The most common question people ask me after they start using my techniques is when they should abandon efforts to engage with voters on the Right end of the political spectrum.
The short answer is never— you can always accomplish something positive in a political conversation.
The long answer is it’s complicated.
In general, the success of any dialogue depends on whether you achieve your goals. The primary reason conversations fail is not because success is out of reach or because the wrong techniques are being used, but because people are trying to achieve the impossible.
In my experience, the only situation where dialogue is contraindicated is when the other person is persistently abusive. By persistently, I mean they are abusive even after a full and sincere attempt to set boundaries. Once it becomes clear someone is unwilling or unable to engage respectfully, there is no point engaging. Furthermore, continuing to engage in such situations may actually reward bad behavior and increase the likelihood that it will occur in the future.
But what if the other person isn’t being abusive, just irrational or pig-headed? What if they are so entrenched in their own worldview that they can’t consider an alternative perspective? What if all they do is spout Fox News talking points or conspiracy theories? What if they are beholden to “alternative facts” and think the mainstream media is “fake news?” What if they believe Donald Trump was chosen by God? Does engagement still make sense?
But. When you undertake conversations under these conditions, you need to be very clear about your goals. Otherwise, both you and the other person are going to end up frustrated and angry. Worse still, your attempts at persuasion may backfire.
Most of the time when we engage in political conversation with someone we disagree with it’s because we want them to change their mind. There is nothing wrong with that. Advocacy is an essential part of democratic discourse. The problem is that most political advocates are impatient. We want people to change their minds NOW. We (rightly) see the current situation as urgent and feel the need to convert people immediately.
There are many situations where opinion change can happen as a result of a single conversation. However, most of the time with most people on most topics, opinion change is a slow and halting process. And this is especially true when talking with someone whose opinions on a particular topic are deeply entrenched.
So, if immediate change isn’t a realistic goal, what is?
Once you let go of the impulse to achieve a sudden conversion and accept that change takes time, the possibilities open up. Here are three goals that I find particularly fruitful when talking with people traditionally viewed as “beyond hope.”
1. Bust a stereotype
One of my favorite things to hear from a Right-winger is, “You’re not a progressive. You’re too sane.” When they say that, I know I’ve won their respect and created cognitive dissonance. It’s hard to hate all progressives while at the same time liking and/or agreeing with the one you’re speaking with. As a result, the other person is forced to reconsider their attitudes toward progressives as a whole. This is significant because ingroup-outgroup attitudes tend to drive policy opinions more than knowledge or reason.
The key to stereotype-busting is to focus the conversation on areas of agreement while acknowledging, but minimizing areas of disagreement. So, for example, when discussing abortion, talk about places where your beliefs overlap with those of anti-abortion activists. In general, it’s easiest to agree on emotions, goals, and values. Sometimes you can agree on facts. Most of the time you should avoid discussing specific policy.
I’m pro-choice, but I agree with most people who are anti-abortion on three things. (Your areas of agreement may be different, but the process is the same regardless.) First, abortion takes a life and, therefore, shouldn’t be taken lightly. Second, there should be fewer abortions. Third, the whole issue is heartbreaking.
When progressives first start using this method in practice, it tends to generate cognitive dissonance for them too. When you vehemently disagree with someone about policy, it can be uncomfortable to acknowledge that you actually agree in other respects. Our brains want simplicity. We want to see the world in black and white terms, with no intervening gray. But in political discourse, gray is our friend. Learning to embrace those areas is the key to creating space for attitude change in ourselves and others.
Over time you will develop a tolerance for this dissonance which will make these interactions more pleasant. In the meantime, the best antidote is allowing yourself to make an authentic, but non-confrontational statement about your beliefs at the same time that you are agreeing. Even something as simple as saying, “You and I don’t see totally eye to eye on this issue, but…” or “Even though I’m pro-choice, I agree with a lot of the things you’re saying” can go a long way. Plus, it will help you win the respect of the other person who will be impressed by your ability to see both sides of the issue.
2. Help them chill out
One of the most powerful things you can do in a political conversation is to help someone move from their primitive, highly emotional brain to their more evolved, reasoning brain. Often when people are thinking and communicating about politics, they are doing so from a highly emotional place. Learning how to stay emotionally centered so we can think and engage more rationally is an essential skill for effective political discourse. But it doesn’t do much good for us to be emotionally centered if the person we’re talking with isn’t emotionally centered as well. So, once we have ourselves under control, the next step is to help the other person get themselves emotionally centered too.
As with all things political, it’s tempting to think that if the other person is being irrational, they are just “crazy” and beyond hope. Possibly. In most cases, though, the person just cares passionately about an issue and is triggered in the moment or perhaps has never been taught the skills to calm down. In that case, helping them chill out is the first step to getting them into a mental state where they can take in new information and reconsider their beliefs.
You might think you need a degree in clinical psychology to help someone climb out of their emotional brain and into their reasoning brain, but it’s actually a pretty simple process. All you need to do is listen. The hard part is not to slip into your own emotional brain while you’re at it.
My favorite description of this type of listening is articulated by Mark Goulston who calls it “guiding a person to exhale.” In his book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, Dr. Goulston lays out the following three steps for responding when someone begins to speak with tremendous emotion about a topic.
Step One: Listen without interrupting. Give them all the time they need to vent, whine, and/or complain.
Step Two: Don’t take issue with anything they say, verbally or otherwise. It’s not enough to bite your tongue, you also need to refrain from shaking your head or looking repulsed.
Step Three: When they finally stop talking, ask them to tell you more. The biggest mistake people make when engaging with someone who is emotionally wound up is to start talking before the other person has fully calmed down.
The one addendum I would add to this method is that sometimes you need to repeat step three several times before the person has actually said everything they want to say. You might even find that they insist that you say something at some point, but when you do, they get retriggered and launch into another soliloquy. That’s okay. Just follow the three steps again. What matters is letting them talk until they feel fully heard.
I find myself using this technique most often when talking with people who spend a lot of time watching Fox News. They often have a set of about 10 talking points that need to be shared before they can calm down enough to begin to think for themselves. A lot of it is nonsense about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or some absurd conspiracy theory about George Soros. The actual content is fairly irrelevant and I’ve learned to sit back and just let it happen.
Sometimes getting someone to exhale leads to a conversation that can change minds. Often though, especially with someone whose opinions are fixed, the real benefit is the emotional release itself. Emotions are the primary drivers of political cognitions and behavior and more extreme emotions drive more extreme cognitions and behavior. When we help people on the Right calm down, we are also deradicalizing them.
3. Tell them a story
Humans love stories. As Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, “The brain is a story processor, not a logic processor.” And I’d add that it isn’t a data processor either. If you want to convey information or persuade someone of an argument, there’s no better way than to share a narrative that communicates both.
I use this technique regularly in my conversations with climate change skeptics. Instead of whipping out the latest IPCC report or giving a lecture on the impact of CO2 on atmospheric temperatures, I tell them that my great-great grandfather, Henrik (Henry) Tamerius was one of the original settlers of Paradise, California nearly 100 years ago. I say that for 45 years there was a plaque and an American flag in Paradise honoring him and other pioneers near the center of town, but it, along with the entire community burned down in the raging wildfires last summer. Then I add, there’s no way to know for sure why Paradise and the plaque honoring my great-great grandfather burned down after all this time, but I can’t help thinking how sad he would be to know that the town he helped build is gone.
Notice I don’t make an argument or provide any data beyond the experience of my family. As a result, the other person can’t take issue with my facts or my logic. In addition, since I don’t make an argument but simply engage in speculation, they are left to draw their own conclusions. With nothing to fight against, people are less defensive and more able to connect emotionally with the issue.
The other important aspect of the story is that it’s about a single person. It’s counter-intuitive, but we are more likely to be moved by a story about a single person than we are by a story about dozens of people. If I’d said 88 people lost their lives and 50,000 were displaced by the fire in Paradise, it wouldn’t have the same effect as a story about one guy who’s been dead for a hundred years. Learning to tell tales about individuals rather than citing facts can greatly improve your ability to communicate with people you otherwise think are unreachable.
Putting it all together
If I accomplish one of these three goals in a conversation with someone who is entrenched in a Right wing belief system, I consider it a success. If I accomplish two of these goals in a single conversation, I’m delighted. And if I accomplish all three, it’s time to celebrate.
While all of these goals take practice to achieve, the good news is that they are synergistic. You’ll find that helping someone chill out tends to bust stereotypes and busting stereotypes makes them more likely to listen to your story and telling a story helps them stay chilled out once they get there.
Ultimately, what matters most is letting go of the desire to achieve immediate change. Once you accept that you can’t instantly change someone’s mind with data, logic, or dazzling debate skills, you can focus on realistic goals that make a real difference.
So stop asking “Is talking with this person a waste of time?” and start asking “What would make this conversation a success and how do I get there?”
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.