A Quick and Easy Way to Influence Political Opinions

Motivational interviewing for progressive voters and activists

Karin Tamerius
Nov 8 · 7 min read
Photo by Diana Parkhouse on Unsplash

Today I’m going to teach you one of my favorite tools for helping people transform their political attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.

It’s a two-part intervention commonly used in Motivational Interviewing (MI), a type of psychotherapy originally developed to help people overcome addiction, but useful in any setting where people want to change or are thinking about changing.

Intro to Motivational Interviewing

As we all know, change is hard. Whether you want to eat healthier, exercise more, or stop using substances, there is a huge gap between the desire to transform yourself and actually doing it.

For a long time, psychotherapists thought the key to getting patients to change was to help them identify the barriers holding them back. We’d ask, what’s stopping you from quitting smoking? What are you afraid will happen if you stop drinking alcohol? What roadblocks are preventing you from entering rehab?

The theory behind these questions was simple. If we could help our patients identify the things stopping them from changing, we could then help them find a way to eliminate, surmount, or avoid those obstacles.

You keep smoking because it calms you down when you’re stressed? Let’s find alternative ways to address your anxiety. You’re afraid to stop drinking because you might be less fun at parties? Let’s explore why being the life of the party is so important to you. You feel compelled to shoot up every time you are in the company of your friends who use heroin? Let’s find you a new group of friends.

The theory was seductive. Not only did it make sense to both patient and clinician, but it provided a clear roadmap for treatment. All you had to do was keep talking until all the psychological and non-psychological barriers were identified and removed, and then the patient would make the changes they so desperately wanted and needed to make.

Only, it didn’t work. Not really. Plenty of barriers were identified and many were overcome, but people still had trouble changing. Moreover, there seemed to be an endless supply of reasons not to change. Just when someone overcame one challenge, another one would pop up in its place.

Then one day, a couple of bright young clinicians, William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick, had a thought. What if the reason we’re having so much trouble getting people to change is because we spend all of our time talking about reasons not to change rather than reasons to change? What if we are actually persuading patients that change isn’t desirable or possible?

This idea became the basis for a new theory of change that said, when it comes to transforming their behavior, people are ambivalent. There are parts of them that want to behave differently while at the same time there are parts that want to continue just the way they are. The best way to help them achieve transformation is to support and nurture the parts of them that want to change while ignoring or minimizing the parts that don’t.

And that’s what MI is all about. As you might expect, there are many, many theoretical and practical nuances to the approach, but today I’m going to teach you a single, easy intervention that has tremendous crossover appeal for political conversations — in your home, online, and on the campaign trail.

The MI Commitment to Change Scale

A standard practice in any MI therapy session is to ask the patient how they are feeling about change at that moment:

On a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being not at all and 10 being as much as possible, how much do you want to [stop smoking/stop drinking/stop using] today?

The question itself isn’t particularly exciting. What makes it work is the follow-up.

Under the old theory, the next question would be why isn’t your commitment higher? Why is your desire to change only a 3 today? What’s holding you back?

But that’s what MI practitioners call sustain talk. It keeps people focused on all the reasons why they won’t or can’t change rather than all the reasons why they want to change.

So what does MI advise instead?

Ask the patient why their desire isn’t lower:

You say your commitment to change is a 3 today. Why not a 0 or 1?

It’s a simple shift, but the effect is profound. Suddenly, instead of dwelling on all the things that make change hard, the patient is remembering and voicing the reasons they want to change despite how difficult it is.

Using the Commitment to Change Scale in Political Discourse

Most people are as ambivalent about politics as they are about changing bad habits. Even hardcore Trumpers will admit there are things they don’t like about the President — his use of Twitter, his disrespect of members of the military, his indifference to the ballooning national debt. But when they get into a conversation with a Trump opponent, they usually spend all their time thinking and talking about the ways in which Trump is great. As a result, they are likely to emerge from a transpartisan dialogue supporting the President even more strongly than they did before.

So, how do we get people thinking and talking about what’s wrong with Trump instead of what they think is right?

Use the commitment scale:

On a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being not at all and 10 being more than any other president ever, how strong is your support for President Trump?

Then, when they answer, resist the urge to ask them what it is that they find so appealing about the President. (Trust me, that impulse will be strong and you will have to resist it.) Instead, nurture their ambivalence and support the part of them that wants to change with this response:

You say your support for the president is a 9. Why not a 10?

When I use this approach with Trump supporters I am often shocked by how many aspects of the President they dislike. Things that — if I’d mentioned them in the form of an argument — would have triggered resistance and an unflinching defense of everything Trump stands for.

As the French polymath Blaise Pascal once wrote, “People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.” The key to MI is giving people incentive and space to discover their own reasons for change rather than their reasons for staying the same.

Beyond Trump

This approach works for all kinds of political discussions, ranging from candidates to parties to policy to values to goals. For example, if I wanted to discuss Medicare for All with someone on the Right, I’d start out like this:

Medicare for All has been in the news a lot. How important is it to you to make sure all Americans have health insurance regardless of ability to pay? Say, on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being you couldn’t care less and 10 being absolutely essential. Where do you fall?

In my experience, when phrased this way, most people — even those who say they are staunchly opposed to Medicare for All — will voice considerable support for guaranteed health insurance.

It’s easy, then, to follow up with:

So, you put yourself at a 6. Why not a 4 or a 5?

The Close-Minded

Of course, there are many topics where people will be unwilling or unable to articulate ambivalence at all. Some people will locate themselves at the far ends of the scale or even beyond. It’s not uncommon, for example, for people to say their support for Elizabeth Warren is “negative 100”.

No worries. There are two ways to approach this.

One, try rephrasing the question. Instead of asking how they feel about Warren, for example, ask how they feel about her in relation to someone else you suspect they dislike even more:

How does your opinion of Warren compare to your opinion of Clinton? Say you had to rank your support on a scale from 0 to 10 where 0 is Warren is much worse than Clinton and 10 is Warren is much better than Clinton. Where do you fall?

By granting their dislike of Warren and contextualizing this dislike in relation to their feelings about Clinton, you provide room for them to explore nuances in their attitudes and beliefs that might otherwise get glossed over.

Two, move on to another topic. Sometimes a person is so polarized in their thinking or so defended against change that this technique won’t work. Just as some people suffering from drug addiction have no interest in talking about it with a mental health professional, some political views aren’t up for reconsideration. That’s okay.

It’s worth keeping in mind that those of us on the Left have these lines too. It’s very hard for me to imagine a situation where I would rate my support for President Trump any higher than zero or to conceive of being able to articulate a single reason for keeping him in office. It’s important to respect others’ lines as well.

One final tidbit

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that these questions have to be worded exactly as I’ve described them here. That’s not really necessary. In fact, putting these questions into a less clinical, more informal form can help you build rapport.

Furthermore, scales don’t have to be numerical. You can simply use words like more, less, a lot, a little, strong, and weak to help people understand that you want them to move beyond thinking in binary terms.

Ultimately, the most important thing is for you to stop focusing on why the other person disagrees with you and start exploring reasons why they don’t disagree with you more. You might be surprised by what you find.

About the author

Dr. Karin Tamerius is a former psychiatrist who specializes in the intersection between psychology and politics. She is the founder of Smart Politics, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching progressives how to communicate more persuasively with people across the political spectrum. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Karin Tamerius

Written by

Compassionate progressive activist. Trained in psychiatry and political psychology. Founder of Smart Politics. She/her/hers. karin@joinsmart.org

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