So You Want to Sway Conservatives? Set Aside Your Truth Bombs and Scorn
Non-defensive communication is the secret to conversations that change hearts and minds
The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book, Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide, by Erica Etelson.
Political discourse between liberals and conservatives typically goes from bad to worse in short order. Each party approaches the arena armed with selective facts and assumptions concerning their opponent’s mindset. Within moments, the amygdala, the brain’s fear center, activates and issues a fight-or-flight command. Both parties are now on the defensive, issuing sharp-edged retorts or retreating into silent rage and disgust. A wall goes up, and hope of productive dialogue is extinguished.
Vitriol and snide superiority rocket-launch the above chain of events into warp speed. Being made to feel inferior is perceived as a threat to our well-being, so the amygdala rings the alarm: “We’re under attack: fight back, or run and hide out with your tribe — they’ll protect you!” And the more routinely we telegraph snarling condescension, the more dangerously polarized the civic arena becomes.
After the 2016 election, progressive commentator Van Jones articulated this imperative in his book, Beyond the Messy Truth:
It takes a lot of inner work, community support, and maybe a few Jedi mind tricks to deliberately and skillfully place ourselves in conversation with people whose ideas, assumptions, and attitudes often wound us. But our present strategy of retreating further and further into self-affirming liberal echo chambers has backfired in a big way.
Several bridge-building communication strategies help us be heard outside our echo chambers. The most comprehensive and effective one I’ve encountered is Powerful Non-Defensive Communication™ (PNDC). Its creator, Sharon Strand Ellison, has trained thousands of educators, government officials, and corporate and nonprofit leaders in a novel, straightforward communication style that avoids the pitfalls of a conventional adversarial approach.
PNDC is premised on recognizing every person’s humanity, no matter what terrible thing they say, do, or believe. It is a method of communicating across lines of difference without soft-pedaling our own beliefs and values, or excusing hurtful behavior. It’s about transcending power struggles by learning how to stand, with strength and humility, in your position of power rather than trying to knock down the other person or convince them that you’re right. We don’t influence others by trying to overpower them with our facts, intellect, and morality. When you come out swinging, you may feel like you’re scoring rhetorical points, but it’s more likely that, in the quest to quash the other person’s power, you wind up diminishing your own.
Start With Curiosity
I’ve worked extensively with Ellison to develop an approach to engaging with conservatives non-defensively so that they have a greater opportunity to rethink their positions. The starting place, she says, is curiosity.
Curiosity is an antidote to contempt. Whereas a contemptuous stance comes from a highly defensive place of know-it-all superiority, curiosity is an innocent desire to understand where the other person is coming from. Curiosity questions are disarming.
Instead of blasting Trump, or insulting the morality or intelligence of his supporters, see if you can turn over the reins to your curious mind. You don’t have to agree with what Trump supporters say; you’re simply gathering information and trying to understand where they’re coming from.
You can do this right now by conjuring up a right-wing belief that makes you see red. Let yourself feel how outraged and frustrated you are that any carbon-based life form could ever believe such a thing. Then, take a few breaths and let your mind quiet down. Pretend you’re a recently arrived extraterrestrial with no ideology and no myths-versus-facts charts at the ready: What would your genuinely curious and humble self want to know?
For example, if you don’t understand how an evangelical Trump supporter can tolerate Trump’s philandering, you could ask what being a good Christian means to them. A follow-up question could ask in what ways Trump meets their standards and/or if he falls short in any way.
Sometimes people are reluctant to ask questions about offensive belief systems for fear that merely asking a question somehow implies forgiveness or acquiescence. It doesn’t — you’re simply gathering information and trying to understand what underlies their beliefs so that you can speak to them.
Asking curiosity questions skillfully can prompt the other person to respond without trying to dodge and feint defensively. “If you don’t get defensive no matter what the other person does,” Ellison says, “you’ll have more power, not less.”
Examples of PNDC in Action
The right question, skillfully and non-aggressively posed, could prompt someone to gain unexpected insights; when someone realizes something for themselves, they can more easily accept it. Ellison has told me many stories of a single question resulting in an insight that changes everything. My favorite is of a young woman whose older male boss was always putting his arm around her and calling her “honey.” Finally, she asked him, “Do you believe that I wanted you to touch me in that way?” He paused, then replied, “No, I don’t think you did. I can see that I’ve humiliated you, and I’ll never do it again.”
For real. Long before #metoo, this man instantly took accountability in a situation in which he could have been sued or lost his job.
I was talking once with a conservative acquaintance who complained about “irresponsible” women who had more children than they could care for and then “expected the government to bail them out” with a welfare check. I asked, “Do you think it might be possible that there are some families who made decisions about their family size when they were doing well and then later fell on hard times?” It took him all of a second to process what I had said, and he replied, “Well, yes, that probably was the case a lot of the time.” It seemed he had never considered the issue from that vantage point before.
Here’s one more story of a non-defensive question that changed everything: Michael Bell, a diversity communications consultant, was conducting a racial equity reconciliation session for a nonprofit organization in which two people of color were experiencing disrespect from their white coworkers. Moments into the presentation, a red-headed white man raised his hand and said: “When I was a kid, I used to turn red when I got embarrassed and the other kids made fun of me. Does that make me a person of color?”
Bell could have let fly some choice words that would have made for a viral YouTube smackdown. Instead, he calmly asked, “Are you saying that you believe your experience of being a red-headed kid is the equivalent of my experience of growing up black in the segregated South?” The redhead paused, then replied, “No, I don’t think it’s the same.” After the training, he asked Bell for a list of recommended reading. Because Bell’s question didn’t deny the white man’s experience of being embarrassed and teased, and didn’t antagonize him by labeling him a racist, the white man didn’t get defensive. He was able to see the absurdity of his comparison. Imagine what would have happened if Bell had responded defensively.
A sincere question, asked with humility, can be very disarming. An adversarial or arrogant one causes the other person’s defenses to go up. At this point, their brain turns off, and they’ll either fight you or withdraw. Either way, the prospect of that interaction bearing fruit is dim.
Calibrate Your Expectations
One final note about curiosity questions: Though I gave some inspiring examples above of questions that prompted the other person to shift, that is not the goal. I can’t emphasize this enough, and it’s something I have to remind myself of constantly. The best questions are formed by an open mind, free of a persuasive agenda. I cannot enter a dialogue wearing my opinion like a suit of armor. If I’m not open to shifting my position based on what the other person says, that reflects under-confidence masquerading as overconfidence in my own beliefs. My cherished opinion will still be there, waiting for me to reclaim after I’m done listening to the other person; if I don’t choose to reclaim it, it’s only because I’ve learned something new.
There’s a bit of a paradox here for people like me who are politically engaged. How can we not try to talk people into voting for our candidate or subscribing to our views on key issues? PNDC does require a Jedi mind trick of temporarily setting aside your agenda and engaging with humility and openness.
It’s incredibly hard to abandon one’s agenda, especially during these frightening times. But non-defensive communication can coexist alongside your political agenda. It’s essential that you temporarily disable the part of your brain that wants to persuade.
How to Ask Curiosity Questions
Questions are part of a conversation, not a cross-examination or a Socratic inquisition. Your questions should be specific but posed in a nonjudgmental, nonleading, nonargumentative way. For me, trained as a lawyer, this is the most difficult aspect. I’m always trying to sneak an argument into the question.
Here’s an argumentative question: “Given that the United States already has enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world three times over, what purpose do you believe is served by spending billions more on new nuclear weapons?”
The first part of the question already gives away my position — we already have an absurdly dangerous amount of nuclear firepower — and implies that anyone who thinks we need more nukes is a fool. Instead, I could ask, “What advantages do you believe the United States would gain if we spend billions more on nuclear weapons?” Later, I could share my belief that any additional weapons would be redundant, dangerous, and a colossal waste of money.
You may be tempted (I know I am) to discharge a fusillade of Socratic questions designed to lead the person to “get it.” But this will make the other person feel snookered; they will defend themselves against this unpleasant sensation accordingly.
If you ask a question to which you already know the answer just to make the other person look ignorant, that’s entrapment. If someone is adamant about wanting a border wall to prevent drugs from coming in, and you already know that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says that the vast majority of drugs are smuggled in at legal entry points, then it would be entrapping to ask, “What percentage of drugs do you think are coming in through illegal border crossings?”
Instead, you could begin with a question that seeks to understand why they feel so strongly: “What’s most important to you about stopping the flow of drugs into the country?” Depending on their response, it may be appropriate for you to share the DEA’s assessment later.
Here’s the litmus test for Socratic entrapment: Are you asking the question to understand the person’s experience or are you laying the foundation to prove your point? If the latter, save all that useful information and analysis for your position statement (which I’ll go over in the next chapter) instead of trying to manipulate the conversation to convince them.
In my example above of asking whether the person thought it was possible that some welfare recipients fell on hard times after planning for a large family, I was bordering on entrapping. However, my tone was laid back and I was genuinely curious as to whether the person had considered this possibility.
Another form of entrapment is a question that leaves the person with a no-win choice: “Do you want your grandkids to die in a climate catastrophe?” leaves Grandma with the choice of either admitting that climate disruption is real or that she’s willing to have her grandchildren suffer a horrible death.
There are several other crucial elements in asking questions without prompting defensive reactions, including keeping a relaxed, non-urgent tone; letting your voice come down at the end of the question instead of going up; and avoiding common (often unconscious) body language, such as shaking your head, shrugging, frowning, raising your eyebrows, squinting, or waving your arms.
At a PNDC workshop I attended, one woman practiced asking whether the other person had noticed any seasonal abnormalities in recent years. Her words were non-defensive, but she kept jerking her head back and squinting in a way that said, “You don’t believe in climate change; what are you, insane?” After about six tries, she was finally able to keep her head still, and the intense vibe she had been transmitting noticeably downshifted.
Some questions come off as non-defensive in person but aggressive in writing; you may need to adjust your language accordingly. For example, I might ask in person, “What do you mean by ‘freeloader’?” If I’m careful to not spit out the word “freeloader” contemptuously, the question is fine. But if it’s a Facebook comment, the person is likely to read contempt into it. Instead, I would ask, “What does being a freeloader mean to you?” or “Would you be willing to tell me more about what you see people doing that makes them freeloaders?”
While the other person is answering your question, your job is to listen. Try not to half-listen while composing in your mind what you’re going to say next. Listen like you want the other person to listen to you.
Non-defensive questions can dissolve the walls between two people with opposing viewpoints. If they’re genuinely curious, they can stimulate new insights for either or both people.
A Better Way To Make A Difference
Once you understand where the other person is coming from, there are additional PNDC techniques for sharing your opinion without bludgeoning them over the head with your logical, factual and moral superiority. It’s incredibly hard, in the face of catastrophic human suffering and loss, to set aside the desire to “school” or “utterly destroy” our opponents. A verbal smackdown might make for a viral Youtube video, but only the choir will sing its praises. Meanwhile, the hearts and minds you were hoping to reach will remain frozen.
About the Author
Erica Etelson is a resistance activist, former human rights attorney, and the author of Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide, which she encourages you to buy from your local independent bookstore or anywhere but Amazon.