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

Main point: If your conversation partner insists on refuting an argument you are not making and do not believe, consider the possibility that he or she can neither accept your conclusion nor refute the arguments you actually are making.  That causes panic, and when panic sets in, the subconscious does strange things.

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?”

Four of them took turns explaining the reasons why they will not vote for Clinton even if she is their party’s nominee.

The lone party loyalist who will vote for the Democratic nominee no matter who it is—I’ll call him Roy—quickly began to argue against the proposition that “Both parties are exactly the same.” While not an entirely outlandish proposition, none of the others had said anything that could reasonably be understood to mean that. 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 obviously 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” is what his friends really meant, despite what they 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 heard and 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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Open Mic Night in Middleton: Speaking Our Values

OpenMicNight-SmallI’ll be giving my first public presentation about talking politics on Thursday night, March 19. The Middleton Area Action Team invited me and another political-speech advocate, Eric Finch, to speak and lead a discussion at their monthly Open Mic night. If you’re in the area, please stop by—6:00 PM at the Craftsman Table & Tap, 6712 Frank Lloyd Wright Ave in Middleton.

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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.”

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The best and the worst of political conversation–in one chat

If I continue my chatter about political conversation for the next ten years,  I don’t think I will be able to make a more convincing case than  this exchange for the benefits of maintaining a solid sense of  your own values when provoked by an angry, abusive conversation partner.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this month, an Internet troll tweeted: “In honor of MLK day today, I’m taking a vow to use the word “nigger” as many times as possible and in the most inappropriate times.”

Ignoring the usually wise advice to avoid feeding the trolls, Ijeoma Oluo responded with a quote from Dr. King: “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”

The troll, Mrscrotum21, replied predictably: “Oh, so you’re one of those nigger lovers, too?”

Eighteen tweets later, Mrscrotum had used every common technique to try to get a rise out of Oluo, and Oluo had responded with nothing but appropriate MLK quotes. Oluo then wrote: “I wish you peace and love and freedom from the hatred that hurts your heart.”

Mrscrotum21 broke his string of abusive, offensive tweets. “Who is that a quote from?” he asked.

“That’s me, sending love and hope to you,” Oluo responded.

Of course, Mrscrotum21 wasn’t done trying to find ways to provoke or insult Oluo. “I have plenty of that,” he wrote.

Read through  the rest of the discussion, and watch how Ms. Oluo’s relentless willingness to express her values and to illustrate them with her own conduct took the conversation from an outburst by a profane Internet troll to this:

Mrscrotum21: “You are so nice and I am so sorry.”
Oluo: “Thank you. Today is about forgiveness. People do shitty things when they are hurting. Send me a message if you need to talk.”

That’s how to mend tears in the fabric of democracy.

That’s how build a fellow citizen’s capacity for participating constructively in self-government.

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What are they trying to do? Understanding motives in political conversation

Main point: Participants’ personal motives in a political conversation are rarely obvious and will determine the course of every political conversation. If our conversation is going to build rather than damage constructive engagement with our fellow citizens, we need to learn to recognize and respond to these motives.

Every word that comes out of our mouths is motivated by one or more active wants or needs. For example, just now I’m tapping on this keyboard because I am motivated by my active desires to share ideas; to get your response; to sort out my own thoughts; and to pursue my need for harmony and prosperity in my community by trying to make political conversation safer for me and my fellow citizens.

Political conversation is motivated by 'head' desires (I have some information I'd like you to know)--and by 'heart' desires ("Cooperating with my fellow citizens to restore order on the streets will make me feel safer.")

Political conversation is motivated by ‘head’ desires (I want to persuade you to support this policy)–and by ‘heart’ desires (I want to feel safer by talking with my fellow citizens about restoring order on the streets.)

Setting aside the canned speechifying of candidates and paid pundits, political conversations are motivated by two kinds of desires—those from the head and those from the heart. Reason-based desires include “I have some information I want to share” and “I want to persuade you to support this policy.”

But these head-based motives are not usually enough to motivate a conversation, particularly one that might spark disagreement. And it’s rarely the motive that determines what course the conversation will take.

We start and enter conversations only when one or more of our heartfelt needs is active. We talk politics when we feel a need for a like-minded community, or when we are seeking more connection or respect. We might want to share a laugh. We might talk politics in pursuit of a sense of safety, order, and harmony that comes from reaching agreement with fellow citizens—or from bullying them into submission.

Conversations go well when we pay attention to heartfelt motives–our own and our conversation partner’s–and conversations easily disintegrate into unpleasant, harmful conflict when we don’t.

Well-developed empathy (that is, perceiving our own and others’ heartfelt needs) is a skill that can be developed though awareness and practice. Most communication how-to books don’t devote much attention to this and if they do, their recommendations are limited to tips for active listening–more like New Year’s resolutions (I resolve not to interrupt) than working strategies for honing a skill.

One set of practical techniques for practicing empathetic communication is called “NVC,” short for nonviolent communication. When first introduced to this technique, I had a hard time getting past the name–I already knew how to communicate without resort to violence, thank you very much. Set the name aside.  NVC is a set of positive, concrete, effective steps for increasing the amount of empathy and mutually rewarding connection in your conversations.

It starts with the facts that: 1) each individual operates with a set of predictable, recognizable, legitimate needs, and 2) those needs are not always as satisfied as we want them to be. Unsatisfied needs create motivation to act: My need for amusement is not satisfied, so I feel bored, so I start to do something. Every action we undertake is, in fact, a strategy to address some less-than-fully-satisfied need.

We rarely put much thought into selecting a strategy–it’s  pretty reflexive.  Strategies can be either effective or ineffective  (If I pick up a book, it might turn out to be interesting or dull), and either helpful or hurtful to ourselves and others (I might relieve my boredom by visiting my neighbor for a pleasant chat, or by vandalizing his garage.)

Notice that strategies are easy to see, while motivating needs are not: When I knock on my neighbor’s door, I will tell him I want to share some news–and I probably do. But that’s not the need that got me onto his porch. The actual reason for my visit (that is, my need for amusement) will not be satisfied if he does nothing more than listen to my news, say ‘Thanks,” and shut the door. In fact, I’ll consider him rude.

Here’s an actual Facebook exchange between two people I’ll call John and Gerta. I’m going to observe their strategies and guess at their needs. See if you agree. Remember, we’re only guessing, but their words contain good clues.

John started the exchange by sharing and commenting on a news article about New York City police protesting Mayor de Blasio as he spoke in honor of a murdered officer at his funeral:

So let me get this straight: Cops kill innocent people, and people kill innocent cops. Nobody has any faith in the cops, and the cops have no faith in the system. We are all effectively divided. Why don’t the cops care about the innocent man who was killed? I think they should all be fired.

On the surface, John’s motive is persuasion. He presents an argument with as logical a form as any you’re likely to see on Facebook: three concise premises; one inference in the form of a rhetorical question (“Why don’t the cops care…?”); and a clear-as-a-bell conclusion (“…they should all be fired.”)

John’s active needs: The recent violent deaths of innocent people (both police and civilians) have almost certainly disturbed John’s need for the civic basics of peace, harmony, order, justice. That’s true for everyone.

More specifically, John’s deliberate ‘both-sides’ emphasis in his premise statements tips us off that John’s needs for cooperation are also disturbed, likely by the lack of acknowledgement of shared responsibility he perceives in the police protest. The fact that he chose to share the article on Facebook after reading it, rather than cussing to himself and moving on without comment, indicates that the news has aroused John’s needs for a sense of community and for purposeful action. Responses that give him a sense that others, too, are similarly upset and willing to speak out might at least partly satisfy this need.

Will John’s strategy be effective?  My guess: only partly. Although his premises indicate he wants cooperation from both sides—both police and innocent people are being killed; neither trusts the system will protect them; and we’re too divided—his words are likely to connect only with people who already agree that the police are not taking enough responsibility for the causes and resolution of the conflict. His strategy is likely only to exacerbate division with people who don’t yet share his point of view.

The first problem is that John’s words are open to misinterpretation. Only a hostile reader would assume he is saying all cops are killers, but he might be saying that none of them care–a dubious premise. He explicitly said they should all be fired, though I sense that was hyperbole intended to convey disgust. Second, that hyperbole plus his use of a rhetorical question and the term ‘cops’ instead of ‘police’ convey disdain and condescension—likely his honest sentiments, but also likely to make it hard for those who don’t already agree to respond thoughtfully.

Sure enough, about ten minutes after John posted his comments, someone was motivated to disagree.  Gerta wrote:

De Blasio made his bed; now he can lay on it. I don’t blame the police one bit for turning their backs.

Gerta is harder to analyze, with a strategy limited to one cliché and one assertion. Look at the cliché she chose: she’s implying that de Blasio had in some way ‘turned his back’ on the police before they turned their backs to him. That seems to indicate that she feels an unmet need for mutual respect–or at least respect for the police officers.

Gerta understandably read John’s conclusion as one-sided, which may have sparked her need for balance. To restore balance, she tapped out the contrary point of view and slapped it onto John’s post. If lack of balance was her entire unmet need, it’s possible she was satisfied when she clicked on ‘post comment,’  and may have needed no response from John.

But her comment was certain to elicit John’s response, because it exacerbated his apparent unmet needs–his sense of division and lack of collaboration.

John: So you blame the mayor for standing up for the innocent people killed by bad cops? I know too many good cops who have been railroaded for standing up for what’s right, my grandfather included. Cops who are more concerned about protecting themselves than protecting the public should get another job.

I see three indications that John is still motivated by unmet needs for cooperation, community, and purposeful action. First, he invites Gerta to explain her thoughts, but his strategy of putting a challenging twist on his question is not likely to get a response that will satisfy his needs. Second, he backs off his initial recommendation (fire them all!), softening it to “they should get another job.” The change is too subtle, I think, to get the response he is probably hoping for. Finally, his references to good cops and his grandfather can be read–if you’re looking for it–as acknowledgement of Gerta’s need to see respect for the police. Again, although his intentions seem good and his needs are not hard to discern, you can probably guess he got another response from Gerta that only exacerbated his unmet needs.

Gerta: De Blasio is worthless and deserves the back of every officer, and I’m really worn thin on the cops being blamed for everything.

Before going further, notice we can still see two intelligent citizens, both of whom are motivated to participate in honest dialogue for the purpose of addressing a civic problem (neither has displayed, for example, dishonesty or a need to build ego by displaying status or expertise). In addition, these two citizens share a few important unmet needs–order, safety, security, and harmony in the community. John is more disturbed by the police violence, Gerta more by challenges to police authority, but both are disturbed by the controversy. Both want it resolved.

Yet neither of them has acknowledged those facts to the other, and they are not headed in that direction. The exchange continued:

John: No facts? I don’t mind opposing arguments if you care to make one.

Gerta: John, I am so not with the liberal pissing match this will turn into and am not with wasting my time or energy on it!

John: I have no desire either. I don’t know how or why you even read this. I thought I blocked you a long time ago.

Gerta: Liberals!!! Ugggh.

John: For anyone else reading this, please note she made not one single point in all that.

Had either John or Gerta noticed the other’s needs, could either of them have made this exchange a beneficial conversation?  That is, could either have turned this into a conversation that included a helpful exchange of information, or that in any other way came closer to the collaborative problem-solving that self-governing citizens need to be able to do?

Had Gerta given John any of the evidence and logic he (clumsily) asked for, she might have been able to get him to reciprocate by expressing more clearly the police-supportive sentiments that she seemed to want to hear.

Could John have gotten anything he needed from Gerta?  Upon initial examination, it would seem not. John came closer than Gerta did to making a specific request for something he wanted  (“I don’t mind opposing arguments, if you care to make one”), yet even with that obvious clue, Gerta did not cooperate.

However, with a different approach, it’s possible (only possible–not guaranteed!) that John might have been able to nurture a little willingness in Gerta to discuss the problems collaboratively, and the conversation might have given both a more accurate and nuanced  appreciation of the other’s point of view.

Jean McElhaney, an NVC practitioner in New Zealand, wrote, “If John wants to create favorable conditions for a dialogue that will be productive, he could go down the path of empathy or honesty.”

Expressing empathy first before expressing a differing idea, McElhaney wrote, “is often effective because once the other person has a sense of being heard, they may be more receptive to hearing you.”

That is, if John could have taken a moment to indicate he respectfully perceived Gerta’s active needs–or at least cared enough to ask about them–she might have switched from confrontation to collaboration. McElhaney noticed, as I did, that John started down this path. His reference to good cops and to his police friends and relatives  “signaled that he does have the empathy and respect for police officers” that Gerta wanted to hear, but it was not direct and clear enough to capture her attention.

Even on social media, empathy can be communicated in relatively brief sentences. McElhaney continued:

I would love to see the dialogue between Gerta and John reformulated from an NVC perspective. For example, John responding with empathy: “So are you concerned about de Blasio’s words regarding police officers, and you want to make sure that there is respect for what they do?” or John responding with honesty: “I’m seeing the part about how he made his bed and I want to make sure I’m clear about what you are referring to. Would you be willing to say what you mean by this?” or “I’m guessing you really respect what police officers do and want everyone to have empathy and understanding for what they go through – is that right?”

We can never know, of course, what might have happened had either John and Gerta been more attuned to the heartfelt needs that motivated the other’s words. But if you’re curious, give it a try in your next conversation, and see what you can do with it.

For more information about NVC resources, check out the References section of this blog.

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This post was heavily revised on January 9 from its original form, thanks to some wonderfully constructive feedback. Thoughtful, honest readers make the best editors. Thank you, Jean and Brad!

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

Main point: Words and phrases have different meanings for different people and as a result, our conversations will suffer if we assume both speaker and listener are thinking of the same thing even when they are using the same word. Some ideas for avoiding, noticing, and correcting such misunderstandings are included.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what do we do about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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