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,  I’m tapping on this keyboard hoping to fulfill 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 (

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.)

Outside the speechifying of candidates and paid pundits, all 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.”

Heartfelt desires that make people start to talk politics include the need to be heard, the need to contribute, the need to be respected, the need for connection and reassurance.

It’s the heartfelt needs that determine the course the conversation will take. 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.  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) when any of those needs are not satisfied, we are motivated to act.

So if we look closely, we’ll see that every action is a strategy to address some less-than-fully-satisfied need. For example, if my need for amusement is not satisfied, I might feel bored and turn on the television. If I hear something on the news that angered me, my need for safety and belonging might be aroused, and I might start a conversation in the hopes of reassuring myself that others are angry, too.

We rarely put much thought into selecting a strategy–it’s  pretty reflexive.  Strategies can be either effective or ineffective.  The television show might turn out to be interesting or dull, and the conversation might reassure me or arouse even more unmet needs.  Strategies can by helpful or hurtful. When I felt angered by the news, I might have started a constructive conversation or lashed out on talk radio.

Notice that the strategies are easy to see, while the motivating needs are not. For example, if I start a conversation about the news with my co-worker, I will tell him I want to share some news–and I probably do. But that’s not the need that got me into his cubicle. The actual reason for my visit (that is, my need for reassurance that I’m not alone in being disturbed by the news) will not be satisfied if he does nothing more than listen to my news, say ‘Thanks for the information.” In fact, I’ll consider him rude.


Here’s an actual Facebook exchange between two people in which we can observe their strategies and guess at their needs.

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 its face, John’s comment could be motivated by a head-need: to persuade others to support firing the protesting policemen. His argument has logical a form as 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.”)

But as  you watch the conversation develop, you’ll see that both John nor Gerta drop the logical head-arguments almost immediately. It’s their heartfelt needs that shape the conversation.

John’s heartfelt 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 an easy guess; everyone feels the same.

More specifically, John’s deliberate ‘both-sides’ emphasis 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 in meeting his needs?  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’s heartfelt needs are 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.

Will Gerta’s response be effective in meeting her needs?   If lack of balance was her entire unmet need, it’s possible she was satisfied when she clicked on ‘post comment.’  She may not have been seeking any response. But not getting a response was unlikely, because her comment–so completely unaware of John’s motivating needs–only exacerbated John’s 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  Gerta’s second response only further exacerbated John’s 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 conflict and want it resolved.

Yet neither of them has acknowledged those facts to the other. 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!


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

  1. mickey h says:

    This writer fails to appreciate that “the medium is the message.” Social media does not allow either John or Gerta to develop cogent arguments. I am convinced that social media too easily allows for group political hysteria such as lumping all GMO into the “evil” bin without a case by case analysis. Social media depends on a broad brush since nuance requires too much depth.

    • Karen McKim says:

      Agreed, Mickey: This blog post does not touch on the whole ‘medium is the message’ issue. Whether I fail to appreciate it is a separate question. Both blog posts and conversation need to have focus if they are to make sense. This post focused on ferreting out motives. The pros and cons of social media as a means of political conversation could be the topic of several other, different posts.

      It’s a fact that social media are best suited for short blurts of opinion rather than nuance and careful exploration of the issues. I’ve seen it used otherwise, but much less often. I cannot, however, see any way of avoiding social media as a major thoroughfare for the traffic of ideas we need to operate our self-governing nation.

      Can you see any way to improve our use of social media for talking politics?

  2. mickey h says:

    I think reading your article and applying its advice on presenting a logical argument would be helpful. I think some FB sites could become a better medium if a “moderator” or “host” tried to draw out thoughtful arguments from people whose original comments were mostly inchoate, emotive outbursts. And for other posts the host could take a gentle devil’s advocate role pointing out underdeveloped or weak parts of a post. I tried to do this for a labor union page with mixed results—-some folks just want to rant. I think reading Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” and to a lessor degree,Stein’s “American Panic: Who Scares Us and Why” and the classic, “The Madness of Crowds” has helped me appreciate the dynamics of a wide audience engaging in open discourse.

    • Karen McKim says:

      YES! Thank you for the reminder about Kahneman’s book! It’s been a long time since I updated the ‘References’ link on this blog (tab above) and that book definitely needs to be on the list. I haven’t read the other two books you recommend, but they are now on my to-read list–thanks again!

      I second your observation that ‘some people just want to rant.’ I sense it fulfills some valid release-of-energy need. I can’t see much likelihood that we can suppress the urge to rant, at least in others. My sense is that people rant about political issues usually because they care deeply about the health and welfare of their community/nation and don’t immediately see any other outlet.

      But (also as you pointed out), rants don’t need to derail the conversations if the rest of us can learn to perceive the more constructive message that nearly always lies underneath the rant, and respond only to that. I’m not sure that anyone needs to be a host or a moderator to do what you propose. I’ve seen instances when an online ranter was calmed down by only one respondent who 1) resisted ‘fighting fire with fire’; 2) conveyed respect and confirmed at least one shared value or belief with the ranter; and 3) used clearly presented logic.

      I’m trying to build a useful blog/training program/something with which people can learn to improve their political conversation skills, and the longer I’m at it, the more I appreciate the value of real-life examples. If you could sometime copy some material from the labor-union page and email it to me or post it in the comments here, I’d appreciate it. I will disguise the identities of the participants before sharing, if you don’t. I work on being genuinely empathetic in discussing every participant’s contribution to a conversation, but still prefer anonymous examples.

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