Someone is wrong! (and why you don’t need to correct them.)

In brief: If you let a few of your conversation partner’s misstatements go uncorrected, you will be better able to control the conversation.

April 16, 2019 – Judging by the conversations I read on social media, I’m not the only human who has an impulse, when I read a comment containing four true statements and one false, to respond only to the false one.

We’ll be more successful in our political conversations if we let an occasional ignorant or illogical statement go free.

SomeoneIsWrongInternetExample: Suppose you support funding for contraception services.  You think your strongest arguments are the basic dignity of human choice; the morality of caring for our fellow citizens; reducing the demand for abortion; and strengthening our economy by enabling people to manage the size of their families.

Now, imagine you’re discussing that topic with someone who is making a ‘not-my-brother’s-keeper’ argument for individual responsibility. He says that former attorney general Eric Holder owns abortion clinics.

You doubt that’s true. You might even know the facts behind that rumor.

But notice that whether it’s true or false, it has nothing to do with the case you want to make.  If Holder was murdering a dozen infants daily with his own hands, it wouldn’t affect the validity of a single one of your arguments.

So let it pass. Stay focused. Resolve to set the record straight only after you’ve stated the facts that are important to you. If your conversation partner insists, say something that neither confirms nor corrects the allegation. Instead, acknowledge it and dismiss it—perhaps saying something like “Regardless of who owns the abortion clinics, contraception helps women stay out of them.”

Leaving some misstatements uncorrected has both logical and emotional benefits for the conversation.

Logic   A logical argument is a series of statements (premises) that leads to a conclusion.  In the normal turn-taking of casual conversation, you cannot present all your premises in a single speech. But you do need to keep the conversation on track until you’ve put them on the table. When you veer away from your own argument to correct another’s misstatements, you interrupt yourself. By resisting that impulse, you will be better able to maintain control of the conversation.

Emotion   Emotional control is just as important. In any lively conversation, participants will occasionally think, “Well, that’s idiotic,” but skilled conversationalists never let that disdain show.

You know how it feels to be corrected, so heed your natural empathy. For one thing, it’s embarrassing. No one likes to be wrong, and we dislike having that pointed out. For another, it upsets the relative status of the participants. The person doing the correcting takes a superior role; the person being corrected feels forced into an inferior role.

So egos kick in. Participants stop trying to discuss a civic issue and start trying to save face and gain the upper hand. The conversation becomes a competition. Logical points give way to zingers.

The other person is more likely to be receptive to your ideas if you maintain the behavior of a respectful peer. ‘Respectful’ means demonstrating the emotional maturity to avoid embarrassing the other. ‘Peer’ means not taking the role of intellectual superior.

And consider this: If you eagerly correct every misstatement the other person makes, your words–including the corrections–are not going to carry any weight with them anyway. Save your breath.

Finally, as with almost every rule of skillful conversation, think through what you will do when the situation is reversed. The next time someone corrects one of your statements, be prepared to resist switching into ego-defense mode.  If the challenged fact is not necessary to your logical argument, let it go. If it is, try to find a graceful way to support the fact without triggering an ego-defense response from your conversation partner.

Posted in Logic, Relationship | 3 Comments

Reduce conflict by ‘complicating the narrative’

I wish I could find an article like this one, Complicating the Narratives, every day.

I spent the past three months interviewing people who know conflict intimately and have developed creative ways of navigating it. I met psychologists, mediators, lawyers, rabbis and other people who know how to disrupt toxic narratives and get people to reveal deeper truths. They do it every day — with livid spouses, feuding business partners, spiteful neighbors. They have learned how to get people to open up to new ideas, rather than closing down in judgment and indignation.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve been a journalist for over 20 years, writing books and articles for Time, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal and all kinds of places, and I did not know these lessons…”

Here, read the whole thing: Complicating the Narratives.



Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 it 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 about the policy. She assumes a collaborative conversation.  When she explains the situation to the supervisor, she says “I have no idea why he’s blaming me. I’m just representing the (policy).”

Salt Lake City Police Officer Jeff Payne, meanwhile, is oblivious to anything but the power dynamics. He’s in a competitive conversation.  He asks for no clarification beyond  “Are you going to give me what I want?” When he explains to the supervisor, he says “She’s the one who told me ‘no’.”SLCop copy

He was engaged in a conversation for the purpose of establishing he had power–until he decided to demonstrate instead.

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 issue arose that day, and nothing would ever work. In hindsight, I can see that’s because, for him, our every conversation was an exercise in establishing who had the power in the marriage.

Evans explained that I was operating in a world in which people exchange information and ideas so that they can better understand each other and cooperatively solve problems. I was assuming collaboration.

My husband was in a world in which every interaction is an occasion for changing or reinforcing the relative power of the participants. If you aren’t building your power, you’re losing it. He was assuming that neither of us ever simply shared information. If I told him something he didn’t know, I was deliberately demonstrating that I knew more than him. If he let them do that, he would lose.

Using conversation as recreational competition isn’t a bad thing if both partners enjoy the game–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 will feel 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.

Posted in Connecting, Relationship | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Connecting, Content | 2 Comments

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

Posted in Connecting | Leave a comment

Policy focus, person focus: Making arguments that resonate

Main idea:  I use my observations of Clinton supporters’ arguments (personal attributes are key) and Sanders’ supporters’  (policy considerations are key) to illustrate the point that we can all speak more effectively to each other if we: 1) remain alert to noticing values; and 2) provide arguments that connect with our conversation partners’ values rather than focusing entirely on our own.

* * *

Empathy, among other things, is the ability to see—at least momentarily—from the perspective of another, and to do this without passing judgment, just to understand it.

When you agree with someone, it’s easy.  But when we disagree, empathy takes effort and practice.

In this presidential election year, I get twenty opportunities every day to both practice and observe empathy. My friends include both Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters, and—you may have noticed—tensions are high between them just now.

My conclusions: Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters share almost all the same foundational civic values—freedom, justice, a nation that pulls together and works cooperatively to achieve equal opportunity and shared prosperity for all.

But they have come to support different candidates because of where they look to find evidence of those values in the candidates.

My sister and brother-in-law provide a clear illustration. He supports Sanders, she Clinton. I asked them at lunch the other day to give me three reasons why they initially decided to support their candidate.

Their answers won’t surprise you.  As you read their answers below, appreciate and accept the fact that each is sincere. Notice they both have their facts straight.  Notice the absence of conflict in their core values. But notice that they look at different things to find those values in the candidates.

My brother-in-law said he was drawn to Sanders by: 1) Regulation of the financial industry. He believes that Wall Street is causing most of the biggest problems hurting Americans right now, and believes that we need to regulate their conduct more effectively. Sander’s positions on Wall Street regulation precisely agree with his own. 2) Use of America’s military force. He believes America’s foreign policy has been too reliant for too long on military power, and that creates more terrorists than it stops, costs us too much money, and is immoral. He likes Sanders’ positions on military policy. 3) College expenses. Sanders won him over with his early, clear, and strong focus on higher-education debt as a significant factor limiting opportunity for an entire generation of Americans, and his bold proposals to address it.

My sister-in-law said she was drawn to Clinton by: 1) Her experience. She has worked in many jobs, at very high levels, for a very long time. That amount of experience gives Clinton the most impressive resume of any presidential candidate ever. 2) Her ability to weather storms of criticism. She has endured years of the most vitriolic and relentless criticism that any public figure has ever had to endure—some of which could have sent her to prison had her accusers prevailed—and she just kept going. Didn’t crumble. Didn’t surrender. 3) Her gender. Having a woman in the White House will be of benefit to the entire nation because it will provide undeniable proof that women can do anything.  That will help millions of American women achieve their individual potentials, and that will help the entire nation.

Do you see what I see?  The Sanders voter looks at policy positions for evidence of a candidate’s value. The Clinton voter looks at personal attributes.

For months, I’ve been analyzing the posts that roll by on my Facebook feed. Nearly every pro-Sanders/anti-Clinton comment has a policy focus. Nearly every pro-Clinton/anti-Sanders  comment has a person focus. Most of the exceptions come when they are heavy into debate mode, grabbing any argument that might stick.

What breaks my heart is when I see attempts at reaching across the divide that fail because the participants neither perceive nor address the other perspective.

For example, one exchange I’ve encountered several times is when a Sanders supporter asks something like “Please, Clinton supporter, tell me how she’d make a good president. If you can do that, I’ll be willing to do this ‘unity’ thing. Make your case. I’m listening.”

Nine times out of ten, the Clinton supporter responds with a string of ‘person’ arguments, perhaps along the lines of:  “Clinton’s experience with weathering horrible personal attacks makes her  more likely to win in November, despite what the polls now say.  The Republicans will call Sanders a “Socialist,” and so forth.

The Sanders supporter then claims he or she hasn’t heard a single argument in favor of Clinton, which makes the Clinton supporter perceive the Sanders supporter as pig-headed.

But the Sanders supporter truly did not hear any relevant arguments—because those ‘person’ arguments are little more than noise to a voter who focuses on policy.

There’s no magic solution, just a suggestion that we try to be as non-judgmentally alert as we can to each other’s values and perspectives. That won’t be wasted effort. As I’ve written in this blog before, I don’t think any of us ever changes another’s mind anyway—at least not directly and immediately, and particularly not in a single conversation.

Changes of minds happen in the shower, or when chopping vegetables, when we are alone with our thoughts, reviewing the conversations we’ve had or the new information that has come our way.

In any single conversation, if we do no more than successfully connect with each other—that is, if we come to understand the other’s point of view and succeed in expressing our own in a way that can be understood by the other–we will have given each other the raw materials that enable us to reach consensus over time.

Posted in Connecting | 2 Comments

Useful links

For the past two years, my efforts in election administration have overtaken my efforts in interpersonal political communication, in much the same way that my efforts to put out a fire on the stove would likely overtake my efforts to put out the appetizers, were I given that choice just before my dinner guests arrive.

As soon as the kitchen is safe again, I will get back to putting the food on the table. Meantime, I still run into good references and resources, and people still recommend them to me. I’ll collect them in this blog post until I can get back to this talking-politics gig in a concerted way.

My basic, original list is here. And check these out, too:

The Secret to Making Conservatives Care About Climate Change: Research says environmentalists (everyone) should frame their arguments in ways that will appeal to other people’s values.

Taking the War out of our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, by Sharon Strand Ellison



Posted in General and reference | Leave a comment

Let’s you and me argue. You be the kook. (Part 2)

Main idea: If your conversation partner insists on refuting an argument you are not making, consider the possibility that he or she agrees with your arguments but is not yet emotionally ready to accept the conclusion.  If that is what is going on, your conversation partner is subconsciously panicking and will not likely be able to engage in rational discussion on that issue. Back off, and come back to the topic later.

 *  *  *

Two years ago, I mused about the strange phenomenon of people who engage in debates by asserting their conversation partners believe some ridiculous idea they actually do not. (Let’s you and me argue. You be the kook.) At that time, I could not figure it out. TinFoilHat

A debate last night might have given me a clue.

I didn’t play an active part in the discussion among five friends who consider themselves Democrats. I don’t, so I mostly just listened. All five support Sanders for the party’s presidential nomination.The question that started their debate: “Will you vote for Clinton if she gets the nomination?”

Among the five, only one was ready to pledge to vote for the Democratic nominee no matter who it is—I’ll call him Roy. He quickly began to argue against the proposition that “Both parties are exactly the same.” Yet none of the others had said that. In fact, I didn’t notice him respond directly to anything his friends actually said. He was completely wrapped up in his debate with the phantom advocate for the idea that both parties are exactly the same.

As I listened, I tried to tune into Roy’s emotions, his logic, and his illogic. Here’s what came to me:

Appearances aside, Roy had correctly heard his friends when they expressed their objections to Clinton’s foreign policy record; her ties to Wall Street financiers; her support for warrantless surveillance of US citizens; and her record of support for international trade agreements that favor multinational corporations. And he wasn’t having auditory hallucinations that twisted his friends’ actual words into “Both parties are the same.”

Roy desperately wants his friends to support Clinton if she is their party’s nominee, so he felt compelled to say something. At the same time, he couldn’t refute the arguments they they were actually making. In fact, he likely agreed with them.

That, I believe, is why his subconscious came to his emotional rescue and created an imaginary kook against whom he could make effective arguments. Debating the kook would satisfy his strong desire to stand up for his beliefs, while freeing him from having to engage with the points his friends were actually making.

I don’t think he was aware of this. My guess is that if he’d been pressed harder, he would have claimed that “Both parties are exactly the same” was the unavoidable conclusion of what his friends were saying. The subconscious is a powerful thing.

Going back to my post from two years ago, I’m thinking my Facebook friend might have been having the same sort of problem. She might very well have agreed with the point I was actually making—that consumers must continuously be on guard because pharmaceutical giants have so much influence over federal drug regulators. She desperately wanted vaccinations to be safe, but couldn’t argue with my point about lax regulation. So her subconscious conjured up an anti-vaccination kook, and she argued with that phantom instead of responding to me.

The next time this particular short-circuit derails a political conversation I had expected to be reasonable, I’m going to look for signs that my conversation partner actually does agree with my arguments but for some reason feels compelled not to concede the conclusion.

Which brings us to the question of what to do about it. My guess: the key is to find a way to calm the panic, even if it means changing the subject. When your conversation partner has already lost control of his or her reason, and is already ignoring everything you say, you’re going to have to save the persuasion for later anyway.

My Democratic friends might have had some success simply changing the subject with a remark like, “Well, the obvious conclusion is that we all need to work as hard as we can to get Sanders nominated.” No one in the room needed to decide that night what he or she would do if Clinton gets the nomination. They could have let Roy off the hook until he calmed down a little.

And I might have been able to save my relationship with my Facebook friend had I simply posted a comment along the lines of “Glad to see we’re both in agreement on the need for vaccinations. Let’s talk later about the best way to make people feel good about getting them.” Had I realized her weird conversational behavior was caused by panic, and that her panic was caused by her awareness that what I was saying was true, it would have been easier for me to step back and let her gather her wits.

Posted in Connecting | 3 Comments

The 4 Main Things to know about political conversation

Last month, I was invited by a local civic group to lead a small workshop on political conversation. The organizers suggested that I and the other presenter each open with a five-minute introduction to the topic and then let the discussion flow. Five minutes isn’t a lot, but when the topic of a presentation is conversation itself, it’s a good idea to minimize the lecturing. So, I needed to come up with a quick overview of the few main things to know about political conversation.  I narrowed them down to these four.

  1. As long as we avoid talking politics or do it in a way that turns people off to civic involvement, our friends’ and neighbors’ political beliefs will continue to be shaped entirely by the wealthy few who finance paid political speech.

Political speech shapes our nation’s political culture, defines our civic values and agenda, and controls the very reality our fellow citizens perceive. And right now, the only political speech most of our fellow citizens hear is paid speech–political ads and ‘news’ shows designed not to inform but to increase ratings. Because you and I do not have billions of dollars to buy our democracy back, we must re-establish the social practice of constructive political conversation and re-learn the skills of civic discourse. Convincing even one of our apolitical neighbors to support public schools is worth 100 letters to a legislator funded by for-profit companies seeking to redirect tax dollars from the public schools to their own pockets.PoliticalConversation

  1. We need to converse with only the 75-80% of our fellow citizens who have the ability to embrace democracy and self-government. Attending to the sociopaths and hard-wired authoritarians is wasteful and counterproductive.

If you could wire each of your fellow citizens’ heads with electrodes, you would see that about 4% are neurological sociopaths with no capacity to do anything that is not in their personal self-interest. Between 20-25% are neurological authoritarians who actually prefer a world controlled by a strong central power, whether government or corporate elite, in which everyone else just obeys. Neither sociopaths nor authoritarians are capable of participating in self-government for the common good.

We waste our time and energy when we try to change their hard-wired values.  In addition, when we think of ourselves as the ‘other side’ in opposition to extremists, we risk caricaturing our own values and beliefs and in doing so, degrade our ability to awaken shared values and beliefs in our persuadable-but-apolitical fellow citizens. If you must see the world as having two and only two sides, don’t think of them as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Think of them as ‘the people of good will’ and ‘those who aren’t worth engaging in conversation.’

  1. Interpersonal political conversation requires messages to flow in two directions. Both participants need to provide and to receive meaning. Therefore, conversations must proceed with mutual respect and trust, and speakers must listen to understand the other.

Communication is achieved only when ideas, facts, and concepts enter the participants’ minds, not just their ears. Human beings open their minds only to sources they like or trust—in conversation, that is people who care enough to listen to them. Speakers can tailor effective messages only when they understand—not assume, not imagine—the listener’s values, concerns, interests, assumptions, and beliefs. This understanding can be achieved only through active listening.

  1. Adults accept new information and ideas only as they fit with their existing beliefs and values. We reflexively reject ideas that challenge our world view. We alter our beliefs about how the world works only when we are motivated to make those beliefs consistent with deeply held, foundational values.

When new information or ideas conflict with strong beliefs or values, humans reject the new information to protect the belief/value. Therefore, we cannot change anyone’s mind with facts alone; we first must activate strong beliefs or values consistent with those facts. Otherwise, the listener will resist accepting the information—by not believing it, finding flaws with it, or rationalizing it away as irrelevant or insignificant.

Posted in Connecting, General and reference | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Jeff Smith: The common ground is always there.

Main points: Jeff Smith has more experience talking politics than most of us ever will. He believes that our neighborhood political conversations are better focus groups than those manufactured by political consultants, and that in our own informal focus groups we can learn why our neighbors believe what they believe and—yes—counteract misinformation. His advice for productive political conversation: Establish trust by listening to find the common ground.

I caJeffSmithRoadsiden count on one hand the times I’ve walked away from an opportunity for political conversation. B­­ut I’ve got nothing on Jeff Smith. As much as I enjoy talking politics, it had never occurred to me to stand by the side of the road with a sign saying “Stop and talk.”

I’m always on the lookout for people with real-world experience in political conversation, so when I saw a photo of Jeff with his roadside conversation station, I knew I had to interview this man. True, he was doing something most of us will never do—running to keep his seat in the state legislature—but he was sure to have earned some insights useful to non-candidates who want to develop their political conversation skills.

We met over lunch in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, his home town. After losing his seat to redistricting, he is now running for chair of the state’s Democratic Party.

My first question was obvious: Is it so hard to start political conversations that even candidates have to put up a sign by the roadside?

Yes, it is. Forced to run in an area where voters didn’t know him well, Smith wanted to talk to as many voters as he could. Going door-to-door found only about one in five voters home, and fewer than half of those were willing to talk. As he walked through the silent neighborhoods, he could hear the traffic on nearby highways. So he painted his sign, parked by the road, and waited.

It worked better than going door to door, but still “about half the time, I was on my own,” Smith recalled. And although he is a Democrat, about 75% of the people who stopped to talk were conservatives.

Once the conversation gets started, however, Smith found he could talk to anyone—even the few who were itching for a fight.

“You could see them all tensed up as they approached. But if you let them talk, sooner or later you would hear something to the effect of, “I’m concerned about my school.”

And that was the opening Smith, with his experience as a parent and an education advocate, could use. He could then connect: “Well, I am, too. What are we going to do about that?”

“The common ground is always there,” Smith said. “That’s what you wait for. If you let them talk and you listen enough, you will always hear it.” Once the conversation finds that common ground, he said, “then you’ve got a foundation of trust. That allows the communication to get going.”

Smith takes exception to the common assumption that “if you’re listening and having a two-way conversation, you’re weak, you lack passion, you’re not really committed.”

It’s just the opposite, he explained. “When you tell people just what you want them to hear, it never works. When you get in someone’s face, you can expect them to dig in their heels. You might walk away satisfied that you have been heard, but you haven’t really accomplished anything.”

Smith has used the power of listening to counter misinformation, even to turn enemies into allies. For example, while in the state legislature, Smith sponsored a bill addressing the problem of puppy mills—inhumane, for-profit dog-breeding operations. The leadership of an otherwise reputable kennel club had been spreading misinformation about Smith’s proposed legislation.

The members of the club organized a lobby day at the Capitol and confronted Smith with “about 30 people ready to read me the riot act.” The president of the kennel club read a long statement, “a diatribe about how awful the bill was, how reputable breeders would be raided and have their dogs confiscated—that sort of thing.” Smith remained quiet to “let them let it out.” When the group felt they had been heard, they were ready to listen. Smith then asked, “How many of you sell more than 50 dogs a year from more than three litters?” Not a hand in the room went up.

“Well, then, this bill won’t affect you. “ Conversation began, and the group ended up supporting the bill.

He recognizes it’s an uphill struggle. “There’s so much anger, so much fear. The stuff they see on television, hear on talk radio, get in their mailbox—it’s all designed to cast fear,” Smith continued, recalling one woman who greeted him with “You Democrats are all corrupt.”

“It was almost as if she didn’t realize she was talking about me to my face,” he marveled. “But if we don’t understand where that comes from, we’re never going to be able to make it go away.”

Smith’s response gently highlighted the specific and personal nature of her comment: “I asked, ‘Why do you think I am corrupt? As far as I can see, we have to have talked to each other before you can say I’ve lied to you.’”

That sort of honest but calm and respectful conversation is key to helping your conversation partner realize he or she is talking to “a person just like me, not a caricature.”

“People have reasons for believing the things they believe,” Smith continued. “You need to listen until you understand what those reasons are. You need to hear. That’s what people really want—to be heard.”

Smith is disappointed when he hears any of his fellow progressives dismissing Republican voters as “voting against their best interests,” before they’ve listened to them in one-on-one conversation. “You need to hear from them what their best interests are,” he explained. By the same token, “They cannot listen to Fox News to tell them who I am.”

Focus groups—a market-research technique in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, and beliefs, and then discuss them with other group members–are widely accepted as a technique for understanding voters’ minds. Smith, however, is wary of the focus groups run by political consultants, which he characterized as “manufactured groups with manufactured diversity that produce manufactured results.” He’ll consider their findings, but won’t take them as gospel.

He strongly encourages politically engaged citizens to use their own social gatherings as naturally forming, real-life focus groups. I was reminded of the annual Christmas-tree bonfire my husband and I host for our neighborhood. I told him of last year’s bonfire, in which the question of gas prices came up. As one neighbor to expressed support for the XL pipeline, his remarks about “American oil companies” gave his neighbors the opportunity to point out something he hadn’t yet considered–that the Canadian oil will be sold on the global market by global corporations that have no national loyalty, with no advantage for the American consumer or benefit to the American taxpayer.

That’s the sort of community connection Smith thinks can make a difference. “We’ve got to remember that we’re working for the good of the whole community. All this political stuff we do–it’s about belonging to the same community, bring ourselves back to our shared humanity, our shared challenges.”

And if you’re dealing with someone who knows your political beliefs and doesn’t agree with them, the conversation doesn’t even have to be about politics and can still help to build the bridges needed to heal our civic divisions.

Smith had recently run into an old acquaintance at a social gathering, who hasn’t talked to him since Smith entered politics. Smith explained, “I could tell he is one of those who assume that since we’re on different teams now, we need to be mad at each other.”

So when his old friend gave him nothing more than a grunt in response to a warm greeting, Smith ignored the signal and instead started “a nice little conversation—some old memories, the Packers, whatever. That’s all I needed to do.”

“It worked. Pretty soon, we were chatting like the old friends we are. Next time, he’ll talk to me.”

Posted in Connecting | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment