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 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 head-based motives rarely determine the 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 believed I already knew how to communicate without 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. For example, 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 refusal 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 that point of view.
John’s words are also 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.
Whether she needed a response or not, her comment was certain to elicit one, because it exacerbated John’s 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.
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!