How To Have Easy Conversations With Conservative People

Joshua Ness Converstation FB blog
Photo: Joshua Ness

There is rancor in America and elsewhere. No time more than today is communication proficiency, self control, presence of mind and command of intention needed.

Also needed: compassion, honesty, openness and vulnerability.

As a progressive, if you’re expecting conservatives bring these, satisfaction is not in your future. Conservatives are scared and for good reason.

When a human being is scared, they do and say irrational things. Scared people try controlling environmental factors by any means necessary. If they’re scared enough, they’ll get violent.

These acts are typical for any human. Not only conservatives.  Progressives verge on similar insecurity-fueled irrationality. The Anti-facists are a great example.

But progressives have no basis for their fear. They are winning.

Conservatives have a LOT of basis for their fear. A biological basis, as we pointed out here. The future – our collective future – offers lots too. It threatens everything they hold dear.

We therefore offer this guide to progressives. Progressives are best positioned to make history. Not by changing conservative minds. But by changing how they approach conservatives.

This guide presents a path forward. Life-changing,  gratifying conversations with conservatives are possible. Conversations that can change opinions are too. These are sorely needed, but they’re not happening today’s social discourse. Not enough anyway.

This opinion-changing must happen on an individual-by-individual basis. Influence on such an insignificant level can change nations.

It’s amazing what happens when a person feels heard. It’s also amazing we get so many positive responses from conservatives, such as this one:

“Thank you for your kind thoughts. It is refreshing to connect with someone with whom I can discuss some of the challenges confronting our society without the rancor too often associated with such discussions. We do have our differences…”

Progressives don’t need to change the world. They need to change their approach.

So what follows describes practical, sure-fire approaches. They will work.

However, you must practice them. Becoming genuinely proficient with them will transform your experience. Not only with your conservative fellow Americans, but anyone you disagree with.

But….and it’s a big one: if you’re not genuine in your desire to form real human bonds with a fellow human being; a human being you right now may consider your existential enemy, you will not get far. Your desire to connect with this other human must be sincere. These are not debating tactics.

 

Your Ground Rules

Before offering the approaches let’s set your ground rules. Your rules of engagement. Not engagement with the prospective conservative. We’ll talk about that later.

These rules of engagement are for how you will engage your humanity and your brain in service of your cause. Which is to connect meaningfully with a human you may currently consider your enemy and, through that connection, have an inspiring positive experience via conversation.

So here are your ground rules:

  1. You will not allow words to trigger your well-honed sensitivity to offense. Words are just that. Words. You are not under threat. Even if a threat is offered, they are words. A real threat is immanent behavior likely resulting in serious personal injury. Not someone’s lips moving. Maintain your calm no matter what is said. Better yet, replace your sensitivity to offense with a healthy sense humor. 
  2. Your goal is connection. Not winning. You are not trying to persuade a conservative to become progressive. Conservatives serve a beneficial purpose within humanity. Your goal is connection. So you can fulfill your primary and secondary intents and commitments, outlined below.
  3. Your primary intent/commitment is: understanding. You must be clear and rigid in your desire to hear, understand and inquire further into what the conservative believes.
  4. Your secondary (but no less important) intent:  finding commonalities between you and your conservative conversation partner.

Follow these ground rules while applying approaches described here. You’ll be stunned as you discover how human conservatives are. Your mind will expand and you’ll understand where conservatives are coming from.

You may even become genuinely compassionate towards conservatives. Rather than claiming to be compassionate while hating conservatives. Hate, annoyance, extreme frustration are not compassion. That’s hypocrisy. If you’re progressive.

 

Distinguishing The Context

Now let’s talk about context. To do so we’ll distinguishing two labels which describe communication between two people. People often confuse one for the other. Doing so, they get in trouble.

You want a conversation with the conservative. The word “conversation” may mean to you the same thing as “discussion”, the other word we’re going to clarify. But these words are NOT the same. They describe two totally different intents, processes, outcomes, contexts and feelings.

One aligns with your intent (presuming you’re wanting connection). The other does not.

 

You want conversation

“Conversation” is a talk, usually an informal one, between two or more people exchanging ideas. You know this. But you may not know the word’s origin. Words’ origins carry their meaning so much better sometimes than their definition. So let’s look at the origin of “conversation”. Here it is:

Screen Shot 2019-03-26 at 05.59.51 AM

Interesting, eh? A conversation then, is something that ends with you having a feeling of “living among, or having intimate familiarity,” with the person with whom you have conversed. This is what you want.  You want a conversation. Not a discussion.

 

Not a discussion

Let’s contrast conversation now with “discussion”. A discussion is “the action or process of talking about something in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas.”

That sounds laudable. It’s not though.

Not in the context of making a connection with, and understanding another human being.

Discussions don’t breed familiarity. In discussions, you’re just throwing back and forth opinions. Discussions get you nowhere if you’re trying to connect.

But wait, there’s more.

People don’t generally understand what “discussion” connotes. Probably because, like “converstation”, they don’t understand the word’s origin. Here is the origin of the word “discussion”, the noun and verb so you get a clear picture.

Screen Shot 2019-03-26 at 06.04.50 AM

Screen Shot 2019-03-26 at 06.05.02 AM

So the intent of “discussions” is not to gain familiarity and a sense of living among the person you are speaking with. No. Its intent is “to examine by argument, to tear apart, shake or dash to pieces.”

Does that sound like the basis of connection?

We don’t think so either.

· · ·

Progressives and conservatives are not trying to connect. They are tearing each other apart. And the country along with them.

They are discussing. Not conversing.

If you want a groundbreaking interaction with a conservative, you’re going to have to move out of discussion mode and into conversation mode.

Ok?

 

The Right Way To Approach Conservatives

So here are the approaches. They only work if you stridently refuse to be baited. Strive instead for connection and understanding (your ground rules).

If you can’t stick to the ground rules, it’s best you first practice with someone who can role play a conservative until you get the hang of it.

The approach:

  1. Ask more questions than sharing your opinion.
  2. Express over and over your sincere desire to understand their point of view, not to exert yours, until they relent, i.e. realize you really do want to understand them.
  3. Beseech your conservative to stick to answering your questions. If they avoid or refuse to answer your questions, keep (politely) redirecting the conversation back to your questions, or express vulnerability (we’ll offer an example in a moment) that may trigger them reciprocating.
  4. When the conservative answers your question, offer sincere praise and appreciation. It is not standard practice for someone who is fearful and feeling defensive to answer a question, particularly one that demands they be vulnerable. Especially a question asked by someone the responder believes is the enemy of their values. So reward them for taking a risk.
  5. When the person answers your question, and you have praised them, ask more questions. Offer limited information you may want to share. Instead, listen to the person’s answers.
  6. When they answer, take in what they say. Chew on it, prepare a relevant response. Then offer the response in the form of a question or a polite rebuttal supported with examples.
  7. If they ask a question, answer it. If you don’t have an answer, say so. Risk looking stupid. And if they call you stupid or a loser or whatever, remember ground rule number one.
  8. Repeat these steps.

We’re not offering this in a vacuum. It has worked for Perry several times now to remarkable results. Not every time, but often enough to recommend them. We’re offering one complete example that happened on facebook. We’re offering this example because of the documented evidence. Anyone can look at it to see what happened.

Despite Perry misstepping in several moments, the conversation went quite well. Here’s an overview of it:

Perry offered the following Meme on his wall.

meme blog

It’s inaccurate (which the conservative responders pointed out). But the purpose of sharing it was for conversation. Conversation did happen. It ended with the following statement. This from a conservative who at first expressed himself aggressively:

I enjoyed reading your post. We do have more in common it seems….I wish you much success in your endeavors!

This is where you want to end up. It won’t happen every time, but if you practice, you’ll get better at it. Perry screwed up in this facebook exchange a couple times. But he still ended with positive results in line with the above ground rules, objectives/intents.

So we know if you sincerely use these approaches, you’ll find yourself in a new reality. One where conservatives turn out to be human.

Just like you.

 

Don’t Get Triggered

loser comment from Twitter
A conservative defending her life-decisions, then name calling Perry in a tweet.

People who believe conservatively have been trained to be tough. They live in a brutish world where it’s dog eat dog, and survival of the fittest.

Their manner of interaction feels like discussion. Confrontational, gruff, belligerent. Not conversational. At first.

So be prepared for rebuffs, snide accusations, and direct insults. It will sound like you’re talking to Alex Jones, Donald Trump or Rush Limbaugh instead of the person you’re talking with.

After all, for many conservatives, these people are their heroes. So of course they will pattern their discussion style on those peoples’ styles.

Intelligent conservatives, taking a cue from many conservative activist organizational playbooks, such as the college campus-focused Turning Point USA, will try to bait you into losing your control.

Don’t take the bait.

 

Compassion Wins. Always.

Self control is your best friend. Again, if you suck at self control, your best fallback is your leftie compassion.

But if “compassion” is just a word for you, or worse, something you believe you “can’t afford in these times”, which is actually something a progressive told Perry recently, then you’ve already lost.

There is always room for compassion. The best, most effective progressives – Jesus, Ghandi, MLK, Harvey Milk –  have demonstrated this time and time again.

You must contain your disgust. You must respond with vulnerability. Even in the face of their disgust of you (and what they presume you believe).

For example, when Perry clarified errors a conservative made in interpreting Perry’s previous comment, the person offered the following:

I’d like to continue proving my points but you don’t seem too receptive to the logic I’m providing. Your idea of what a necessity is leaves me wondering how much of a privileged life you must have and probably still do live. Many people survive without an education and many walk to jobs or bike. Many live healthy lives without doctors and hospitals. It’s a shame that you don’t seem to have facts to support your assertions, or did I miss them somewhere in your previous posts? Again I appreciate your ‘opinion’ and respectfully disagree with most if not all of them. Assertions without facts to support them lead me to believe that all of your points are opinion based.

In response, Perry could have been triggered as a person of color, being accused of enjoying privilege. Instead, Perry offered vulnerability. How? By acknowledging his privilege:

So now let’s talk about my privilege, which is a funny thing to bring up IMO. But as I said, I’m more than happy to chat about whatever you bring up.

I am privileged. I live in a great country. It has ALWAYS been great. It also can be improved. I live in the west. I live in a democratic society. I get to live pretty much wherever my finances make it possible to live. I have a wife who loves me, pets who adore me. I enjoy the sunshine, the beautiful state of Oregon and all it has to offer. I enjoy clean air, a healthy body and mind. I enjoy clean delicious food my wife makes for me or I make. I enjoy an adventurous life, where I get to spend my time doing pretty much whatever floats my boat. My life is getting better and better as is my prosperity. I realize my eternal nature and from that I know anything is possible.

I’m also male. I’m a “black” male. I came into the world with the perfect timing such that I can enjoy both these in relative security and comfort (compared to other times). I’m also non-binary. I’m free of constraints of being “straight” (thank god!). I have the fluidity of thought to see the world from multiple perspectives, and not just human ones. I have the privilege to have time to think about life – ordinary day-to-day life, but also extraordinary aspects of life, such as what happens after death and how all that happens after death (and before birth) shapes what happens between birth and death. I have found those answers. From those answers, I know things a LOT of people don’t know. So yeah, I’m privileged. But no more than anyone can be. I can pretty much do right now, whatever floats my boats.

It just so happens, what floats my boats is creating a world where EVERYONE has the opportunity to do whatever THEY want to float THEIR boats….

You can’t be vulnerable if you’re triggered. You can’t offer cogent thoughtful replies either when you’re triggered. When you get triggered, you offer fodder confirming conservative beliefs about you and other progressives (liberals). Don’t be this guy:

Offer Food For Thought

Once you have earned their attention by thoughtfully, calmly and constructively listening to, and then expressing understanding, only then should you offer “food for thought”.

Food for thought is not telling them they are wrong. This isn’t about right and wrong. Your food for thought should be an attempt to surface their human connection to other humans…even ones they believe aren’t worthy of that connection.

So for example, when a conservative says people who don’t work are parasites and deserve to starve, you must figure out a way to show how a person can do whatever he wants (even not work, for example) but shouldn’t have to starve. Or worse, work a job but not afford healthcare.

If you can’t do that, you have no basis for making such a claim. And a conservative will tell you.

Some conservatives (many people actually) view people negatively. Conservatives particularly believe people are lazy good-for-nuthins. People must earn their living by doing productive work, they believe. These beliefs aren’t factual. They’re conditioned or taught, which is exactly what a conservative told Perry recently:

…Maybe it’s because i’ve been conditioned to believe a certain way or possibly my life experience has taught me to be cautious….

A good way to chart unknown territory with a conservative: appeal to their well-known territory (for the conservative). That is, talk about liberty. But not the way conservatives talk about it.

Liberty as you may know, is a major conservative talking point. But the kind of liberty (aka “freedom”) conservatives believe in is a kind of pseudo-freedom. It’s not really freedom as it is based on coercion: As far as conservatives believe, your freedom doesn’t extend to being a lazy parasite on society. Another way of putting that is: your freedom shouldn’t cost me or anyone else. So pull your own weight.

The response to this point is: “you’re right. And in the 21st Century no one’s freedom should cost anyone anything. This is the future. Everything is possible.”

· · ·

Perry likes offering this tasty morsel, which creates amazing moments that, at first, stupefies conservatives. But then leads to remarkable, real, conversations.

It begins with Perry’s definition of real freedom:

“A person who is really free can do nothing if that’s what they want to do. A person who wants to spend all their time learning to paint, play video games all day, or fish or whatever, can. And they can do those things (or anything else) without going hungry, living on the street, or getting care for their body (or mind) if necessary. If they’re free that is. They can also get all the education they need or want to learn or improve any skill while doing whatever they want without having to earn money to get those things. And…the person exercising their freedom can do so without anyone else having to do anything they don’t want to do to support that person.”

A definition like that will short circuit most people’s brains (conservative and progressive) namely because most people can’t figure out how this kind of freedom is possible. Perry explains how this is possible. Then shows how the world is careening towards exactly that outcome for everyone.

Your food for thought, therefore, must halt a conservative’s talking points in its tracks. It must get them genuinely thinking. Not spouting conservative boilerplate.

Another example: Perry was at a Starbucks recently. There he happened to sit in a nest of conservatives. That wasn’t his intent. It just happened.

One of the conservative’s asked “what do you do for a living?”

“I don’t do anything for a living,” Perry said.  “I don’t believe my living requires me to do anything.”

This conservative’s friend, Mary, piped in.

“So you’re a socialist,” She said.

“No. I’m not,” Perry said.

“Then what are you?” Mary asked.

Knowing Mary was likely a conservative, and therefore Christian (which she was) Perry said “I am what Jesus is.”

That derailed Mary’s train of thought. Now Mary had to ask a question likely not included in her talking points:

“What do you mean?” She asked.

“I am that I am,” Perry said.

The conversation turned to Christianity. Perry is not Christian, but he is well-versed on fundamental accuracies upon which Christianity’s distortions are based.

So he was able to form a connection with Mary through her religious beliefs. Then he turned the conversation towards Christian compassion. He was about to ask Mary if her compassion extends to immigrants and if not why not.

But Mary ran out of time (she had to catch a plane).

Still, you can see, by not getting baited into a debate about “socialism” and name calling, and instead connecting with something Mary held dear (her Christian beliefs), Perry found room in between Mary’s boilerplate about people who she prejudges as “socialists”.

You can do this too.

And not only will the conversations you have stun you in their originality, you’ll learn that underneath all that lashing out, anger and conservative closed-mindedness is a human being wanting to be understood and connected with.

That is the short answer to this entire approach. Giving conservatives what they want, so their minds open.

· · ·

If progressives really want the world they want, they must find a way to give conservatives what they want.

Until you know what that is, you can’t give it to them. And you can’t know unless you understand them. And, you can’t understand them unless you’re willing to talk with them.

And finally, if your approach is based on not understanding justified conservative fear that they’re losing everything, and that’s why they are lashing out, you’re going to have a hard time having a conversation with them.

Rancor in America and elsewhere can be mended. But you can’t expect conservatives to make the first step.

Someone has to though. That someone can be you. And this guide can help.

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