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.
- 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.
- 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.’
- 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.
- 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.