As I take up invitations around the country to discuss the Blue Republican idea, I am learning a great deal about how our minds are opened and even changed when it comes to politics. In a slight departure from my usual topics, I offer the following in the hope that other engaged citizens may find my experience useful in their own attempts to improve our nation…
No one arrives at his or her political preferences as a result of only, or even mostly, logical argument (despite fervently held feelings to the contrary). Rather, people find themselves most easily convinced by arguments that support political views to which they have become committed for often highly complex reasons that the their conscious mind may never even know.
Political allegiances and views are sticky: If you significantly change them, you are potentially changing your relationships with everyone with whom you have shared them — perhaps including your wife, husband, or kids etc.; you are potentially saying that you were wrong in hundreds of conversations when you insisted you were right; you may even have to stop doing things that you have been doing passionately — or start doing things that you’d rather not be bothered with.
When you’re discussing politics, then, you’re really not doing politics: You’re doing psychology. And if you’re a political activist, you are doing sales and marketing.
Selling a new political perspective to someone is at least as hard as selling any other kind of product — but sales it definitely is.
No good salesman tries to change his customer. Rather, he finds out what matters to her, and then, using that uniquely human and humane quality called empathy, shows how his product satisfies her needs or desires or concerns.
Nevertheless, I notice that many of my political brethren advocate for our favored candidate and passionately held beliefs by trying to show our opponents they they are wrong. It never works – even when they are wrong — because being right is not the same thing as winning an argument. And even more importantly, winning an argument is not the same thing as winning a supporter.
Worse than the tendency to insist that one’s opponents are wrong is the tendency to suspect that they must also (therefore) be bad. The logic usually runs something like this. “Person X claims to care about Y [insert value here, such as peace, liberty etc.], but he believes or does Z. Z is incompatible with Y. Therefore, X is a hypocrite [or deceitful or otherwise ill-intended].”
This is how to lose votes and alienate people.
It ensures that person X will never be persuaded by you in anything — and causes him to associate your views with people they don’t respect because they don’t respect him.
You see, the sine qua non of persuasion is respect, and preferably even Trust — every salesman’s best friend.
If you want to take someone on a journey — whether it is emotional, intellectual, political or even spiritual, you have to start by engaging them where they are — not where you are or where you think they should be. That means finding a position or principle or passion that you share. (There is always one.) Then, explain why that point or principle or passion leads you to your point of view. Be gentle. Remember that you are offering something, not forcing something down someone’s throat. The spirit is, “This works for me. Maybe it could be useful for you?” You are going to lead by example — not force, because everyone resists force.
As in sales, so in all of life: Seek first to understand — and only then to be understood. This is an idiom that actually makes your life easier, because people will always tell you how they can be persuaded if only you listen for long enough to let them.
The fundamental, psychological truth here is quite simple: No one cares what you think; they only care what they think. But if they respect you — and only if they respect you — will they let your thinking affect theirs.
We all know it. Have you ever once been persuaded by a person you disrespect?
Exactly. So in fighting for your ideals, always show respect — in order to gain it. Do it however wrong your interlocutor may be, and however incredibly incoherent their views may seem.
If you are more concerned with improving your world than being right, then remember that from any given paradigm, you can find areas of disagreement — and oftentimes disagreement of principle — with everyone.
But if we activists CHOOSE to get on our high horses about what we disagree about (and it is ALWAYS a choice) rather than CHOOSE to see what good we can do together, we have no right to moan when we fail to make progress.
The very worst thing to do is to impute someone’s intent or moral quality based on their views. Doing so is always divisive. That’s what one does when one calls someone a hypocrite or a fool or a shill. From one’s own paradigm, it may indeed be true that their saying or doing A may be entirely inconsistent with their saying or doing B — but why on earth put down a person whom you’re trying to persuade to your way of thinking?
In short, self-righteousness isn’t effective — even when it’s well-founded.
Love — which is unifying, inclusive and kind — is ultimately your only way of getting people to come to your side. And criticizing a person (rather than his views) with whom you have any common ground achieves little or nothing — so why do it?
And (not But) always stay true to your principles. Act from your own truth even when others disagree with you. Realize that doing so requires only stating your beliefs honestly and never acting against them. It does not mean refusing to work in some areas with those who with whom you differ profoundly in others.
Winning arguments against people who are wrong is easy and, frankly, pointless. Spreading your values, by definition, requires communicating with people with whom you don’t agree. That necessarily involves respecting those people enough to build trust and find those starting points of common ground. You can always do that without endorsing those views with which you disagree. But build the respect first: Leave the disagreements for another day.
John Knox, who was in the persuasion business 500 years ago, famously said, “it’s impossible simultaneously to antagonize and persuade”. It’s still true — and always will be.
So start your political discussions, your Facebook threads and your political speeches with the ultimate goal in mind: to win supporters — not just arguments.