A Considerate Conversation: On Purpose and Strategy

A Freakout

I had a minor freak out recently on Facebook (my personal page, not the StC page) about #YallQaeda and got a lot of pushback. A whole lot.

My first reaction was to argue and justify: I believed (and still believe) I had a good point to make about how some of our reactions to the Oregon occupation represent how we've been wedged more generally. Now was the time to make my stand! Everyone clinging to their tribal identity was just inches away from finally "getting it!"

(As an aside: no matter which side of that you're on, do you even know if they're in the building in Oregon anymore? How quickly did you forget your outrage?)

After about an hour of this, I panicked a bit: my own freak out looked a whole lot like the kinds of partisan freak outs I rail against ("not that it's the same thing!" I told myself), and "do as I say, not as I do" is really a terrible strategy for trying to convince others. That much, at least, I knew. So I did a whole lot of re-framing and getting "back to basics" by acknowledging our shared values (whereas I had started with hostility and even name-calling), and making clear my criticism was meant to help them become more convincing people. 

That crowd knows me well enough that everyone said, "okay okay cool."

Tough Feedback

After all this, feeling pretty good about myself for having recovered with my reputation more-or-less intact. I was, at least, wise enough to pick a fight on my personal page and not my official political writing outlet.

Then a wild Chris appeared. He was part of the roiling comment thread, and told me pretty bluntly that he had some messaging feedback for me.

Man, did it feel lousy to hear that. That's my job. Mine! Other people don't study this stuff like I do!

Chris' primary feedback for me was that I had started on the wrong foot with the crowd in two ways:

  1. I was holier-than-thou with extreme prejudice
  2. I started with where we disagreed... and only after much haranguing and griping did I lay the foundation of what values and beliefs we shared 

My resistance to this feedback was shattered. "Oh crap, that's exactly what I've been trying to teach other people to do!" After a brief sweep of horror (which quickly subsided), I realized that this was a pretty cool case in point: we tend to fail to get our points across when we start with conflict rather than agreement.

Coffee

Chris and I still didn't agree on messaging strategy, so he suggested we grab coffee (it's pretty great having so many readers in Boston). We sat down on Wednesday at Diesel, one of my favorites.

We ended up chatting about stuff from the Air Force (his former employer) to Watchmen to practical philosophy, but we also dug down into some of the meat of messaging strategy and had an opportunity to "duke it out."

I got to put aside some of my anxiety: what I was saying wouldn't be on the Internet for all to see and judge. So I did a lot of gesticulating and made some pretty controversial analogies between the fringes on either side of the spectrum to make my point about the need to go beyond trying to take down the opposition by passionately pointing out their flaws. I won't repeat them here.

I'm not quite sure whether Chris agrees with me yet (we both lack confidence that anyone has yet discovered the "silver bullet" of political persuasion) but I took away two things:

  1. The conversation reinforced (for me) the need to start with what we share: it builds a ton of credibility that we're coming from the same place and want the same thing--we just have some different backgrounds and beliefs and lenses about it. That makes everyone (myself included) more excited about listening.
  2. It is, of course, far easier to make your point in person, when you can both havea high-speed dialogue, and also engage the "monkey" part of the brain that's able to see the person across from you as human. 

Chris is also just a really cool guy to talk to. Also, he's now a volunteer. 

Conclusion

Ultimately, the message--whenever attempting political persuasion--must practice what it preaches. Especially if the message is about messaging.

So how do you get people excited--rather than resistant--about changing their messaging and mindset? How do you make that appeal to their values and their mission? How do you engage pathos and not just logos--the latter of which we know has limited utility on its own?

Something to consider.

Epilogue

This is a methodological problem we're actively trying to solve... but I suspect it's been solved before. In many fields, sales is a tightly-refined art form. But key to this is engaging that pathos, identifying or clarifying an emotional need to change something. 

Outrage and tribalism--which I think make us most prone to dump persuasion in favor of echo-chambers and shouting matches--have an incredibly powerful emotional and psychological effect. Simply telling people to stop with the logical argument that they will be more effective if they do... is insufficient, at best.

This is probably the biggest thing we're working on right now. If anyone wants to help, drop us a line: stc@somethingtoconsidermovement.com. 

Considerately,

Erik

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Erik Fogg

US political and cultural dialogue is broken, and we intend to change that. We're starting by giving you Something to Consider.