These are some of 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 about any other books or resources you can recommend in the comments section.

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, drawing 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 a conversation, 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

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, is a treasure chest of information about how our well-intentioned-and-wildly-fallible minds make judgements and decisions. These explanations of common errors, biases, fallacies, and mental mishaps of all sorts are plenty useful in identifying the flaws in an opponent’s argument; their value in cleaning up our own is incalculable.  Maria Popova, in reviewing this book for The Atlantic wrote: “There is nothing pop about Kahneman’s psychology, no formulaic story arc, no beating you over the head with an artificial, buzzword-encrusted Big Idea. It’s just the wisdom that comes from five decades of honest, rigorous scientific work, delivered humbly yet brilliantly, in a way that will forever change the way you think about thinking.

Communication among self-governing citizens

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 citizens–particularly those who hold differing views–need to reach out to each other through civic conversations to restore government of the people, by the people, and for the people in America.

Deborah Tannen has written so many fine books, I hate to admit that The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words is too long by half. It’s almost as if she is so passionate about the topic that she lost some of her writing discipline. Read it anyway. If I had to pick the most costly destructive habit that undermines American political thought and discourse, it would be our delusional and relentless perception that every issue has two and only two sides. The habit blinds us to third, fourth, fifth and sixth options; it makes us pigeonhole each other and ourselves; it turns what could and should be creative collaborations into win-lose battles; and worse. Unfortunately, Tannen doesn’t offer any clear road map to recovery. However, this book does deliver an understanding of how very crippling this habit is, and leaves the careful reader with the ability to notice when the habit is at work–the first necessary step to breaking it.

Nonviolent (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  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 (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 NVC training, live or online.

Political messaging

George Lakoff is headmaster in the school of political communication for American progressives. A cognitive scientist, he has written numerous books. If you haven’t read any, start with 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 entirely on persuasion–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. Still, he’s worth reading. Of all the useful insights he offers, I say ‘amen’ most enthusiastically to his advice about clarifying one’s own values before attempting political discourse, and about making sure your message connects with the listener on the gut level of basic, shared values–not just cold, hard facts.

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 “make people believe whatever you want them to believe regardless of what’s true.” Luntz gives us 324 pages of cheerful advice without a whiff of ethics or any sense of right-and-wrong. In the introduction, he recommends his methods as useful in “everyday things like talking your way out of speeding tickets.” In the book, he speaks admirably of Orwellian communication, and when questioned about that in an interview, readily confirmed his admiration. The book is widely acknowledged as one of the Bibles of partisan communication, so I do recommend it as a way of familiarizing yourself with the sorts of tactics that honest citizens up against when we try to make our civic discourse honest, collaborative, and productive.

Political values

George Lakoff believes (and I agree) that progressives’ tendency to chatter on about facts without framing their values is one reason they’ve been losing ground. But talking values and morals seems so, well, holier-than-thou, doesn’t it? Humorist Garrison Keillor shows 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,’ to 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.

 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.


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 from 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 (“If the poor have no bread, let them eat cake.”)  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.

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.


3 Responses to References

  1. Pingback: What are they trying to do? Understanding motives in political conversation | karenmckim

  2. Pingback: Useful links | karenmckim

  3. Dave Aceti says:

    Karen, would you be willing to share an e-version your handout from Drinking Liberally last night? I’d like to pass it along to others at Reach Out Wisconsin who are planning some discussion-oriented forums to mix in with the usual more speaker-oriented ones. Very nice and well thought out-document.

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