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.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.