How Can We Talk To Each Other?

Photo by Sarah Whiting

On January 20, 2017, I watched as a reality show performer — famous for spearheading the baseless claim that our president was not a legitimate American citizen — was sworn in as the 45th U.S. president. A box of tissues later, I thought about how I could use my training as a psychologist, and my skills as a communicator, to help prevent a repeat of this day in four years. I got up off the couch to get to work.

Much of what I found online, in books, and in talking to others, suggested that people who voted for Trump were misunderstood and alienated from American life. The remedy was for the left to reach out, understand, and extend a compassionate, listening ear, with the implication that the right would do likewise, and common cause would ensue. 

As much as I wanted to believe this, the perspective seemed to ignore an inconvenient truth: in some important ways, the values of the right and the left diverge. The proposed remedy, premised on the notions of egalitarianism and moral relativism, incorrectly assumed these concepts were prized equally by the two sides. 

I started to think about how psychological principles, and social science research, could inform efforts to communicate across the cultural divide. It seemed that efforts to communicate had to acknowledge, not deny, the differences in beliefs. 

Successful efforts would need to seek to persuade the persuadable that — although we may differ in specifics about why and how — we can come together around the ‘what’ of certain values and ideals. 

How to Persuade?

If we want to be persuasive, we have to be strategic. This involves two main things: 1) knowing how to talk to people who may not agree with you, and 2) being intentional about extending yourself so that efforts might have an effect. 

What are some ways of being strategic in communication?

First, nurture genuine respect for the humanity of all those you speak with, even as you vigorously disagree with their ideas and challenge their beliefs. Contempt, verbally expressed or non-verbally conveyed, will destroy your chances to persuade. 

Second, if you want to persuade, your goal must be to arouse curiosity about your point of view. Listen, be curious about their impressions, speak plainly about your ideas and beliefs. Staying curious is the best antidote to the temptation to school the other person. No one likes to be on the receiving end of unsolicited efforts to be enlightened. Embrace the paradox that the more willing you are to walk away without “closing the sale,” the more persuasive you are likely be. 

Third, express your ideas and values by referencing the general perspectives of the other side. This is called framing. For instance, let’s say you want to persuade a colleague that environmental conservation is good public policy. Your rationale for environmental preservation is that you want to assure biodiversity and protection of wolves. Your colleague is an avid duck hunter who doesn’t share your interest in biodiversity. Expressing your rationale is unlikely to persuade this colleague of the value of environmental protection. 

Instead, express the value of preservation from a point of view she can relate to: “I know you love to take your granddaughter hunting. Preserving clean waters and wild lands is good for hunters.” 

Fourth, step away from a strict adherence to academic argumentation. Don’t justify your perspective with a raft of citations and examples. Your job is to express your perspective in a clear and compelling way, not to plead for understanding. 

Fifth, the left has important things to say about things like patriotism, fiscal responsibility, and religion. We do not need to refute each other in order to express our perspectives. 

Finally, walk away from unwinnable fights. No one who baits you is worth trying to have a conversation with, whether it’s your aunt at Thanksgiving or a stranger at a rally. Use your persuasive abilities and your energy with those who seem willing to engage in good faith. 

Slow Progress

Progress can seem small and slow, given the serious challenges we face. At best, you will be part of a chain of events that may change people — but don’t expect to witness those epiphanies. 

How do you stay in it when you’re feeling discouraged, frustrated, or just plain tired? Give love to your body. Spend time with people who make you smile. Do activities you enjoy. Take a vacation from the news. 

Remember that millions of people got off the couch, put the empty tissue box in the recycling, and got to work to make things better. Let’s use the vision of a just, equitable, peaceful world to keep us engaged, respectful, and persuasive. 

Suzanne Candell, PhD, LP, is a clinical psychologist in private practice.