Open Mic Night in Middleton: Speaking Our Values

OpenMicNight-SmallI’ll be giving my first public presentation about talking politics on Thursday night, March 19. The Middleton Area Action Team invited me and another political-speech advocate, Eric Finch, to speak and lead a discussion at their monthly Open Mic night. If you’re in the area, please stop by—6:00 PM at the Craftsman Table & Tap, 6712 Frank Lloyd Wright Ave in Middleton.

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Jeff Smith: The common ground is always there.

Main points: Jeff Smith has more experience talking politics than most of us ever will. He believes that our neighborhood political conversations are better focus groups than those manufactured by political consultants, and that in our own informal focus groups we can learn why our neighbors believe what they believe and—yes—counteract misinformation. His advice for productive political conversation: Establish trust by listening to find the common ground.

I caJeffSmithRoadsiden count on one hand the times I’ve walked away from an opportunity for political conversation. B­­ut I’ve got nothing on Jeff Smith. As much as I enjoy talking politics, it had never occurred to me to stand by the side of the road with a sign saying “Stop and talk.”

I’m always on the lookout for people with real-world experience in political conversation, so when I saw a photo of Jeff with his roadside conversation station, I knew I had to interview this man. True, he was doing something most of us will never do—running to keep his seat in the state legislature—but he was sure to have earned some insights useful to non-candidates who want to develop their political conversation skills.

We met over lunch in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, his home town. After losing his seat to redistricting, he is now running for chair of the state’s Democratic Party.

My first question was obvious: Is it so hard to start political conversations that even candidates have to put up a sign by the roadside?

Yes, it is. Forced to run in an area where voters didn’t know him well, Smith wanted to talk to as many voters as he could. Going door-to-door found only about one in five voters home, and fewer than half of those were willing to talk. As he walked through the silent neighborhoods, he could hear the traffic on nearby highways. So he painted his sign, parked by the road, and waited.

It worked better than going door to door, but still “about half the time, I was on my own,” Smith recalled. And although he is a Democrat, about 75% of the people who stopped to talk were conservatives.

Once the conversation gets started, however, Smith found he could talk to anyone—even the few who were itching for a fight.

“You could see them all tensed up as they approached. But if you let them talk, sooner or later you would hear something to the effect of, “I’m concerned about my school.”

And that was the opening Smith, with his experience as a parent and an education advocate, could use. He could then connect: “Well, I am, too. What are we going to do about that?”

“The common ground is always there,” Smith said. “That’s what you wait for. If you let them talk and you listen enough, you will always hear it.” Once the conversation finds that common ground, he said, “then you’ve got a foundation of trust. That allows the communication to get going.”

Smith takes exception to the common assumption that “if you’re listening and having a two-way conversation, you’re weak, you lack passion, you’re not really committed.”

It’s just the opposite, he explained. “When you tell people just what you want them to hear, it never works. When you get in someone’s face, you can expect them to dig in their heels. You might walk away satisfied that you have been heard, but you haven’t really accomplished anything.”

Smith has used the power of listening to counter misinformation, even to turn enemies into allies. For example, while in the state legislature, Smith sponsored a bill addressing the problem of puppy mills—inhumane, for-profit dog-breeding operations. The leadership of an otherwise reputable kennel club had been spreading misinformation about Smith’s proposed legislation.

The members of the club organized a lobby day at the Capitol and confronted Smith with “about 30 people ready to read me the riot act.” The president of the kennel club read a long statement, “a diatribe about how awful the bill was, how reputable breeders would be raided and have their dogs confiscated—that sort of thing.” Smith remained quiet to “let them let it out.” When the group felt they had been heard, they were ready to listen. Smith then asked, “How many of you sell more than 50 dogs a year from more than three litters?” Not a hand in the room went up.

“Well, then, this bill won’t affect you. “ Conversation began, and the group ended up supporting the bill.

He recognizes it’s an uphill struggle. “There’s so much anger, so much fear. The stuff they see on television, hear on talk radio, get in their mailbox—it’s all designed to cast fear,” Smith continued, recalling one woman who greeted him with “You Democrats are all corrupt.”

“It was almost as if she didn’t realize she was talking about me to my face,” he marveled. “But if we don’t understand where that comes from, we’re never going to be able to make it go away.”

Smith’s response gently highlighted the specific and personal nature of her comment: “I asked, ‘Why do you think I am corrupt? As far as I can see, we have to have talked to each other before you can say I’ve lied to you.’”

That sort of honest but calm and respectful conversation is key to helping your conversation partner realize he or she is talking to “a person just like me, not a caricature.”

“People have reasons for believing the things they believe,” Smith continued. “You need to listen until you understand what those reasons are. You need to hear. That’s what people really want—to be heard.”

Smith is disappointed when he hears any of his fellow progressives dismissing Republican voters as “voting against their best interests,” before they’ve listened to them in one-on-one conversation. “You need to hear from them what their best interests are,” he explained. By the same token, “They cannot listen to Fox News to tell them who I am.”

Focus groups—a market-research technique in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, and beliefs, and then discuss them with other group members–are widely accepted as a technique for understanding voters’ minds. Smith, however, is wary of the focus groups run by political consultants, which he characterized as “manufactured groups with manufactured diversity that produce manufactured results.” He’ll consider their findings, but won’t take them as gospel.

He strongly encourages politically engaged citizens to use their own social gatherings as naturally forming, real-life focus groups. I was reminded of the annual Christmas-tree bonfire my husband and I host for our neighborhood. I told him of last year’s bonfire, in which the question of gas prices came up. As one neighbor to expressed support for the XL pipeline, his remarks about “American oil companies” gave his neighbors the opportunity to point out something he hadn’t yet considered–that the Canadian oil will be sold on the global market by global corporations that have no national loyalty, with no advantage for the American consumer or benefit to the American taxpayer.

That’s the sort of community connection Smith thinks can make a difference. “We’ve got to remember that we’re working for the good of the whole community. All this political stuff we do–it’s about belonging to the same community, bring ourselves back to our shared humanity, our shared challenges.”

And if you’re dealing with someone who knows your political beliefs and doesn’t agree with them, the conversation doesn’t even have to be about politics and can still help to build the bridges needed to heal our civic divisions.

Smith had recently run into an old acquaintance at a social gathering, who hasn’t talked to him since Smith entered politics. Smith explained, “I could tell he is one of those who assume that since we’re on different teams now, we need to be mad at each other.”

So when his old friend gave him nothing more than a grunt in response to a warm greeting, Smith ignored the signal and instead started “a nice little conversation—some old memories, the Packers, whatever. That’s all I needed to do.”

“It worked. Pretty soon, we were chatting like the old friends we are. Next time, he’ll talk to me.”

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The best and the worst of political conversation–in one chat

If I continue my chatter about political conversation for the next ten years,  I don’t think I will be able to make a more convincing case than  this exchange for the benefits of maintaining a solid sense of  your own values when provoked by an angry, abusive conversation partner.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this month, an Internet troll tweeted: “In honor of MLK day today, I’m taking a vow to use the word “nigger” as many times as possible and in the most inappropriate times.”

Ignoring the usually wise advice to avoid feeding the trolls, Ijeoma Oluo responded with a quote from Dr. King: “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”

The troll, Mrscrotum21, replied predictably: “Oh, so you’re one of those nigger lovers, too?”

Eighteen tweets later, Mrscrotum had used every common technique to try to get a rise out of Oluo, and Oluo had responded with nothing but appropriate MLK quotes. Oluo then wrote: “I wish you peace and love and freedom from the hatred that hurts your heart.”

Mrscrotum21 broke his string of abusive, offensive tweets. “Who is that a quote from?” he asked.

“That’s me, sending love and hope to you,” Oluo responded.

Of course, Mrscrotum21 wasn’t done trying to find ways to provoke or insult Oluo. “I have plenty of that,” he wrote.

Read through  the rest of the discussion, and watch how Ms. Oluo’s relentless willingness not simply to express her values but to illustrate them with her own conduct took the conversation from an outburst by a profane Internet troll to this:

Mrscrotum21: “You are so nice and I am so sorry.”
Oluo: “Thank you. Today is about forgiveness. People do shitty things when they are hurting. Send me a message if you need to talk.”

That’s how to mend tears in the fabric of democracy.

That’s how build a fellow citizen’s capacity for participating constructively in self-government.

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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!

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The Inigo Montoya problem: I do not think it means what you think it means.

Main point: Words and phrases have different meanings for different people and as a result, our conversations will suffer if we assume both speaker and listener are thinking of the same thing even when they are using the same word. Some ideas for avoiding, noticing, and correcting such misunderstandings are included.

Quotes from old movies don’t become new Internet memes unless they address a common experience–often a irritation. Throughout the 1987 comedy, The Princess Bride, one hapless sidekick used inconceivable to describe every event. The lead character, Inigo Montoya, finally remarked: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Two decades after Montoya spoke those words, Internet posters picked  up the phrase as a humorous shorthand way to question the use of specific words.

Different meanings crop up nearly continuously in all but our simplest conversations. For example, consider:

  • “I never want to change others.”
  • “Using force isn’t a good way to achieve our goals.”

SpeakerCatThose statements were spoken at a weekend conference I recently attended, which was billed as a series of “participant-driven dialogues.” The full weekend of nonstop conversation provided plenty of examples of effective conversation skills, but both those statements led to unsatisfactory exchanges. In each case, the key words held a slightly different meaning for the speaker and the listener.

But the different meanings weren’t the problem. The problems occurred because the participants resisted clarification.

ListenerCatThe person who said, “I never want to change others,” might have meant that he wanted to avoid manipulating people, or that he wanted to let others be wholly themselves, unaffected by his presence. It was unclear from the context he supplied. When a listener interrupted to ask him to clarify, he responded with only, “Let me finish,” and went on talking.

As a witness to this exchange, I was startled and distracted. What did the speaker think he was accomplishing by continuing to talk while not being understood? Was his intention limited to mere self-expression, not communication? Whatever his intent, his curt imperative, “Let me finish,” had the effect of driving both me and questioner out of the conversation. As I started to wonder why the speaker declined to clarify, I too stopped following what the speaker was saying.

Skillful conversationalists remain continuously aware that words and phrases may have unique meaning for each person. Open the dictionary or thesaurus to any word—particularly an intangible like ‘change’ or ‘force’—and you’ll find a long list of possible meanings. Verbal misunderstandings provide grist for thousands of jokes: Mom sends young Johnny to check on their frail elderly neighbor: “Go find out how old Mrs. Johnson is,” and Johnny returns with, “She says it’s none of your business how old she is.”

The consequences can also be tragic, as when a social worker returned an injured child to his parents after being told by a physician to “rule out child abuse.” In medical-speak, that phrase means “investigate to make sure it’s not child abuse before you suspect any other cause.” The social worker, however, understood the physician’s instruction to mean, “Don’t even consider child abuse; that’s not the problem.” The child died.

In the second example from the weekend conference, the participants were clumsier than those in the first. Upon hearing “Using force isn’t a good way to achieve our goals” as if it meant “We should never do anything more assertive than ask politely for what we want,” one listener challenged the speaker (me): “No, force is useful. Labor unions need to be willing to use force to get their goals.”

Instead of pausing to resolve his misunderstanding, I tried to dismiss it quickly.  “You and I seem to be thinking about slightly different things when we say force,” I said, and went right back to making my point: giving an opponent no options in the resolution of a dispute will prolong hostilities even if the immediate goal is won.

Basic knowledge of standard human behavior should have enabled me to predict what came next. Now intent on pressing the point I’d brushed off, my challenger increased his insistence on correcting my statement. I tried one more time to help him realize he was arguing against a meaning that he, not I, had supplied. But my initial dismissive reaction had raised his hackles and closed his ears. For the sake of other listeners, I soon gave up, because no one enjoys listening while others talk past each other.

Blogger Michael Webb has written that one of the “trickiest barriers” to effective conversation is “a misplaced trust in the precision of words.”

It is naive to assume, he wrote, “that words themselves contain absolute meaning. If the listener hasn’t had the experience the speaker is using the word to point at, then the word points at nothing. Worse, the listener may quietly substitute a different experience to match the word.”

So what do we do about it?

Skillful speakers watch their listeners for signs of incomprehension, and might pause to ask for feedback: “Is this making sense?”

Skillful listeners will first try to discern the speaker’s meaning from context. If that doesn’t work, they interrupt briefly to ask for clarification: “By change, do you mean manipulate, or do you mean something else?”

If a listener asks for clarification, a skillful speaker does not respond as if he or she has been rudely interrupted, but takes the request as the sincere compliment that it is: The listener is demonstrating an active desire to receive the speaker’s message exactly as the speaker intends it.

Regardless of whether a listener asks for clarification or says something that reveals he or she misunderstood an intended meaning, a skillful speaker will not merely brush the remark off as I did, but will pause and try to find a helpful way to clarify.

Finally, when both speaker and listener realize they hold different meanings for the same word or phrase, neither should assert that one is right and the other wrong—even if a dictionary would confirm that. Unless the explicit topic of conversation is the meaning of the word, starting and resolving an argument about the dictionary definition is just a distraction. The important thing is that they understand each other within the immediate conversation.

Both should work to understand the referent of the word the other is using (e.g., “When you used force in that sentence, were you thinking of something more like assertiveness, or more like coercion?”) or agree on a label for the thing that they are both referring to (e.g., “When we mean ‘trying to change someone in a deliberate, stealthy way’, let’s use the word manipulate.”)

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Political conversation in action: Once spoken to, Larry Orr now speaks for peace.

ImageLarry Orr was not born to speak for peace. One of his first, strongest memories is of being a 3-year-old playing in his back yard in Muscatine, Iowa when two P-38 fighters flew over at treetop level.  Their deafening noise didn’t frighten the toddler.  They made him want to be a pilot.

Nor was he raised to speak for peace. His favorite boyhood comic was Steve Canyon and he joined the Civil Air Patrol in high school, thrilled at the chance to fly a jet trainer at such a young age.

Finally, he wasn’t trained to speak for peace.  He joined the Air Force before completing college, intending to train as a helicopter and small craft pilot. His military career instead took him to Russian language school and to work as a linguist and military analyst.

Yet here he was, representing Vietnam Veterans for Peace, educating my community group in January 2014 about the low-key but persistent American peace movement. He told us that he had come to a turning point when as a young Air Force trainee in 1965 he attended one of the earliest campus teach-ins about Vietnam.

As a student of political conversation, I wanted to know more about his path. What had he heard at that teach-in that changed his course, which had been set toward the military since he was barely out of diapers?

A few weeks later, I joined him over the noon hour on a downtown street corner to hand out pamphlets about America’s killer drones. Afterwards, we sat down for lunch at Madison’s Great Dane Brewery. Here’s a distillation of our conversation.


Larry Orr speaking up for peace on the capitol square in Madison, Wisconsin.

Karen: How did one teach-in change how you thought about war when you had been set from such an early age on a military career? What did they say? How did they say it?

Larry: First I should say that I went to the teach-in as a military man, but with no preconceptions. I was willing to hear what they had to say. They made me think for the first time about certain things, like injustice and moral issues. Like many in the mid-1960s, I had simply been assuming America would always do the right thing, and I’d been assuming I’d be helping to do it. The teach-in didn’t change my thoughts as much as it made me think.

Karen: Okay, then, what did they say that made you think about things you hadn’t thought about before?

Larry: The speakers were dispassionate, thoughtful. They made a logical presentation about something they wanted us to understand. They were university people, professors and grad students. They weren’t preachy. They didn’t get on a soap box. They just explained the facts about Vietnam clearly, like you would to a class of undergraduates. With undergraduates, you don’t go in with a ‘You should already know this” attitude. You don’t put people down that way. They respected our intelligence and our desire to learn. They presented facts that showed me there were bigger issues I wasn’t aware of, and they did it without embarrassing me.

Karen: That word—dispassionate—surprises me. I’ve always sensed that a certain amount of passion is necessary to give a message resonance and credibility.

Larry: Absolutely. But passion should be communicated through actions, not by talking about it. When someone tells me “I’m passionate about” something, it sets off warning bells. Like the guy who said, “I’m passionate about food co-ops” and then bought them and turned them into profit-greedy grocery stores. Don’t say you’re passionate; don’t get dramatic about it. Set an example.

Karen: When you spoke with my community group, you also mentioned hearing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, and remembering that as another event that helped turn your path to peace. Do you remember what he said or did that shifted your trajectory? It never hurts to learn from a master.

Larry: Not specifically. I do remember he gave all who were present that night the courage to speak up about what we believe. I think that was in 1963, when he spoke in Cedar Rapids. I was still in college in Iowa City, in a fraternity during a time when many fraternities discriminated on the basis of race. It bothered me, but I hadn’t talked about it before I heard Dr. King. He changed my willingness to talk to people about what I believe.

Karen: And talking about something often helps to clarify and strengthen our beliefs.

Larry: Yes, indeed, and it opens the way for new ideas.

Karen: You said that you went to the Vietnam teach-in as a military man, but with an open mind. Tell me more about that. “Military man” and “open mind” aren’t phrases that often go hand-in-hand.

Larry: I know exactly where that came from:  My freshman rhetoric teacher. On the first day of class, the professor had us list the magazines and newspapers we read on a regular basis. I read standard stuff for early 1960s Iowa:  National Geographic, Reader’s Digest, my hometown newspaper, and the Des Moines Register. He took the lists from us and the next day gave us each a list of other periodicals we might want to read. Commonweal, Saturday Review, The Nation, Daedalus, and many others I had never heard of.  It was a two-page, mimeographed list, and I started reading right away, began to encounter new ideas. I was still tied up in the military perspective—the professor told me later that semester that I saw the world through Air-Force blue colored glasses. You know, like rose-colored glasses? But the discussions in that class changed my life, opened new horizons, made me want to associate with wise people.

Karen: The other thing I wanted to make sure I asked about was your experience with on-the-street conversations. You’ve spent dozens, maybe hundreds, of hours doing things like we just did, standing on a corner handing out peace literature. Surely, you’ve learned a thing or two about starting political conversations and keeping them civil and productive.

Larry: Actually, what we do on the street doesn’t create many conversation opportunities. You give flyers to the people who will take them, and hope they look at them when they get back to their desks. But it’s not disheartening. It’s like I said about passion—the important thing is that you embody it, demonstrate it. Be there, be present.  The good conversations happen elsewhere.

Karen: I’m still thinking that you have more experience with political conversation than most people, even if it doesn’t happen on the street corner. You spoke with my community group, for example.

Larry:  Like everyone else, most of my opportunities for political conversation come with people who already agree with me. But yes, I have enough conversations with people who want to challenge my beliefs.

Karen: What makes those conversations fail? What makes some succeed?

Larry: You need to try to find common ground, but you can’t tread too lightly. You need to speak up for what you believe. When you’ve been too agreeable, you come away knowing you have not shaped the other person’s thinking, while worrying that they left believing they convinced you they were right.

You have to question certain statements, but not in a bombastic way. You can’t try to “win” an argument; that produces resentment, not agreement. If I find I’m raising my voice in a political conversation, I know I’m losing out. Ears close up when conversation gets strident. Timing is important, too. If someone isn’t willing to listen, they won’t.

Karen: Well, thanks. It’s good to know the peace movement is still out there witnessing for nonviolence.

Larry:  You remember Orr, the character in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22? The one who crashed his plane and rowed to Sweden? I like it that he and I have the same name. “Or” reminds people we have choices. We can keep fighting insane wars, or we can row to Sweden. We can tell ourselves we’ve always had war, or we can say, “Let’s quit.” It’s our choice.

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George Lakoff recommends…

George Lakoff was in Wisconsin for the past few days lecturing at several different events. While I didn’t hear him say anything that wasn’t in at least one of his books and don’t agree with everything he teaches, the question-and-answer periods gave me a much deeper understanding of his theory and his message.

I will write more about what he said and what it made me think in later blog posts. But most people attended these lectures for the ‘so what:’ So what should progressives say?  I’ll start there.

I can summarize his take-away advice in four steps.

1.            Pay attention to your own deep values. Understand the moral foundation of your own political beliefs.  Reach your own understanding of why you want good public schools. Why do you care about the fact that CEOs take home 457 times the income of the average American worker? Why can’t you just be happy for the CEOs?

2.            When you engage in any political speech, make sure to express your values among the first things you say. All human beings are continuously processing their thoughts through moral filters; we cannot stop it. Our brains instantaneously categorize everything we encounter –including the things others say to us—as good or bad, so we need to bring the deep values into our conversation explicitly and promptly.

These first two steps are not our current habits, so they won’t come easy. Our most deeply held values–the things that truly motivate us–are the things we take for granted. Because we take them for granted, we often wrongly assume these values are as alive for the listener as they are for us. But they might not be. Expressing our active values awakens them within the listener’s frame of reference.

3.            When you are promoting your own ideas, never even utter phrases or words that have been solidly defined in the listener’s mind in ways that are incompatible with your message. (Lakoff calls these moral frames.) One of many examples: job creator and job creation have been so effectively defined by pro-business conservatives that even the mention of those two words as a single phrase awakens  assumptions incompatible with a progressive message. In the frame activated by the phrase job creation, big companies with lots of jobs are more valuable than smaller ones.  The frame activated by saying “job creator”–regardless of what you say about it—awakens assumptions that businesses exist to serve our community by giving us jobs, and that Americans need to deploy our shared public resources to support these patriots who want nothing more than to strengthen our economy. All this is relentlessly reflexive and almost always subconscious.

Calling up incompatible assumptions doesn’t just weaken your persuasiveness. Lakoff stresses that it helps to strengthen the opposing idea. Don’t speak the phrase even when you argue against it. Think of Richard Nixon saying “I am not a crook.” Don’t speak the phrase thinking you will use their words to help them see the value in your ideas. Look at what the phrase “tax relief for the middle class” implies about the patriotic act of contributing to our community’s well-being.

The more often people hear the phrase “job creation” in any context, Lakoff argues, the more deeply embedded will be the underlying big-business-does-what’s-best-for-us assumption. So do not even utter the phrase unless you want to strengthen the power of  big business in American political life. (Lakoff made only one exception: skillful political satire along the lines of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert seems to be effective in undermining the strength of the frames they ridicule.)

4.            Find and define ‘uncontested concepts’ that awaken and strengthen our own values. Progressive values rest on many moral frames that have a truly shared core meaning for most Americans: freedom, love of community, love of country, clean air, safe streets, opportunity, hard work, responsibility, peace, justice.

To stick with the example, job creation as now defined in American culture doesn’t work for progressives because they do not, in fact, value pampering global corporations to bribe them into putting environment-destroying mines in our communities that will transfer the value of America’s resources to the bank accounts of the mining company’s foreign investors and offer low-wage employment for 3-5 years until the mine plays out.

Instead, progressives value the employees whose hard work creates the wealth that keeps our nation strong. Each American child deserves to grow up in a safe community  and to be successfully educated to be a good citizen and contributing member of society. When that child grows up and is ready to join the work force, we value opportunities for his or her employment in solid, secure, productive, and sustainable jobs that pay enough to buy a home and start a family.

You get the idea: you cannot use words and phrases defined by corporatists to communicate a vibrant message about what’s good for American wage-earners.

Lakoff concentrated on ‘freedom’ as the most likely candidate for a moral frame that progressives could define solidly in a way that evokes progressive, populist values.

For example, when partisans discuss American abortion laws, they use either right to life or choice. Lakoff recommended that progressives drop the word choice, which brings to mind a moral frame no more compelling than shopping. He recommends we substitute freedom to control our bodies, or reproductive freedom, or freedom from laws controlling our bodies. (An aside of my own: Did you notice that I wrote “…discuss American abortion laws,” rather than “…discuss abortion”? Do you see how that subtly shifted your frame of reference from one about a woman’s personal conduct to one about the power of the State? Do you see how that set the stage to evoke a freedom frame?)

Freedom from control by the wealthy and powerful is, in fact, a core value for progressives and a widely shared value that is likely to resonate at some level with every American who  is not wealthy and powerful, and even some of those who are.

My reaction:

YES!!! I’ve been recommending that we speak explicitly about values for years, and have wasted enough breath to float the Hindenburg trying to convince people it’s counterproductive to throw facts and logic at people before you’ve attempted to understand or shape the reasons why they should care, before  you sense they have a moral framework available to them in which those facts have meaning.

Seriously, I would sacrifice twenty years off the end of my life if doing so would transform American political dialogue into a values-based discourse. It would heal our nation and put us back on the track to a shining era of peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Lakoff even missed some of the benefits of speaking explicitly and sincerely about our values. The practice increases the listener’s  trust in the speaker. When we express our values out loud,  the listener can almost always recognize some value that he or she shares.  Even if the listener shares none of your values, he or she will have a more accurate understanding of your motives and a greater appreciation for your sincerity, two things that always contribute to constructive dialogue.

Speaking about values right up front also helps the dialogue focus on mutually desired goals, rather than becoming a dispute focused exclusively on conflicting policy alternatives. I am sure you have seen or participated in a contentious, possibly hostile, political debate over the equivalent of whether to take the Interstate or the back roads, in which the participants never even notice they both want to get to Chicago. Those sorts of conversations rip at the fabric of American democracy; they impair our collective ability to self-govern.

Finally, speaking explicitly about values makes political conversation more fun. Values are, by definition, positive things. Dreams, ideals, goals. Cherished hopes for the future. Reasons for deep gratitude in the present. Putting those things on the table at the start of any conversation calms people down and sets a constructive, positive tone for everything that follows.

None of this is magic; there’s a lot more work to do beyond learning a few messaging tricks. But please tell me that it’s as self-evident to you as it is to me that identifying and clearly expressing progressive values is better than beginning every conversation or speech by sharing Scott Walker’s latest outrageous lie about his job creation record.

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