This post is a bit longer than usual. If you want, you can jump straight to the nine steps for talking about hot-button issues.
Quick show of hands: Who’s got that friend on Facebook who jumps into any conversation to yell about what a communist and/or libertarian you must be, to have said what you just posted?
There are a lot of hot button issues floating around. Most of them are tremendously important. Climate change and sustainability can be big ones; they’re the reason that this article appears on this blog. I’ll bet that you can come up with more than handful more.
We all know people who like to be divisive for divisiveness’ sake. Most of us have gotten pretty good at tuning them out.
But what about those times when you post something that you feel strongly about, and inadvertently start a 3.4 mile string of comments about how awful you are for saying that? Or how obviously wrong you are because of A), B) and C)?
Here’s the thing: Sometimes you get negative feedback for your ideas or opinions. And that’s OK. Sometimes it’s just the trolls. Sometimes it’s your family. And sometimes it’s close friends who are shocked that you think (insert your opinion about the hot button issue of your choice here.)
That’s going to happen.
But sometimes it’s a whole lot of them. Particularly with hot button issues, the reactions can be so clearly defensive that you know none of them are giving a second thought to whether there might be at least some bit of validity to what you said.
Let’s get one thing straight, right away:
There is a huge value to dissenting opinions. Sometimes, looking carefully at the opinion of someone who disagrees with you can help you to further clarify your own thoughts on the matter. Other times, you might find that your own thoughts have been at least partially flawed all along, and the other person’s opinion just might be something worth looking into.
So I’m a big fan of giving voice to unpopular or otherwise derided ideas, under two conditions:
1) You have to actually believe those ideas, and not just be stirring up trouble.
2) You have to have thought about and researched them enough to have data to back them up. This has to be more than just a story you saw from USA Today, the Huffington Post, or Fox News.
Remember the Semmelweis reflex?
A while back, I wrote about Ignaz Semmelweis. He’s the doctor from back in the day who first put forth the idea that the doctors who deliver babies should maaaaybe be washing their hands first–especially if the last thing they were doing was exploring the corpses in the morgue.
No one believed him. He was branded a crackpot, his career ruined.
It doesn’t always end that way.
More recently, we have the story of economist Gary Becker. For years he wrote about rational choice, a wildly unpopular view of human behavior as rational and predictable through standard economic principles. His peers laughed at him, and otherwise ignored him… right up until he won a Nobel Prize for work that, to this day, is still revealing new insights into human behavior.
These guys both had unpopular ideas, and voiced them anyway. Semmelweis ended up dying long before his ideas finally made their way into the mainstream. Becker, on the other hand, lived to see his research become one of the leading theories of economics and sociology and criminology and… the list goes on. He won a Nobel Prize, and only recently passed away after a long and successful life.
So, what’s the difference between Semmelweis and Becker?
They both spent time as the laughing-stock of their respective communities. Why did one end up world renowned, while the other remained ineffective until the day he died?
The times in which each man lived certainly played a role. But the most important distinction was how each man represented his ideas.
Don’t get me wrong, they both stirred up controversy. But one did it in a way that got him blacklisted, exiled, and nearly forgotten, while the other did it in a way that, when his peers stopped laughing, they started thinking “well… he might be right.”
Care to guess which was which?
It’s obvious, isn’t it?
And yet still, every day, I see people “making points” through attack. I read statements on social media that are clearly written to incite reaction, rather than understanding. And I get it! Sometimes I fall prey to the same practices, and react to these kinds of statements with sarcasm or defensiveness rather than compassion and reason.
Recently, a friend of mine posted an inflammatory statement on Facebook about something that, normally, I would agree with. But, because of how he said it, I had a hard time supporting him. Other people jumped in, and the comment thread became quite an argument.
Some people, including my friend, would say that he brought awareness to an issue that most people don’t want to talk about, and that any awareness of an issue is good.
I believe that he created a wider divide, and further prevented the kind of civil discourse that would actually bring change to these kinds of divisive issues.
That doesn’t mean that these issues shouldn’t be talked about. And that doesn’t mean that I expect these discussions to be all rainbows and butterflies. There will be anger. There will be defensiveness. There will be people who run to their respective “sides” to shout attacks back and forth across the ever expanding gap of “us” vs “them”.
And hopefully, the discussion will include someone who can bridge that gap, anyway. Because it is through understanding and compassion that cooperative, lasting change is born.
Nine steps for talking about hot button issues
I’m not talking about marketing here. We won’t be covering the tried and true
logical fallacies persuasion techniques like “The Bandwagon,” “The Appeal to Authority,” and all of the other manipulative methods of communication. I’m talking about what to say in a real conversation, whether face to face or online.
Use those techniques to gather an audience, if you want. But once you have an audience, here’s how to get them to think about what you’re saying, instead of how they’ll react to what you’re saying.
Step #1: Know your audience
Who is your message aimed at? Who is actually within earshot, or following you on social media? If you carefully craft a message for people who don’t agree with you, but you end up preaching to the choir, you’re not going to incite much change. Likewise, if you speak like you’re preaching to the choir, but there’s not a single friendly face in the crowd, then all you’re doing is giving your listeners ammunition for an ad hominem character attack.
Step #2: Swing for the fences… the fence-sitters, that is
In most controversial issues, there is a crowd who is strongly for the issue, and a crowd who is strongly against it. Let’s be honest: You’re not likely to change the opinions of anyone in either of those camps, at least with one statement. But there is a third group in any discussion. They’re the ones who don’t usually speak up. Why? Because they haven’t firmly decided one way or the other. Or they’ve decided, but only because someone they know told them to. If they’re at all on the fence about the issue, that’s the person who you might actually send home thinking differently than when they arrived.
Don’t underestimate the size or the power of the middle group. We don’t always notice them, since they don’t speak up much. But they are there, and generally, in much larger numbers than you’d think. And, if you can persuade any of them to understand your point of view, you’ve more than gained another vote in your favor. You’ve gained another messenger to help spread the word. And, if you get the messengers with the right connections, that’s how you end up speaking to the people who were firmly entrenched against you. Everyone listens more carefully when the speaker is someone they care about!
You know Uncle Jimbo, who’s so outspoken against your issue? Well, he’s married to Aunt Gertrude. And thought she may be quiet during these arguments, she’s the audience for your message. She’s the one who might decide you’re right. And she’s the one who might then get Jimbo to listen, too…. eventually.
Step #3: Understanding ceases as soon as defensiveness starts
This one is perfectly straightforward. Once you say or do something that raises the defenses of your audience, you’ve lost their ears. Instantly all thoughts switch to self-preservation, and while you’re making good points, they’re busy thinking about all the ways to fight back, instead of listening to what you have to say. And remember, Aunt Gertrude loves Uncle Jimbo. So if you attack him in any way, you’ve lost her ear, as well. And as we learned in rule #2, her ear is generally the one that matters.
Step #4: Make it about you, not them
How do you avoid raising defenses? Start by making what you’re saying about you, not other people, and especially not your audience or the people they care about. If you’re not sure how to do that, here’s an easy formula to get you started: “When people tell me that I’m _______ because of ___, I feel ___, because ____.”
Here’s an example, based on the same topic that my friend brought up:
“When people tell me that I’m heartless for not wanting kids, I feel frustrated that our culture has made it such a bad thing to want to be childless. I, quite honestly, wouldn’t make a very good parent. And I know a lot of people like me.
If we raise kids anyway, because of the social pressure, that’s not good for our lives. And it’s really not good for the kids who get raised that way.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have kids. I’m saying that it should be OK if you choose not to… and that I believe a surprising number of people would actually choose not to, if that were considered a better option, culturally.
(To be clear, I actually do have a desire to raise a child, and my wife and I are in the process of adopting. And I also believe that our culture places too much pressure to be parents on most people, and many of them really would choose not to, if they didn’t have that pressure placed on them.)
Step #5: Use data, but grab emotions
Data is always helpful in an argument, because there are a lot of people (myself included) who place a very strong value on hard data. And, even those who don’t, generally know to be wary when there’s no clear data to back up what you’re saying. That being said, most people don’t actually make final decisions on data. Instead, most decisions, whether to agree with something or to disagree, are most strongly influenced by emotions. And what better way is there to elicit emotions than a story.
So, write a clear, heartfelt story that grabs at the universal emotions… and be sure to include the data that backs it up, as part of the story.
Step #6: Write (or speak) like a sensible person, with just a tiny bit of an edge
This is important: None of these “rules” mean that you should “sugar coat” what you’re saying. Especially if it’s not being true to who you are; no one actually likes artificial sweetener. On the other hand, no one likes having anger and bile thrown at them–aside from the possible exception of certain BDSM practitioners and folks with Stockholm syndrome. So be genuine, and be reasonable. Then, throw in just a bit of an edge. It could be humor, excitement, or even appropriate anger. Anything that adds enough energy to keep people interested.
If you’re not “listenable,” then people won’t start listening. If you’re not energetic, then people will stop listening.
Step #7: Admit that you might be wrong
Or, that other people might not have the same results. I know, I know… It feels so wrong. Like you’re undermining your own point. But you’re not. By admitting the possibility that you’re wrong, you just opened the door to many more people to seriously consider what you’re saying, instead of instantly writing you off as “one of them.”
Even if all someone hears from what you’ve said is your acknowledgement that they might be right, then the next time they approach you, they’re more likely to listen to what you’re saying. And ever so slowly, they might come to understand your point of view.
So, use data, but don’t call it “cold hard facts.” Resist the urge to lead with “the data shows that you’re wrong.” Even if the data shows that they’re wrong. All that does is raise defenses. And someone whose defenses have been raised is not likely to hear another word you say.
Step #8: Acknowledge the worth of other people, and the importance of varied opinions
The fastest ways to raise someone’s defenses is to criticize who they are as a person. That’s why name calling isn’t debating, it’s picking a fight. And that’s completely useless if you want to be heard. There’s a place for fighting in the world. Changing hearts and minds isn’t one of them.
Respect the humanity of your audience. Let Uncle Jimbo know how impressed you are that he’s started a business from scratch. Acknowledge that there are things that he knows more about than you do. And acknowledge that varied believes are a form of diversity, and diversity brings strength and longevity to a system. Diversity means that when things change, the system can more quickly adapt and therefore survive.
And then let him know how things are changing, and why your point of view is as valuable an asset to the world in these new circumstances as his was to the old.
Beliefs always serve some purpose. Acknowledge that those with differing point of view are not crazy. That they are valuable members of society and their voices matter. After all, that’s why you’re trying to get them to hear you, right?
(If you’re just trying to be right, stop reading. This is a waste of your time. Being right isn’t the same as being heard and understood. Being “right” precludes the possibility of collaboratively moving forward. Being understood improves it.)
Step #9: Practice!
Pretty self-explanatory, right? And yet so often, we don’t do it. We don’t bother thinking through how we’ll explain our ideas until the moment we’re called to do so. And in that moment, under the pressure of time and the emotional response that often comes with discussing something important to us, we don’t act, we react. We get defensive, short-sighted, and we lose the ability to be heard.
If a topic is truly important to you, take some time to hash it out. Think through what you will say about it. Write it down. Then re-write it. Hone it carefully until it becomes a precision tool for effective communication, rather than a blunt object for getting attention.
It won’t be easy
If you’re voicing dissent, attacks will come. That’s OK. Just do your best to make sure that someone will hear you. Someone who doesn’t already agree with you.
“I never minded when people attacked me; I actually kind of liked it. You know what drove me crazy? When people ignored me. So as long as people are willing to spend the energy to attack you, you know you are doing something right.” -Gary Becker
What’s something that you feel strongly about, and that you’ve argued about, recently? How’d that discussion go? Did anyone walk away with a greater understanding of other points of view? Or was it a fight that only served to close the door on future progress? I’d love to hear about it! Tell us all about it in the comments section. Then, post something else that you could have said, instead, using the above steps.
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