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 to adopt the perspective of your opponent.

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We’re all amateurs in this political-conversation game. So we need to look for skills wherever we can, such as how to make our point and keep our cool when a conversation turns into an argument.

When honing a skill, it’s a good idea to look to professionals. The people from whom we hear most political conversation—television pundits and radio talk-show hosts—may be paid, but they are not conversation professionals. They do theatrics, not conversation. They rarely make solid logical arguments. They act as if the preface “some say” turns any assertion into fact. 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, but not chaos.

I’m not going to weigh in on the pros and cons of campus heckling or its control. This blog isn’t about demonstration tactics or campus free-speech rights.

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

Law schools can handle provocative speakers, 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 they do learn 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. Everyone gets heard.

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 in even Southern courtrooms that he couldn’t do in any other forum, like asking tough questions of a white woman. The rituals of respect enabled arguments to proceed–and eventually pay off.

If we want to be effective in political debate, we need to do more than just listen. Taking the righteous path while avoiding self-righteousness requires us to drop the ‘self’ 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. Okay, so we’re still not very good at practicing that, 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!

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Some years ago, the communications psychologist John Marshall Roberts said at a talk I attended 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 ColinBeavan.com

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Express your opinion on the topic or…awkward!

Key and Peele nailed 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 knows they don’t have any share-able insights or information. They are not confident they can defend their opinions. But they still want to establish themselves as an independent thinker. 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 Keegan-Michael Key, the person willing to express an opinion.

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 discuss them as accusations.  An example from my Facebook feed today:
    “Jill Stein attended a dinner in Moscow where Putin was present. How did she pay for that recount?”
    “Are you saying that you suspect the Russians funded the recount? Why would they do that? They had no reason to call Trump’s victory into question.”
    “I still question why Stein was in Russia.”
  • Relentlessly changing the subject. One common tactic is the “Your guy, too!” distraction. I can imagine pre-Civil War debates:
    “We must end slavery in the southern states!”
    “You cannot talk about slavery until you’ve resolved the Indian problem in the north and west. That’s much worse.”
  • 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. It won’t hurt us a bit to allow the Vietnamese people to have whatever form of government they want.”
    “It’s ridiculous to think that communism is better than democracy!”
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Policy focus, person focus: A key to that elusive Democratic unity?

Main idea:  Using an observation that Clinton supporters’ thinking tends to focus primarily on personal attributes of the candidates and that Sanders supporters’ thinking tends to focus primarily on policy issues, I conclude that they could work better with each other by taking that into account as they talk to each other.

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Empathy is, among other things, the ability to see the world—at least momentarily—from the perspective of another without judging that perspective to be ‘bad’ or ‘flawed.’

When you agree with someone, it’s easy to see what they see and withhold negativity.  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.

Disclosure: I voted for Sanders. But for several reasons, I didn’t think that working for him in Wisconsin would be the most effective use of my energies. I was right; he won the primary here without my help. So as far as the presidential race goes, I’ve been in observation mode pretty much all along.

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: These truly are the factors that were decisive for them. 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. There have been hundreds, because my Facebook friends are very civic-minded.  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 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.”

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 voters don’t like socialists…” 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 not important or persuasive to a voter who focuses primarily on policy.

I haven’t got a solution—just a suggestion that we all 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.

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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



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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.

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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 belong to the Democratic Party. 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 will 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.

After Roy had started several sentences with “When you say that both parties are exactly the same…” two of his friends explicitly denied they believed that. It didn’t make a dent in Roy’s illusion–he kept ignoring his friends in favor of the imaginary kook.

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

Roy had heard his friends correctly when they said they would desert the Democratic Party if Clinton is nominated. And appearances aside, he also heard them correctly when they expressed their objections to Clinton’s foreign policy record; her close ties to Wall Street financiers; her support for warrantless surveillance of US citizens; and her long record of support for job-killing international trade agreements.

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 (or underlying assumption, or something) 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.

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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.

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