As I’ve explored interpersonal political conversation, the skills I’ve discovered to be important have sorted themselves into four main areas:

1. We need to be able to identify the purpose of our political conversations.

The biggest complaint about political conversation is that it “doesn’t work.”  That’s because we are so often unaware of–even in denial about–our motives when we enter a political conversation. The conversation is working, all right, but maybe not to accomplish what we think we’re trying to accomplish.

Everything we do has a motive. A desire for clean teeth motivates us to brush after every meal. A desire to relax and laugh motivates us to watch The Big Bang Theory.  Those motives are easy to identify.

But what about our political conversations?  Have you ever told yourself you were trying to persuade a fellow citizen while you took delight in using ‘zingers’ and other measures to establish your superior knowledge and intellect? Even though you know full well that being insulted never persuaded anyone? If so, join the club. Of course the conversation didn’t work to persuade your conversation partner, because you were almost certainly choosing words and conduct consistent with your real purpose–be honest!– of establishing dominance.

The first step toward effective political conversation is learning to be clear with ourselves about what it is we want to accomplish in any given conversation–that is, to be alert to the feelings and needs that motivate us and those that motivate our conversational partner. Once we’re tuned in to that, we can choose a realistic goal whether it’s learning, educating, persuading, or fulfilling an emotional need, which can be just as legitimate as any other purpose. Once we do that, we can choose conduct appropriate conduct for that purpose, and the conversation is more likely to ‘work.’

This is the area in which human-relations professionals such as management consultants have the most to offer. Here’s an example of a post in the area “Purpose of Political Conversation”.

2. We need to understand how humans think and how we come to hold the beliefs and values we do. 

Once we’ve become aware of what, exactly, it is that we want to get from any given political conversation, it helps to understand how homo sapiens go about choosing the things we want (our values) and how our brains operate, particularly when it comes to going back and forth between our gut feelings (values and desires) and our reason (logic and belief).

This is the area in which science has the most to tell us, particularly neuroscience and psychology.  Here’s an example of a post in the area “Human Behavior”.

3. We need to remember what we learned in kindergarten.

Yes, we know this stuff, but–damn!–it’s easy to forget or unlearn some elementary conversational skills when we care so much about the topic of conversation. It never hurts to review the cultural expectations that can make or break our conversations depending on whether and how we violate them.

Here’s an example of a post in the area “Conversation Basics”.

4. We need to be able to use the tools and techniques for productive political conversation.

Here are the chisels, rulers, and c-clamps of political conversation.  Learning to identify and avoid seductive logical fallacies;  how to use facts and how not to;  how to identify ‘frames,’ and how to avoid being manipulated by them; and more.

This is the area in which the salesmen, lawyers, and campaign consultants have a lot to share. Here’s an example of a post in the area “Tools and Techniques.”


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