Resources for talking politics with friends and neighbors

These are the books and other resources I’ve found helpful so far in learning about interpersonal political communication. I intend to update and add to this list as my study progresses. Please let me know, in the comments section, about any other books or resources you can recommend.

A few gems

If I had to pick only one book to recommend from among the books I’ve read so far, it would have to be Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes are High. It does not focus specifically on political conversations, but it takes a relentlessly practical approach to handling tough conversations that appears to draw upon the authors’ years of experience in business training and consulting. Here’s a taste:

Each of us enters conversations with our own opinions, feelings, theories, and experiences about the topic at hand. This unique combination of thoughts and feeling makes up our personal pool of meaning.  This pool not only informs us but also propels every action. When two or more of us enter crucial conversations, by definition, we don’t share the same pool.  Our opinions differ.  I believe one thing, you another.  I have one history, you another.

People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to a shared pool–even ideas that at first glance appear to be…wrong.  As the Pool of Shared Meaning grows, it helps people in two ways. First, as individuals are exposed to more accurate and relevant information, they make better choices. In a very real sense, the pool is a measure of the group’s IQ. The larger the shared pool, the smarter the decisions. — page 24

In addition to developing a three-dimensional concept of dialogue as a process of ‘creating a shared pool of meaning,’ the authors’ instructions and examples stay anchored in their belief that we can be “100 percent honest and 100 percent respectful” of each other in even the most tense situations.

How to Restore Sanity to our Political Conversations covers just the territory you would expect. Basically, it’s 218 pages that go into detail about how to “Say what you mean and mean what you say without being mean when  you say it.” The book is self-published by Meryl Runion, a leadership consultant, and could have benefited from an editor’s organizing hand. But the book has one fabulous feature. Runion completes nearly every point she makes with concise ‘you-can-say’ examples. Here are two illustrations:

If someone creates a vision that does not seem to have a basis in reality, say so. You can say, “You paint a tempting picture. It will take a lot of concrete detail for me to believe it could be real.”  — page 46

If, after you present a heartfelt explanation of something that matters to you, you discover that the person who seemed to be interested was only looking for ammunition to undermine your point, say so. You can say, “I shared as sincerely and factually as I know how in the spirit of collaborative dialogue. Your response leads me to perceive that you are more interested in winning an argument than exploring in search of a solution. Can you understand why I might think that?” —page 134

Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga is another self-published book in which the presentation is a little rough around the edges, but the content is worth it. The author, Joseph Romm, pulls together the lost curriculum of rhetoric to give us a quick tour through the classical discipline that people like Abraham Lincoln studied for years. He shows how the old principles have the same power now that they did then–both when the effect is intended (I have a dream.) and when it’s not (It’s like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.)  The lessons in this book will probably be more useful for writing letters to the editor and blog posts than for live, engaged conversation, but the principles apply to both.

Political messaging

George Lakoff is headmaster in the school of political communication for American progressives. A cognitive scientist, he has written numerous books. I have read only one so far, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and its Politics. Check out his YouTube videos; the man knows how to talk. His focus is purely persuasive–that is, how to convince people that the progressive world view is the best–so he offers less than you might hope in the way of pointers for collaborative conversations, but he’s worth reading.

Frank Luntz is headmaster in the school of political communication for the American right wing.  His 2007 Words That Work is most well-known. I’ll be honest: I found the book disturbing. That’s a recommendation to read it, because it’s useful to have looked into the heart of evil. ‘Evil’ is hyperbole, I suppose. ‘Amoral’ is more precise. The “Work” in the book’s title turns out to mean “confuse the issues, make people stop thinking, and basically make people believe whatever you want them to believe.” Luntz gives us 324 pages of cheerfully confident advice without the slightest whiff of ethics or a sense of right-and-wrong. The book is widely acknowledged as one of the Bibles of right-wing communication, so I do recommend it as a way of familiarizing yourself with the sorts of tactics we’re up against when we try to make our civic discourse honest, collaborative, and productive.

Progressive values

George Lakoff believes (and I agree) that progressives’ tendency to chatter on about facts without framing our values is one reason we’ve been losing ground. But talking values and morals seems so, well, holier-than-thou, doesn’t it? Garrison Keillor shows us how. His 2004 Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts from the Heart of America is a fun read that will get you firmly centered on the values that shape progressive political positions, “starting with the idea of don’t take all the cookies even though no one else is looking.”

Why our political conversations need to evoke values rather than just dump facts has never been explained better than in the first four chapters of Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Speaking to our logic-loving “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic” (WEIRD) culture, Haidt uses neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy to explain why humans need to have our hearts captured before we will open our minds. His last four chapters do a good job of explaining religion and other ‘groupishness’ that might get in the way of communication. I’m not recommending the middle four chapters, which speak about liberal and conservative ‘moral matrices.’ Haidt caricatures liberal values as focusing exclusively on care-of-the-vulnerable and fairness-as-equality-of-outcome. In doing so, he misses the most sacred liberal values, such as care-for-community and compassion-for-all. I don’t know if his descriptions of conservative values are similarly off the mark; I’ll have to ask a conservative friend.


Karen Armstrong is a world-renowned religious scholar who was awarded a TED prize and used it to start an international compassion movement, the Charter for Compassion. (Go to that website and sign. Right now.) Heavily influenced by all major wisdom traditions (a term I prefer to ‘religions,’ when I focus on their teachings rather than their ethnic, tribal, or organizational nature), Armstrong writes in a way that is accessible to people of any or no religious background. Her 2010  Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life is a beautifully written and practical approach to living more compassionately around the clock. The whole book is a treasure, but Chapter 8 “How Shall We Speak to One Another?” is most germane to the topic of effective interpersonal political communication.

Communication among citizens in a democracy

Parker Palmer is an educator and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. His 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy is an exploration of the nature of democracy that is so beautifully written it approaches poetry in places. Read it to understand, down to your bone marrow, why progressive citizens need to reach out to our right-wing fellow citizens to restore civil civic discourse in America.

Compassionate communication

Marshal Rosenberg  developed a system for what he calls nonviolent communication or NVC, and what others (including me) prefer to call compassionate communication. He and his followers have a cottage industry in books and workshops that teach skills for connecting humanely with others in situations fraught with tension, hurt, anger, or even danger.  The basic book explaining the NVC approach is Nonviolent Communication: A Language for Life. In brief, the method relies upon recognition that all humans have the same set of basic needs (for belonging, respect,etc.); that certain predictable emotions arise when these needs are not met (fear, disgust, sorrow, etc.); that we choose different strategies to meet our needs; and that awareness and acknowledgement of our own and others’ needs creates a solid basis for effective communication. I strongly recommend enrolling in an NVC workshop, if you can find one near you.

Angry and abusive people

Steven Stosny’s work focuses mainly on emotionally abusive family relationships, but his techniques for dealing with angry people are useful in other situations. The messages of many who write in the area of domestic abuse and anger management boil down to a simple “leave” for the abused person and “stop it” for the abuser–if the abuser is addressed at all.  Stosny maintains a more humane and empathetic approach to the angry person and in doing so finds and explains ways to avoid getting upset by another’s anger and to respond to it. His book is Love Without Hurt, 2008.


Michael Maslansky is partner with Frank Luntz (see above) in a right-wing political and business consulting firm. However, his 2011 The Language of Trust is a reasonably apolitical how-to book about persuasive communication techniques in what he calls today’s “post-trust era.” The book focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on business public relations and sales, but many of the concepts are useful in neighbor-to-neighbor conversations where trust is not fully present. For example, in one of his examples, he goes into some detail about how to convince a right-winger of the importance of health insurance reform.


It’s been so long since I read Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (original 1981; 2nd edition 1991) and Fisher and Scott Brown’s Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate (1989) I’m hesitant to write many specifics here. I can tell you this: 20 years ago, those books changed the way I conversed with others, and I’d bet that every difficult conversation I’ve had since was favorably affected.

(Originally posted to my Open Salon blog on January 23, 2011.)


About Karen McKim

Retired from a 30-year career in public sector quality assurance and management auditing, I now spend my time freelance writing, largely on topics related to our right to self-government. I have two main focuses: how we can protect our election results from miscounts (whether deliberate or accidental), and skills for talking politics with our fellow citizens. I am based in Wisconsin.
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