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 an understanding. The other participant thinks the interaction is a tug-of-war for power.

On the video, it appears the nurse and the police 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 conversation for the purpose of improving understanding of the policy.

You can hear the goal of the nurses’ conversation is 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 personal power.  When she tries to explain what’s going on to the supervisor on the phone, 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 of the situation. As far as he is concerned, the only thing anyone needs to understand is that he is in charge. He hears only a challenge to his power, not an explanation of policy. He asks for no clarification beyond the equivalent of “Are you going to give me what I want?”

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

 When he explains what’s going on to the supervisor on the phone, he says “She’s the one who has 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 all the time in political conversations.

I first came across the idea of power-centered and collaborative conversations in a book written for people who are the targets of verbal abuse–Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship. At the time, my marriage qualified as verbally abusive. It was a genuinely crazy-making experience. (That’s not an exaggeration. I was diagnosably depressed after a few years, with what the psychiatrist called ‘situational depression.’) I’d lay awake until 3AM every night trying to figure out what I could say to get my  husband to understand (whatever), and nothing would ever work. Every conversation–on any subject–turned into an inventory of my stupidity, laziness, selfishness, (whatever).

Evans explained that I was in what she called “Reality II,” a world in which people exchange information and ideas so that they better understand each other and at least occasionally reach agreement. In Reality II, people collaborate.

My husband was in “Reality I,” a world in which people compete. Every interaction is an occasion for for changing or reinforcing the power and status of the parties. If you aren’t building your power in the Reality I world, you’re losing it. In Reality I, no one tells you something so that you can understand better. They tell you things to demonstrate they know better than you.  If you let them do that, you lose.

Using conversation as a recreational competition isn’t a bad thing, if both partners understand what they are doing–trading zingers, scoring points. Not bothering with anything actually persuasive. And certainly the world would grind to a halt if we never engaged in collaborative, let’s-come-to-an-understanding conversations.

The problems arise when the one participant assumes collaboration, and the other is engrossed in the 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 competitive person feels more disrespected, challenged, and angry.


There’s not much more to say about this than “be on the lookout.” It’s fairly easy to spot. The more polite power-seekers ask only rhetorical questions; don’t explain much; contradict rather than make logical counterarguments. The less polite power-seekers will use sarcasm, insults, and interruptions. Both will eagerly change the subject whenever it looks like they might have to concede a point.

And when you have concluded your conversation partner is seeking only to enhance his or her power over you, don’t waste any more energy unless  you want to play that game. The best  you can do is to state your own point of view and end the conversation there.  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 in each, and gave us an issue to discuss with 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.

During the evening, we each got the chance to be speaker and listener several times. 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, when listening to my partner express a classic libertarian position on health insurance, I noticed my mind reflexively accessing mental files containing other things I knew about libertarian philosophy. I had to consciously resist adding any of them when I reflected what I’d heard him say. But that wasn’t very hard.

ManyargumentsWhat was harder was summarizing when a speaker jammed several points into a short statement.

The first exchange provided a good example. Two participants volunteered to try the technique in front of the whole group, choosing the topic of Wisconsin’s voter-ID requirement. In support of repeal, the first speaker 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 felt confident that we could, either. She spoke for only a little more than the 30-second time limit but still left us all behind.

You would think our brains could handle at least that. But throughout the evening, 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 put what he’d said into my own words in a way that won his approval. And when I made my points succinctly and simply, I almost always heard them reflected back accurately.

But the discussion would trip up whenever the 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. Often, as listeners, we’d pounce reflexively on the one we disagreed with. One participant said he’d even 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. It certainly made it easier to stick with one point.

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!” 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 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 the statement of fact into an 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. Defense spending was the topic of another conversation. One partner presented two separate arguments on the question “How should we deal with the risk of being attacked?” The other partner responded with two separate arguments around 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, they were eager to engage with each other 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 to adopt the perspective of your opponent.

* * *

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!

* * *

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.

* * *

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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