageous or unacceptable than anything America has ever done—probably less so. After all, it’s not like we’re selling the children into slavery.
  • For Americans who are aware of the practice and who oppose it, Perry’s comment feeds desperation and hopelessness. She tells them that, in opposing the new policy, they are not up against just one policy or one Administration. They are going against the whole weight of American history, against American identity itself.

Set aside the question of whether she’s correct about Americans being habitual separators-of-families, and ask: Whether it’s true or false, why say it now?

I lied in that first paragraph. I wanted to demonstrate a wholly negative argument.

Imagine that this post had ended just before my admission that I lied. You would have been left with only an idea about what NOT to do. I doubt that would have left you satisfied, even if you agreed.

So now consider what Perry could have tweeted:
“Are we still the same country that sold babies away from parents in slavery, sent native children to “boarding schools,” and separated families in Japanese internment camps? We can show that we are not, by not separating asylum-seeking parents and children.”

With that tweet, Perry could have made the same point, expressed just as much anger, and highlighted the same historical facts–but without demoralizing anyone.

Our political conversation—like this blog post—is generally at its most persuasive when it focuses on the positive.  Build up a clear model of a desirable future in your listener’s mind. Nature abhors a vacuum, so if you’re going to ask your conversation partner to give up any old ideas or habits, be sure to share a powerful message about the positive alternative.

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Power-driven vs. Collaboration-driven conversations

In brief:  Sometimes conversation has nothing to do with communication, and is instead an exercise in establishing personal power. 

In late July 2017,  a Salt Lake City emergency-room nurse and a police officer had a conversation that didn’t end well for either. The nurse was briefly arrested and put in handcuffs. The police officer may lose his job, if he can stay out of jail himself.

It wasn’t a political conversation, but I’m writing about it in this blog because it so clearly illustrates a common failure in political conversations: One participant thinks the purpose of the conversation is to reach mutual understanding. The other participant thinks the interaction is a tug-of-war for power.

On the surface, it appears as if the nurse and the officer are engaged in the same conversation. They face each other. One speaks, then the other speaks.

University of Utah Hospital Nurse Alex Wubbels was engaged in a conversation for the purpose of improving understanding of the policy.

The nurse’s intent is to reach a shared understanding.  Through her eyes, the conversation is about the policy.  It doesn’t even cross her mind–until she is tackled and forced into handcuffs–that she is in any sort of competition for power.  When she tries to explain what’s going on to the supervisor, she says “I have no idea why he’s blaming me. I’m just representing the (policy).”

The police officer, meanwhile, is oblivious to anything but the power dynamics–who’s in charge here? The only thing anyone needs to understand is that he is. He hears only a challenge to his power, not an explanation of policy. He asks for no clarification beyond  “Are you going to give me what I want?”

SLCop copy
Salt Lake City Police Officer Jeff Payne was engaged in a conversation for the purpose of establishing he had power–until he decided to demonstrate instead.

 When he explains to the supervisor, he says “She’s the one who told me ‘no’.”

Fortunately, handcuffing your opponent is normally not among the options available for settling a political argument. So this example is extreme.  But you see these dynamics in many political conversations.

I first came across the idea of competitive and collaborative conversations in a book written for people who are the targets of verbal abuse–Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship. The marriage I was in at the time qualified.  I’d lay awake until 3AM every night trying to figure out what I could say to help my  husband understand (whatever), and nothing would ever work. In hindsight, I can see that’s because, for him, our every conversation was about who had the power in the marriage.

Evans explained that I was in what she called “Reality II,” a world in which people exchange information and ideas so that they can better understand each other and cooperatively solve problems. Reality II people are collaborators.

My husband was in “Reality I,” a world in which people compete. Every interaction is an occasion for changing or reinforcing the power and relative status of the parties. If you aren’t building your power, you’re losing it. In Reality I, no one ever just shares information. They demonstrate they know more than you.  If you let them do that, you lose.

Using conversation as recreational competition isn’t a bad thing if both partners enjoy what they are doing–trading zingers, scoring points, not bothering with anything actually persuasive.

The problems arise when one participant assumes collaboration and the other is engrossed in competition. The collaborator will try, ever more earnestly, to explain what it is that the other person doesn’t  understand. But with every explanatory comment, the competitor feels more disrespected, challenged, and angry.

Often these conversations are fairly easy to spot. The collaborator has no problem noticing a rude competitor’s sarcasm, insults, and interruptions. But when the competitor is polite, the problem is easier to miss. Some of the tip-offs: A polite competitor’s questions will be rhetorical, not curious. When asked a question, he will avoid a straight answer and will instead answer a question that wasn’t asked. He will caricature the collaborator’s meaning in his replies, and will simply contradict the collaborator’s points, rather than offer logical counterarguments. All competitors will reflexively change the subject whenever it looks like they might have to concede a point.

If you find yourself in a conversation like this–whether you’re the competitor or the collaborator–just find a way to end it. Don’t waste any more energy. If you’re the competitor, find a different partner to spar with. You win only a hollow victory when your opponent isn’t even trying to compete. If you’re the collaborator, the best you can do is to state your own point of view clearly and walk away.  It’s not really a conversation anyway.

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30 seconds to more effective political conversation

Main point: Our gut tells us that any argument can be made more effectively with more logic and evidence. So we’re tempted to pile them up when we feel strongly.  Last night, I saw a demonstration of the value of keeping it short: You are more likely to be heard more correctly.

* * *

Last night I learned a strong lesson about talking—at a listening workshop.

Reach Out Wisconsin organizers Davi Post, Michael Cummins, and Dave Aceti ran an experiment based on a technique Post uses in his mediation and counseling work.

The three had developed an active-listening exercise intended for political conversation. They invited twelve friends and ROW regulars—six with liberal values and six with conservative—to take it for a test spin.

They split us into small groups with two participants and a timer, and gave us these instructions:

  1. The first speaker makes one point in 30 seconds.
  2. The listener ‘reflects’ by describing in his or her own words what they understood, in less than 30 seconds.
  3. If the speaker can then say, “Yes, that’s what I meant. I feel I’ve been understood,” the listener has succeeded. The speaker and listener switch roles.
    If not, the process repeats until the speaker is satisfied that the listener understands.

We each got several chances to be speaker and listener. The exercise seemed restrictive at first, even silly. We felt like experienced ice skaters being forced to trace figure eights.

I noted only a few weak spots in anyone’s listening skills. For example, as I listened to my partner express a classic libertarian position on health insurance, my mind reflexively accessed other things I know about libertarian philosophy. I had to consciously resist adding any of this previous knowledge when I reflected what I’d heard him say. That wasn’t very hard.

ManyargumentsWhat was harder was summarizing when a speaker jammed several points into a short statement–regardless of whether I agreed or not.

For example, two participants volunteered to try the technique in front of the whole group. They chose the topic of Wisconsin’s voter-ID requirement. In support of repeal, the first speaker was articulate. She mentioned the need to increase turnout; the problem that some voters lack birth certificates; delays at the polls; and something else I forget.

Her listening partner couldn’t repeat it back very well. None of the rest of us could, either.

You would think our brains could handle 30 seconds of facts. But the same thing happened in other discussions. When my partner confined his remarks to one point with only one or two supporting observations, I could easily describe what he said, in a way that met his approval. And when I made my points succinctly and simply, I almost always heard them reflected back accurately.

But communication would disintegrate whenever a speaker tried to cover too much ground.

One LightWe all noticed it. If the speaker dumped out several points or arguments in one load, we inevitably missed some.

And worse, we would then  reflexively hear only the one we disagreed with. One participant said he’d noticed his attention drawn to only one offending word in an overloaded statement.

Post said the idea of staying with one point was a standard technique, but that they had imposed the 30-second limit only to keep the exercise moving. They hadn’t anticipated it would make discussion more effective. But it did.

The idea that less is more was not news to me. When I ran for office last year, my campaign manager and my messaging consultant were always telling me, “Make it shorter! Still shorter! Shorter yet! Fewer words!” And I’m not making this up: I got one candidate’s questionnaire from a local newspaper with four good, solid questions and instructions to answer each in 80 words or less.

At the time, I saw it as nothing more than accommodating the voters’ short attention span for local races.

But after last night, I’m seeing that advice from a different angle. Don’t force your listener to process several ideas before giving them an opportunity to think, respond, or ask questions. Break your argument into several short and clear statements, and you’re more likely to be understood.

* * *

Other observations:

  • In normal conversation, we tend to continuously pass judgment as we listen—is that remark true or false? Good or bad? Do I agree or disagree? When this exercise forced us to turn off that particular form of mental busy-ness, comprehension came much more easily.
  • Ego is always involved because we cannot help but be eager to win respect, credibility, and other forms of approval. But that drive often makes conversation turn competitive. Our desire for ‘winning’ didn’t go away in this exercise, but it was channeled more constructively. The only ego-boost this exercise allowed was our conversation partner saying “Yes, you understood me correctly.” So our egos were gainfully employed rather than wandering around making trouble.
  • The careful listening didn’t help with at least two other conversation glitches.
    First, hearing what you want to hear. In one exchange, the speaker shared a fact: “Some eligible voters do not have drivers’ licenses.” The listener reflected that by saying, “I heard that you have a concern that legitimate voters might not have drivers’ licenses.” The speaker heard what she had hoped to hear and replied, “Yes, that’s what I said.”
    But I couldn’t help but notice the listener had subtly turned a statement of fact into one of opinion. That didn’t disrupt their ability to complete this exercise, but my guess is that glossing over something like that would take a bite out of a real conversation.
    Second, talking past each other. On the topic of “Defense spending: More or less?”, one participant presented an argument on the question “How should we deal with the risk of being attacked?” The other partner responded with an argument on the question “How should we refrain from attacking others?” As their timer, I stopped them after two rounds and asked if they had noticed they were talking past each other. They hadn’t. But once they were aware of it, both were eager to engage on both questions.
  • None of the participants could say, at least while we were together last night, how we would use this technique or these insights in ‘live’ political conversation. Speaking for myself, I know the frustration of using active listening techniques with a conversation partner who has no inclination to do the same. When the conversation is done, I understand what he thinks, but he remains clueless about what I think. And probably doesn’t even notice.
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Righteousness and self-righteousness: A practical lesson from the lawyers

Main point: Lawyers argue for a living, so they have skills we could use
in political conversation. One of those skills is being able, without agreeing,
to see the arguments from the perspective of your opponent.

* * *

We’re all amateurs in this political-conversation game. So we need to find some professionals from whom we can learn skills.

The people from whom we hear most political conversation—television pundits and radio talk-show hosts—are professionals in theatrics, not conversation. Their skill is manufacturing conflict, not resolving it.

But lawyers…  Lawyers make their living by arguing. They come in after a dispute has already blossomed and they argue to win, not just for show. They must be likable enough to make witnesses talk and juries listen. Their arguments have to be logical enough to withstand counterattack. And they have to keep their cool.

So what can we learn from lawyers?

In this week’s Time magazine, Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken wrote about the recent dust-up in academia over provocative speakers and hecklers.  She pointed out that the same speakers who attract shout-it-down demonstrations on some campuses don’t get similarly dramatic reactions when they appear at law schools.


Gerken used the example of Charles Murray, whose writings on race and intelligence draw violent reactions at some colleges. When he spoke at her law school, “students and faculty engaged with him, and students held a separate event to protest and discuss the implications of his work.” He encountered opposition without chaos.

I’m not going to weigh in on the pros and cons of campus heckling or method for its control. This blog isn’t about the limits of free speech.

But I found Gerken’s ideas useful for person-to-person conversation.

Law schools handle provocative speakers well, Gerken wrote, not because law students find offensive ideas palatable. Instead, she says, they have been taught “the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness.”

Both are based on the awareness that we are “in a war over values” in which “we should fight and fight hard for what we believe.”

But righteousness also maintains awareness that “even as we do battle, it’s crucial to recognize the best in the other side and the worst in your own.”

In law school exercises, students are forced to practice defending ideas they disagree with. They are not expected to accept those ideas as their own, but to learn how to see the dispute as their opponents do.

This brings them two advantages, according to Gerken.

When you can see your own arguments from the opposing perspective, you can better see their weaknesses. And when you can “imaginatively and sympathetically reconstruct the opponents’ best argument,” you can more effectively refute it.

Gerken also wrote about the importance of “rituals of respect.”

We understand that we should respect our opponents, but it’s often difficult to summon up the genuine feeling.  And so attorneys use ‘rituals of respect.’ Proceed as if you respect and are respected, even if you don’t and you aren’t.

Gerken wrote that these rituals “are so powerful they can trump even the deepest divides,” citing the case of Thurgood Marshall. As a black lawyer in mid-20th century America, he was able to do things, like asking tough questions of a white woman,  in courtrooms that he was not allowed to do in any other forum. The rituals of respect enabled the exchange of ideas to proceed–and eventually pay off.

If we want to be effective in political debate, we need to do more than just listen. We need to learn to set ourselves aside long enough to see the argument through our opponents’ eyes.

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Change of heart > Change of facts

The two most common mistakes in political conversation, in my observation, are 1) insulting or feeling insulted and 2) relying too heavily on facts.

In kindergarten, we learned ForestFactswhat happens  when we insult people. It took a little longer, but most of us eventually learned the value of not taking offense even when it is handed to us, even we still have a hard time with that practice.

But using facts? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I’ve been circling around writing about this for a long time, but Colin Beavan beat me to it. So I’m reposting his commentary from the Spring 2017 issue of Yes! Magazine. I love his story about the dairy farmer!

* * *

Some years ago, the communications psychologist John Marshall Roberts said that there are three ways of converting people to a cause: by threat of force, by intellectual argument, and by inspiration.

The most effective of these methods, Roberts said, is aligning communication about your cause with the most deeply-held values and aspirations of your friends, relatives, neighbors, and fellow citizens. To get people’s total, lasting, and unwavering support, in other words, we should try neither to cajole them judgmentally nor convince them forcefully. We should inspire them toward a vision that they—not we—can really care about.

Which points to the potential problem of blindly using facts and science—be it climate science or demographic science—to “prove” the righteousness of our causes. Research shows that people tend to embrace data that support their life views and reject data that refute them. Whether we like this or not, it is a truth about how humans evaluate and make decisions. Having the “facts on our side” to make an argument more forcefully may not help if those facts and arguments refute someone’s view of life and the values that are precious to them.

The communication challenge, then, is to use our facts and science to skillfully and compellingly connect our causes not to what we think our friends, relatives, and fellow citizens should care about, but what they already do care about.

During the Vietnam War, a dairy farmer told a friend of mine the story of how he got recruited into the anti-war movement. The farmer happened to sit on a plane next to an anti-war activist. They got talking, and the activist said that he was campaigning against the U.S. use of fire-bombing.

We should inspire them toward a vision that they—not we—can really care about.

The cow farmer said, “I know it’s awful, but we surely wouldn’t use that weapon if we didn’t need it to win the war.” The activist told him that crops were being burned and villagers were starving. The dairy farmer felt sympathetic but said the weapons might ultimately bring a faster end to the war. The activist mentioned children getting burned, forests turned to cinder. The farmer felt awful about the suffering, but his view remained unchanged. Finally, in frustration, the activist said, “Even the cattle are dying!” The dairy farmer said, “Wait! What?! They are killing the cows?!”

We may think the cow farmer should have cared about the crops, villagers, children, and forests. Yet trying to force more information—science and data—about them down his throat might have risked alienating him. Instead, finding his true soft spot—the cows—and being willing to enter into his life view was what eventually recruited him into the anti-war movement.

In another example, when activists with the California-based Leadership Lab knock on voters’ doors in its efforts to defeat anti-LGBTQ prejudice, they don’t start by talking about homophobia—they start by asking what personal experience of prejudice and bigotry the voter has had. Then, Leadership Lab volunteers tell a story of an LGBTQ person experiencing homophobia. They ask a question: “Do you see a connection between the prejudice you experienced and homophobia?” Recognizing that prejudice is the same wherever it is found, many voters are inspired to combat it.

In converting friends and fellow citizens to our causes, we should not blindly attempt to use facts and science to bolster the arguments and stories that appeal to our own values and experiences. Instead, we are challenged to listen to and understand the people we are trying to convince. Then, we can marshal the facts and figures that prove that our cause can help support their values.

Facts and figures are wonderful tools, but they are not a communications strategy.

In the case of renewable energy, for example, our friends may care more about national security than climate change. We can tell them about the security advantages of generating energy at home; trying to force them to believe in climate change by explaining the scientific details of the greenhouse effect, on the other hand, may not help. The point is to begin by asking questions in order to understand the values we need to appeal to, and then to use our facts to build a story that inspires the people we are talking to—rather than trying to force our own inspirations on them.

Facts and figures are wonderful tools, but they are not a communications strategy. Let’s not let our convictions blind us to the fact that other people have theirs. We need to hear our audiences’ stories and then retell ours in a way that mirrors their challenges and aspirations. We need to be empathetic and know that our stories are their stories. And that the challenges we face in being human are one.

Colin Beaven (aka No Impact Man) wrote this article for Why Science Can’t Be Silent, the Spring 2017 issue of YES! Magazine. Colin helps people and organizations to live and operate in ways that have a meaningful impact on the world. His most recent book is “How To Be Alive,” and he blogs at

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Express your opinion on the topic or…awkward!

Key and Peele nail it again. Okay, it’s satire. It’s exaggerated beyond what you’d see in real life.

But oh, this real-world behavior is so ripe for satire.

You’ve seen it. Someone has opinions, but little confidence that they can defend them.  Yet they don’t want to be sidelined in the conversation.

So they ridicule. They roll their eyes. Make snide comments. Label other people’s contributions–awkward, loony, naive. Anything to avoid engaging in peer-to-peer debate.

In real life, of course, good conversationalists don’t behave like either character in this clip. But oh, dear lord, I certainly have been tempted at times to react like this–and just throttle people who won’t make their point directly.

Snide comments and eye-rolling are not the only ploys people use to keep themselves in the conversation when they don’t have anything to contribute. You’ve seen (or done!) these, I’m sure:

  • Raising questions that everyone knows are accusations, but refusing to state them as accusations.  An example from my Facebook feed today:
    “Jill Stein once attended a dinner in Moscow where Putin was present. How do you think she raised the money for those recounts?”
  • Changing the subject.  I can imagine a pre-Civil War debate:
    “We must end slavery in the South!”
    “The North cannot attack slavery until they’ve resolved the Indian problem in West.”
  • Arguing against a point that no one is making.  I’m sure this exchange took place at many a dinner table in the late 1960s:
    “The United States has no business in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people have the same right to choose their own form of government as anyone else.”
    “It’s ridiculous to think that communism is better than democracy!”
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