How to Win a Political Argument

“You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.”–Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

My First Brexit-Style Referendum  

It was the first election year that I sort of kind of understood what was happening. I had enjoyed the theatricality of the conventions. I couldn’t follow what the nominee was saying, but the crowd kept interrupting with standing ovations so it must have been good. The balloons looked amazing on our new TV. I had just wrapped up my first Brexit-style referendum campaign.

YES! LET THE RABBIT EAT TRIX!

NO! TRIX ARE FOR KIDS

I was chairman of the YES! campaign in my third-grade classroom. 

Victory was intoxicating!

An Accidental Donkey

For Halloween that year, my mother asked if my brother and I would like to trick-or-treat as an elephant and donkey. I liked the idea, but only if I could be the donkey. To my surprise, my brother didn’t argue.

I was eager to do for my family’s favorite candidate what I had done for the Trix rabbit.

I was proud to dress as the symbol of the Republican Party. I would be the GOP DONKEY!

Why You Can’t Win an Argument  

Dale Carnegie explains that if you shoot someone’s argument full of holes and prove that they’re delusional, you’ll feel fine, but they’ll feel stupid, ashamed, and resentful.

For example, just before I set out on my Halloween mission, I thanked my brother for allowing me to represent the Republicans.

“Donkeys are Democrats,” he said.

“No, they’re not!” I objected. 

That political argument went on for a while. You know who lost. 

I felt stupid, ashamed, and resentful.

My New Tribe

My costume choice may have been a letdown to the tribe of my nuclear family, but when we started knocking on doors, I saw Blue. 

We lived on Chicago’s south side. Ours was the only Republican family on the block. Our neighbors were delighted by my costume and eagerly gave me candy.

One of them jokingly asked, “Should we really feed the elephant?”

I was torn. My brother hadn’t forced me to be the donkey. He hadn’t really rubbed it in. My first decision as a Chicago Democratic Party power broker was magnanimity toward my political opponent.

“Sure, I guess.”  

My Thanksgiving Tribe

There may be a genetic component to following in the footsteps of my father’s political tribe. But, my mother’s parents and extended family were Democrats. Maybe the donkey gene had influenced my decision.

Whatever the genetics, as I graduated from the kid table to the grown-up table at Thanksgiving gatherings, I observed three things in the adult conversations.

  1. Discussing political views made for some entertaining (and increasingly inebriated) conversation. 
  2. I doubt that they ever changed anyone’s vote.
  3. At the end of the evening, we were all still family.

Sadly, for many families, that’s no longer the case.

Losing Your Tribe

In September, I attended a Better Angels Skills Workshop, which offers techniques to “have constructive, non-polarizing conversations” with people who disagree politically.

The facilitators asked why people had come to the workshop. Some had moved cross country to follow a spouse or a job. Their new neighbors thought differently than their old ones. Some were carefully vetting holiday invitations on the chance a certain in-law might be there. Others felt alienated by their co-workers.

I was looking for techniques to calm the stress and anger that arose when my own tribes spoke as if their political opposites were monsters.  

Setting the Tone

I like that the first guideline for a constructive conversation is to let the person know that your goal is to understand their perspective. To the extent that core beliefs are genetically influenced, they are as difficult to change as race or gender preference.

The second is to acknowledge your own political stance. This allows your conversation partner to know their audience so they won’t feel ambushed. 

Because of my Purple upbringing, I’m seldom in lockstep with either tribe, so it was easy for me to acknowledge something critical about my side and offer something positive about the other side.

The guideline I found clunky was asking permission to pose questions. The handout suggests the phrases, “Can I ask you something about politics and your views on something?” and “Can I ask you what people in your part of the country are saying about what’s going on in Washington these days?” The first one sounds unnatural to me; the second sounds too close to “you people.”           

Active Listening 

I’m a big fan of paraphrasing people’s answers and giving them the chance to clear up misunderstandings. This forces me to listen carefully without forming a response. Paraphrasing thoughts challenges me to consider what was said. And, it gives each party the opportunity to clear up misunderstandings. Additionally, I can attempt to de-escalate inflammatory word choices.

Listening for core beliefs is central to learning what makes people tick. Political views reveal how people feel about individual vs. collective freedom, the roles of the federal and local government, the strengths and weaknesses of the economic system, religious beliefs, patriotism vs. globalism. 

Speaking Skills

My second favorite skill (after the paraphrase) is the follow-up question. After a view has been stated, paraphrased, and acknowledged, ask how the person came to hold the belief.

Examples:

I’m interested in how you came to belive in single-payer healthcare.

How did you come to see the federal government as more the problem than the solution?

The workshop suggests using “I” statements (I think, I feel, as I see it) to avoid stating opinions as facts. This is a good way to avoid saying things like, “it’s just common sense.”

It wasn’t that challenging to find areas of agreement when roll playing Blue gun control talking points with a Red conversation partner. We both agreed that mass shootings occurring at the current rate were unacceptable.

If a view differs from yours, ask how the person came to form that view. This helps humanize political opinions and gets people off their talking points. My partner shared the story of an elderly friend who lived alone in a rural setting far from her neighbors. She had purchased a handgun and taken safety courses for her self-protection. She was concerned about overregulation taking that protection away.

Handling Difficult Moments

My practice sessions were so amicable that I didn’t get the chance to test drive the recommendations for handling difficult moments.  

The handout recommends refocusing on one topic when someone jumps from issue to issue. Instead of answering baiting questions or provocative statements, gently restating or rephrasing your viewpoint. Agreeing to disagree. Finding a low-key way to end the conversation is still my go-to strategy if the other person starts to get upset. Move on to another topic where you agree. That’s the way our Thanksgiving conversations usually ended.

How to Influence People

In his post “Why Facts Don’t Change Minds,” James Clear writes:

“Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe. If they abandon their beliefs, they run the risk of losing social ties. You can’t expect someone to change their mind if you take away their community too. You have to give them somewhere to go. Nobody wants their worldview torn apart if loneliness is the outcome.

“The way to change people’s minds is to become friends with them, to integrate them into your tribe, to bring them into your circle. Now, they can change their beliefs without the risk of being abandoned socially.”

Ten Minute Exercise

While the exercises from the workshop can be done in ten minutes with a partner, they must be done face to face. The workshop cautions against trying to employ these skills online. Without facial expression and tone of voice, it’s very easy to take words out of context. But, we can practice our response to polarizing ideas on our own.

1. Set a timer for ten minutes.

2. Write down a political talking point that brings up resistance in you.

Examples: 

Talking Point: We need to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Talking Point: We need Medicare for All.

3. Write down a core belief that the statement conflicts with:

Examples: 

Talking Point: We need to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Conflicting Core Belief: I believe that healthcare is a basic human right. 

Blue: We need Medicare for All.

Conflicting Core Belief: I don’t trust the federal government to get healthcare right.

4. Briefly describe an experience from your life that helped shape your belief.

Examples: 

Core Belief: I believe that healthcare is a basic human right.

Story: When my mother took ill, my father ate through all of his retirement savings and eventually went bankrupt.

Core Belief: I don’t trust my family’s health to the federal government. 

Story: I wanted to start my own business, but there were so many regulations that had to be met I couldn’t afford to do it.

5. Write down something challenging about your own position.

Talking Point: We need to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Challenge: Of course, many of the changes have become entrenched now making the bureaucracy hard to untangle. 

Talking Point: We need Medicare for All.

Challenge: When Obama tried to do healthcare, he couldn’t find enough support for a public option in his own party, let alone gaining Republican support.

Brighter Outlooks for Pessimists

Pessimist

I’m sharing my experience with a ten minute daily habit that’s been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in pessimists. 

Predicting a Brighter Future

As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, “Life feels reactive, but it is actually predictive. All day long, you are making your best guess of how to act given what you’ve just seen and what has worked for you in the past. You are endlessly predicting what will happen in the next moment. Our behavior is heavily dependent on these predictions. Put another way, our behavior is heavily dependent on how we interpret the events that happen to us, not necessarily the objective reality of the events themselves.”

It would be depressing if our well-being were dependent on what happens to us, which often is beyond our control. But, with practice, we can get better at controlling how we interpret what happens. This exercise from Greater Good in Action shows us how.

List Five Good Things

To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

Here are five things I find enjoyable, enriching, and or worthwhile about this exercise. 

1. I find that listing things that are going well helps me appreciate them again in the moment. 

“Enjoyed dropping in on the Day of the Dead art exhibit at Guardino Gallery.”

2. It primes me to look for and recognize the good in things I might otherwise take for granted.

“Washed new underwear and socks. Look forward to wearing them!”

3. It prompts me to pursue the good when opportunities arise. 

“Signed up for a Social Gathering Meetup on Saturday.”

4. What is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile in the moment is relative, and highly scalable.

“Not feeling well because of debilitating allergies. Scrambled eggs and English muffins was comforting breakfast.”

5. Through repetition and neuroplasticity, repeating these instructions changes the brain.

“I’m noticing that this exercise is helping me recognize and reframe frustrating situations more quickly.” 

Describe the Situation

Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

Focusing on the “most recent” event brings attention to fresh circumstances instead of rehashing old ones. Writing the event down translates it from feelings and negative self talk (which I seldom question) into words (which I constantly question). The ten minute time limit and brief description prevent me from going on a rant.

“I was frustrated that none of the friends who said they were interested in joining me for Paranormal Pub at the Kennedy School showed up. I kept looking at the door to see if they’d arrive. It made it difficult for me to relax.”

List Three Positives

Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

1. Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.

2. You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.

3. Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.

Three things I like about these examples:

1. The running to catch the bus example encourages creative thinking and having a sense of humor about oneself.

“I can be autonomous in choosing something I want to do and let others choose for themselves.”

2. The recognition that there’ll be another bus acknowledges how we benefit from each others’ contributions.  

“It’s nice that Kennedy School puts these programs on as an opportunity for community.”

3. Taking the “ten year” view works with larger setbacks. It’s unlikely we’ll remember small ones even one week from now.     

There will be another opportunity to get together.”

Ten Minute Exercise

Finding Silver Linings

Ten minutes daily for three weeks

1. To start, list five things that make you feel like your life is enjoyable, enriching, and/or worthwhile at this moment. These things can be as general as “being in good health” or as specific as “drinking a delicious cup of coffee this morning.” The purpose of this first step is to help you shift into a positive state of mind about your life in general.

2. Next, think about the most recent time when something didn’t go your way, or when you felt frustrated, irritated, or upset.

3. In a few sentences, briefly describe the situation in writing.

4. Then, list three things that can help you see the bright side of this situation. For example, perhaps you missed your bus this morning. Three ways to look on the bright side of this situation might be:

a. Even though you missed the bus, you got some good exercise when you were running to catch it.

b. You’re fortunate to live in a city where there was another bus just 10 minutes later, or where buses run reliably at all.

c. Ten years from now, you likely won’t remember what happened this morning.

Bonus Track

Listen to the “How to Find Your Silver Linings” episode from the Science of Happiness podcast.

Depression Books That Read Your Mind

The Hilarious World of Depression podcast recently asked listeners to recommend books that get depression right. The results were far from depressing.

 

Depression Books
I Didn’t Know I was Depressed

When I picked up a copy of Peter D. Kramer’s Listening to Prozac, depression was the last thing on my mind. The reviews focused on the sexier ethical and societal implications of changing one’s true personality through drug use.

I was working in advertising and writing plays at the time. Writing a Pygmalion-like social satire about a designer drug that could create a six- or seven-figure income personality seemed worthwhile.

A peculiar side-effect of reading the book was my first exposure to depression screening questions. I had always chalked up my moods and variable stamina to artistic temperament and allergies. Here, I learned that my collection of lifelong symptoms went by another name: clinical depression.

Prozac wasn’t the answer. But before picking up a book about the history of depression and its treatment, it never occurred to me that there was a question.

How Reading These Books Can Help

The novels, memoirs, and non-fiction works below helped The Hilarious World of Depression listeners (affectionately known as THWoD-balls) practice self love and get serious about treatment. They also offered hope, helped readers process their childhood, teenage years, motherhood, understand what loved ones with depression were going through, and gave them language to describe their experience.

Ten Minute Exercise

The podcast episode “Jenny Lawson and Books That Get Depression Right” runs 35 minutes, and includes the names and locations of the listeners (which I won’t attempt here due to the hazards of phonetic misspelling). I categorized and condensed their recommendations for an episode summary that can be read in less than ten minutes. 

1. Use these thumbnail recommendations to find a book that speaks to your situation or that of a loved one.

2. Put a hold on that book at your local library or order a copy if you prefer to own books.

3. See if the book offers any helpful ideas or insights.

Spoiler Alert: I’m going with The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb 

Anxious Childhood

Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life by Amanda Stern and First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety by Sarah Wilson

“Both of these books talk about the authors’ experiences as highly anxious children, and reading them helped me connect events from my childhood to my anxiety, rather than how it felt and how I viewed it for so many years, which is that I wasn’t brave enough, or strong enough, or capable enough, or whatever it is that I wasn’t ______ enough to go through them on my own.” 

Struggles of Young Adulthood

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“One of the quotes from the book reads, ‘So this is my life, and I want you to know that I’m both happy and sad, and I’m still trying to figure out how that can be.'”

What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen by Kate Fagan

“Fagan’s book can help us talk more realistically about the pressures that affect an eighteen-year-old’s mental health, and maybe help concerned adults spot problems sooner.”

Empty by K. M. Walton

“The book really portrays a young adult’s mind going through multiple things. Dell the main character has to deal with anxiety, depression, an abusive mother, bullying at school, suicidal thoughts, and her constant battle with her body weight and image.”

Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America by Elizabeth Wurtzel

“I read it first when I was in high school and my sister was experiencing depression, and I wanted to try to understand what she was going through… A few years later, I started experiencing depression, and I went back to Prozac Nation. And as I re-read it, I kept thinking, how does she know what’s going on in my mind?” 

Motherhood Blues

She Got Up Off the Couch: And Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel

“I love that it addresses a huge misconception about depression, which is that depression equals a bad parent whose children grow up to ultimately resent them. This book shows a child who grows up to adore their parent and to write a book about their happy and perfect childhood, and how proud they are of their parent.”

Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple

“As a new mom it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or like the life that you thought it was going to be isn’t exactly what you turned out to have, and that desperation to get it back can lead to some pretty severe depression.”

Case Histories and Science

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison

“Most of this book is an academic study of suicide from cultural, neurological, and other perspectives, but what made it resonate with me was Jamison’s inclusion of personal narratives, including her own struggle with bipolar disorder and suicidality. On top of being an established academic, Jamison is a terrific writer, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading what she had to say.”

The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb 

“The recommendations suggested in the book are nothing you haven’t heard before, but it actually tells you how they work, which will most likely inspire you to persevere.”

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon

“One passage sticks out to me that I think about a lot. He talks to a woman who says, ‘You don’t think in depression that you’ve put on a gray veil and are seeing the world through the haze of a bad mood. You think that the veil has been taken away, the veil of happiness and that now you’re seeing truly.'” 

An Illustrated Favorite

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

“One of the first times when I felt so seen that I almost thought she had been living with me and had been documenting my life.”

Adventures in Depression and Depression Part Two Online

Biblical

The Bible (The Psalms of David)

“God called David a man after his own heart, which helped me to no end when I thought about the struggles that David faced, and the fact that God still loved and cherished him, and saw him, and accepted him as flawed, and still the man that David was supposed to be. And perhaps that God in his wisdom and love and struggles looking at his own creation might go through the same.”

Finding the Right Words

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

“Something about this book nails exactly what it’s like to live with these unwelcome little guests of anxiety and depression in your mind day to day. If I wasn’t nodding in agreement along with the way that Matt explains things, I was grabbing a highlighter to mark them because he explained them in a way that I had never thought of.”

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

“Intended as a kind of antidote to modern life and the way that that can contribute to making us all unhappy.”

“Depression isn’t funny, but we are. Jenny reminds us that humor can be found in difficult times… Finding real talk like hers helps to empower self love and strengthens us to stand up for folks with brain illnesses… We find common ground in her writings, and that creates dialogue. Jenny Lawson brings the monsters out from under our beds.”

“You do a good job of rinsing your sorrow out with joy.”

Welcome to My Planet by Shannon Olson

“She totally nails how there doesn’t have to be anything exactly wrong in order to suffer from depression. The main character, also called Shannon, has decent people in her life, good things around her, but those people and those things can’t fix everything.”

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron

“One thing that resonated with me was Styron’s complaint about the word depression to describe depression… ‘Brainstorm… has unfortunately been preempted to describe intellectual inspiration, but something along these lines is needed. Told that someone’s mood disorder has evolved into a storm, a veritable howling tempest in the brain, which is indeed what a clinical depression resembles like nothing else, even the uninformed layman might display sympathy rather than the standard reaction.'”

Stumbling Toward Post Traumatic Growth

I often run into the phrase Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But, I hadn’t heard of its flipside, Post Traumatic Growth, until I stumbled into experiencing it myself!

Growth
The Adversity of Breaking Up

A close colleague recently met with me to sever our relationship.

It wasn’t out of the blue. It came after a flurry of emotionally charged emails that I did my best (unsuccessfully) to answer.

I accepted their decision without any animosity. Although the reasons were legitimate, we’d known each other for a few years, and we’d been friends, so the separation still stung.

Body Trouble

I’m used to letting people go. Co-workers I’ve befriended leave for other jobs, neighbors move to other cities, people join and leave groups I belong to. I’ve left jobs, neighborhoods, and groups, too.

A few hours after our parting, I was with my partner enjoying a screening of The Haunting, a favorite slow-burn supernatural thriller that I’ve loved since childhood. I was mostly absorbed in the movie. But, that enjoyment was occasionally hijacked by distress signals my body demanded I address.

Apparently, I hadn’t fully processed the event. It had lodged in my body as a wound. A fancy Greek word for wound is trauma.

The Lessons of Trauma

Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, explains how, if we’re not careful, what we learn from trauma can negatively impact all aspects of our life.

When people feel helpless in one area of life, they not only give up in that one area; they often “overlearn” the lesson and apply it to other situations. They become convinced that one dead-end path must be proof that all possible paths are dead ends. A setback at work might lead to despondency about one’s relationship, or a rift with a friend might discourage us from trying to form bonds with our colleagues, and so on.

Post Traumatic Growth

Fortunately, the same book introduced me to the term Post Traumatic Growth, a phenomenon that Richard Tedeschi and his colleagues at UNC Charlotte have been studying for a couple of decades. What kind of growth comes from a brush with adversity?

Mr. Achor writes:

Increases in spirituality, compassion for others, openness, and even, eventually, overall life satisfaction. After trauma, people also report enhanced personal strength and self-confidence, as well as a heightened appreciation for, and a greater intimacy in, their social relationships.

ABCDs of Growth

To help us stack the deck for growth, Mr. Achor discusses the ABCD approach. It stands for:

Adversity.

Belief.

Consequences.

Disputation.

The acronym might have been new to me, but the wisdom behind it, is older than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Adversity

The adversity part in this model is an event that we cannot change.

My colleague’s decision to discontinue our relationship would be an example.

There’s a certain subjectivity even to labeling an event as adverse, so it might be useful to think of it as an event that we experience as a wound.

Belief

According to Mr. Achor:

Belief is our reaction to the event; why we thought it happened and what we think it means for the future. Is it a problem that is only temporary and local in nature or do we think it is permanent and pervasive? Are there ready solutions, or do we think it is unsolvable?

While I had to accept my colleague’s decision, I had the presence of mind to ask for their reasons. This allowed me to evaluate a specific set of opinions instead of imagining everything that I might have said or done wrong. The latter would have been more likely to send me on a downward spiral.

Consequences

Because of the explanation, and the legitimate differences of opinion it revealed, I didn’t believe the problem was permanent or pervasive.

I apologized for the emotional pain I had contributed to, but because it hadn’t been intentional I wasn’t wracked with extreme guilt or self loathing.

I found myself in the weird position of cognitive and emotional self-acceptance accompanied by a bodily experience of a major depressive episode!

Because I hadn’t learned helplessness, I knew enough to add additional social events to my calendar to replace the ones I would be giving up. That was the logical thing to do. But, I also had to heal my wounded body.

Disputation

Mr. Achor writes:

Disputation involves first telling ourselves that our belief is just that—a belief, not fact—and then challenging (or disputing) it.

In a training session I’d done with a professional cuddler, we had discussed how the naturally calming effects of oxytocin might make a cuddle session the ideal setting for processing a traumatic experience.

How we remember events is malleable. So, taking a troubling memory out for an airing in an environment of calm, acceptance, and trust (all side effects of oxytocin) might significantly change the future feeling tone associated with that memory.

Scheduling conflicts prevented me from booking a session with that cuddler before I had the opportunity to attend a group cuddle session (where my body’s panicky “beliefs” could be calmed). I immediately followed that by conversing with someone familiar with the relationship dynamics between me and my colleague.

My body calmed, and reassurance by a third party that I had made mistakes, but not out of maliciousness, helped calm my mind.

Unintentional Alignment

In retrospect, it’s surprising how my experience aligns with the kind of growth that Shawn Achor described in his book.

The trauma strengthened my confidence in my mindfulness practice, which some people consider spiritual. I had greater compassion for my colleague, recognizing that it must have been hard on them, too. I took the opportunity to be more open than I usually am, which helped me move a couple acquaintanceships toward friendships. I added social events to my calendar to replace the ones that I would no longer be attending, and began building relationships with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

In terms of lessons learned, I recognized that because writing and editing sharpens my critical sense, it’s sometimes challenging to turn off my fault-finding habit in areas where it doesn’t serve me. My being less critical may prevent others from deciding to sever relations in the future.

Ten Minute Exercise

Though we can’t heal wounds in ten minutes, we can practice disputing beliefs that can lead to learned helplessness.

1. Set a timer for two minutes. Write down beliefs about an adverse event in your life that have not led to personal growth.

2. Set a timer for six minutes. Write a disputation of one belief.

Ask questions like:

  • What is the evidence for this belief?
  • Does the evidence support only one conclusion?
  • How might a skilled defense attorney argue for another interpretation of events more favorable to their client?
  • Would we let a close friend or loved one get away with this reasoning?

3. Set a timer for two minutes. Check to see whether a disputed belief might lead to:

  • Increases in spirituality
  • Compassion for others.
  • Openness.
  • Enhanced personal strength.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Improved social relationships.

Additional options. Though it takes more than ten minutes, The Work of Byron Katie discussed in “One Belief at a Time” offers a very helpful framework for disputation. The One-Belief-at-a-Time and Judge Your Neighbor worksheets are available here under downloads.