It often occurs to me that a lot of problems arising in the U.S. involve a lack of communication, and even a total dehumanization of those who hold different views. For years I’ve been trying to find ways to communicate with people I disagree with in a way they can hear, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ll try to relay some of what I’ve learned from personal experience, along with things I’ve learned in researching human cognition studies on this topic.
If your goal in talking to people you don’t tend to agree with is an insult-laden catharsis — lucky you! That’s really easy, so you can close out of this article and jump on Twitter to yell at anyone and everyone that disagrees with you. In fact, I’m not arguing that that’s wrong or bad. Some people feel like their very existence and/or way of life is under attack, and want to express the resulting emotions. But if your goal is to affect change, to hear and be heard, maybe even to begin to change someone’s strongly held beliefs — I think I can help. But it won’t be easy and it requires a level of self-reflection that many are uncomfortable with.
Do your research (no, not that research)
I see a lot of people saying that if you’re going to talk to someone on the other side of America’s great (mostly contrived) political divide, you’d better come armed with a lot of facts. Then I’ll see resulting conversations, which consist of people yelling talking points at each other, both sides citing increasingly dubious information. This is a normal way to debate, and I’ve done it many times myself. With the pride of knowing you’re right, you become defensive. One person will start with a point they are confident in. If the other person doesn’t have an easy refutation they will shoddily try to research what likeminded people are saying on the topic and relay it as fact, or they will change the subject entirely, provoking a shoddily researched response from the other person. This behavior seems to be borne of an impression that we make our decisions based mostly on facts, and even that we believe or incorporate facts that are yelled at us from a rhetorical opponent. None of this, in my experience, is true.
The real research you need to prepare is about what the people you don’t agree with are thinking and saying. Read liberal/conservative blogs. Follow people you downright loathe on social media, and try to look past all the inevitably hateful vitriol they are spewing and find out what their motivations and experiences are. Don’t come armed with talking points, come armed with common ground. I promise you will get a chance to relay your opinion if you don’t lead with “you’re wrong”, and you are less likely to get a defensive answer. You won’t have to be a masochistic Gandhi or present your ideas in a timid manner. You can still think the other person is a jerk, you just have to understand their humanity and have a vague grasp of how they think about things.
Don’t think about how to convince someone they’re wrong.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about political discussions is that people pretty much never admit they are wrong within a single conversation. Expecting that that is a possible outcome is going to lead to poor communication. In reality, if you do manage to convince someone you are right about something, they will change their minds over the next day or week after thinking about what you’ve said and hearing from others.
Beliefs are very strong and very hard to overcome. There is a lot of research about how difficult it is for people to change their minds, and how evidence is not a very effective tool to this end. This article lays out some of the logical fallacies we all (unknowingly) subscribe to:
The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.
Talk about you
Counterintuitively, I’ve learned that the best way to get through to someone is not to ask about their beliefs and try to counter them; it’s just to say what you believe and why. If presented with evidence you don’t like, tell people “I didn’t find that convincing because…” not “that’s wrong because…” It is essential that you recognize that you could be wrong, even when armed with a wall of overwhelming supporting evidence, about pretty much anything you believe.
Be humble: discover what YOU are wrong about
When we come across new things, we tend to look at available evidence and form an opinion about them. When we come across new evidence about these things (as in the study mentioned above), we evaluate it against our existing opinion. If it disagrees with our existing opinion and we care about that opinion, we will either reject the evidence outright or look for flaws. It may even reinforce our opinion, make it stronger. If the new evidence supports our opinion, we will generally accept it. This is the dreaded “confirmation bias” and we are ALL guilty of it. Scientists, politicians, voters, everyone. The more you recognize it in yourself the more fair-minded you can become. In fact, the more you recognize the inherent flaws in your opinion-forming processes, the more you’ll be able to understand and communicate with those you disagree with.
We are becoming so good at confirmation bias that we dehumanize people with other opinions. We don’t see how people could disagree with us and still be smart/good/human. Here are some examples:
Don’t assign people to a group or opinion
Most of us learned about “stereotyping” in grade school – the tendency of humans to use a little bit of anecdotal evidence about a group to start making assumptions about every member of the group. Few of us apply this to our political beliefs. We have a tendency to ascribe every GOP/conservative belief to everyone we put in that group, and the same with every Democrat/liberal. Even stranger, we have a tendency to defend the group we most identify with, even on issues we either don’t have any knowledge about or have disagreed with our group on. But here’s a secret: there are no liberals or conservatives as the terms are understood. Political terms like these represent a sort of average belief of huge swaths of the country! No one has every belief ascribed to one of those words. The series of things that are associated with “liberal” or “conservative” are constantly changing, and have broadened so much they can include your choice of breakfast. You don’t have all the beliefs of one of these groups, but you certainly might have unknowingly adopted beliefs solely because they are part of a group you identify with, or vice versa:
It is essential not to ascribe beliefs to someone you are talking to just because you think you know their political party, and it’s just as essential that you be willing to not discuss (read: argue about) a topic when you don’t have a strong opinion about it. It’s easy to forget that you get to choose what you discuss, and you don’t have to have a dog in every fight. I try to refer to both parties as “them” and use “us/we” whenever I can group myself with the person I’m talking to. The best conversations I have are when there’s not enough evidence for the other person to assign me to a particular political grouping.
Lets figure out what’s right together
Most issues in politics are incredibly complex, and have at least two legitimate opposing arguments with various amounts of flawed and sound reasoning backing them up. Lets approach a conversation with our political “others” as a chance to share information, to build up more nuanced understandings of subjects, and to address each others grievances (especially when they aren’t zero sum). Usually when we feel we are diametrically opposed to someone the issue is a spectrum along which both parties have drawn particular lines, not a binary with a clear choice. We can get more done if we’re willing to admit our own logical shortcomings, share our strengths, and keep our true goals in mind without being distracted by purely partisan thinking.