Improving Your Political Experience (or: My Thoughts on the First 2016 Presidential Debate)

During and after the first presidential debate on Monday, I was keeping an eye on my Facebook feed to see what folks were talking about. While many people expressed disappointment with the debate overall, what I saw of my friends’ and acquaintances’ reactions was as frustrating to me as the debate itself. And that’s saying something.

With this post, I’m not going to talk about policies or positions or beliefs. I’m not going to talk about candidates or parties. I’m not going to talk about fact checking or point-counterpoint or who “won” the debate. I’m going to talk about how we the people engage in our political discourse. And, spoiler alert, I’m going to claim that the reason we get crappy politicians is that we the people are really crappy at approaching this important subject in a decent and appropriate way.

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To lay a little groundwork, I want to recall one of the most celebrated and longstanding works of the 20th century, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I am strongly of the opinion that this should be required reading for kids, but in lieu of having the level of influence to make that happen, all I can do is proselytize for it in my own space. You can view a high-level synopsis here, read a PDF of the entire thing here, or purchase your own copy on Amazon here.

Within a highly personal and emotional topical framework like politics, we can tend to revert to less effective ways of communicating with each other – ways that, rather than helping build our case and contributing to constructive discourse, serve only to further divide, polarize, and entrench not only ourselves, but those with whom we disagree.

So, while I can’t change the candidates we have now, what I can hope to change is how we all approach the subject. If we keep these timeless principles in mind, we’ll be more productive when we find ourselves in these vital types of debate, and maybe, over the long term, help make the entire process more fruitful and engaging for everyone.

To do this, I want to ask everyone reading this a few things. I’ve added some extra thoughts under each, but I think we could gain a lot if we did nothing else besides honestly asking ourselves a handful of introspective questions.


Question 1: If you already had your vote decided, why did you watch the debate?

After the debate concluded, the steady trickle of updates turned into a deluge of conclusive thoughts and comments. The number one, most immediately obvious thing I noticed as I read through people’s posts was this: not a single person changed their mind at all. People who have been posting for one candidate continued to do so. If you liked Candidate A going in, you thought they won and that Candidate B looked like a fool. You thought your choice made good points and the other choice was wrong or flat-out lying.

This is a complete departure from reality. Both candidates on the stage dodged questions. Both candidates said things that contradict positions they’ve previously held or statements they’ve previously made. Both candidates had valid points and witty remarks. I would guess that no one would agree 100% with either candidate if you presented every argument or statement so that you couldn’t identify who made it. Moreover, the candidates have changed their positions so many times over the years that on another day or in another year, they could be running for the opposing party. Some of that is expected with growth and cultural tides, and some of it is quite shocking and represents a philosophical reversal. Both sides. Your candidate is not immune.

What did we gain by watching the debate? Celebrating the inevitable victory of our candidate and the simultaneous evisceration of our “enemy”? Most people expressed frustration, if not regarding the debate as a whole, regarding the disgusting “other” candidate who is absolutely unconscionable to vote for (funny that half say the same about A as the other half say about B). I’m convinced from what I’ve seen that we would vote the Devil himself into office. After all, “At least he’s not ________!”

Look, if you expect to gain something from watching the debate – clarity on a candidate’s viewpoints or policy proposals, a decision on who to vote for, greater understanding of a topic you lack knowledge in – then by all means, that’s what it’s there for. It’s not a competition, and if it is, it’s the worst competition ever. If you wanted to cheer for something fleeting and irrelevant, you’d have been better off watching the football game. At least at the end you would have a score to determine who won instead of just saying that your team won and fans of the other team saying they did.

The point is, we’re not open. We perceive everything the other candidate says as poison because of who’s saying it. We rarely assess, objectively, the strengths and truths of the opposing candidate and the weaknesses and lies of ours (and regardless of who you like, there are plenty). It’s an insipid application of a common cognitive bias known as the Halo Effect (or Horns Effect for negative perceptions). We as individuals and as a country need to be aware of this and overcome it if we ever expect our political position to improve.

From Carnegie:

  • Win people to your way of thinking #8: Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
  • Win people to your way of thinking #9: Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.

Question 2: Have you ever been convinced to change your position through someone criticizing you? Have you ever changed someone’s position on an issue by being antagonistic?

Ostensibly, the reason we engage in political discussion is to solidify our positions and grow their adherents. We want more people to believe the same thing we do, because we value our opinions and beliefs. And that’s fine.

But let’s talk about effective communication. Name a time when you had a heated, emotional argument with someone, and one of the parties came out with a changed opinion. I’m going to venture to guess that you can’t. Once it becomes aggressive, we become defensive, and instead of thinking about the subject openly, we begin merely thinking of the merits of our existing position and the flaws of theirs. This is the root of entrenchment. This is the root of polarization. Often, when we think we’re doing ourselves a favor by shredding apart someone else’s position, all we’re doing is tearing up the bridge of influence that connects us with them.

Carnegie’s entire section on this is supremely quotable, but here’s a few of the best lines:

Nine times out of ten, an argument ends with each of the contestants more firmly convinced than ever that he is absolutely right. 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. Why? Well, suppose you triumph over the other man and shoot his argument full of holes and prove that he is non compos mentis. Then what? You will feel fine. But what about him? You have made him feel inferior. You have hurt his pride. He will resent your triumph. And – ‘A man convinced against his will Is of the same opinion still.’

As wise old Ben Franklin used to say: ‘If you argue and rankle and contradict, you may achieve a victory sometimes; but it will be an empty victory because you will never get your opponent’s good will.’ So figure it out for yourself. Which would you rather have, an academic, theatrical victory or a person’s good will? You can seldom have both.

Sound familiar? Wonder why American politics is worse than it’s ever been? The internet has allowed for global, seamless, supercharged communication. Unfortunately, the kind of communication it’s supercharging doesn’t seem to be working in this area. That’s not the fault of the medium, it’s the fault of the users. If we present ideas in reasonable and effective ways, we can have more influence than ever before. Or we can continue to draw deeper lines in the sand with our vitriol and bile.

  • Win people to your way of thinking #1: The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
  • Win people to your way of thinking #4: Begin in a friendly way.

Question 3: Has making fun of someone else ever exerted positive influence?

The memes. Seriously. Stop it. These are the epitome of ineffective communication (counter-effective, in fact).

If our political position can be represented by a cartoon, we’re not giving the subject the gravitas it deserves. More to the point, if we’re under the impression that people will be swayed from their positions by something flippant and mocking, we are so dead wrong.

This is one area where the design of websites and social media platforms actively works against us. Images and video are eye-catching when scrolling, and therefore tend to promote active viewing, which leads to better opportunities for engagement. And it’s reinforced when likes, shares, comments, retweets, etc., are used – consciously or not – as a barometer for the success of a post. It’s in Facebook’s best interests to prioritize things that encourage engagement with its platform, but we have got to stop expecting anything but polarization from applying this to important subjects across the spectrum.

Let’s think about our interactions with people throughout our lives. In moments where we felt we had the most influence, were we dismissive, glib, and insolent, or were we respectful, caring, involved, and open?

Has sarcasm ever worked? Has mockery ever worked? Has abrasiveness ever worked? Has reducing others’ opinions to nothing ever worked?

It’s amazing that we teach our children to not be bullies, but we turn into exactly that when politics comes up, and particularly online. It used to be limited to the anonymous comments sections, but increasingly, it’s leaking into regular channels. I’m appalled by the things that people now say online even when they’re not behind the veil of anonymity. And even if we don’t see the impact our posts have on others, we can silently lose influence and respect.

Making a coherent, impactful argument can take time, effort, and thought. But people are complex. Government is complex. If we want to be serious about improving our relationships and our country, we need to grant these areas a little more weight and caution.

From Carnegie:

  • Fundamental techniques in handling people #1: Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.
  • Win people to your way of thinking #2: Show respect for the other person’s opinions.

Question 4: Do you dismiss all voices that don’t agree with you?

One final criticism of the power of the internet and how it’s changed our political atmosphere: confirmation bias is, in my estimation, now the easiest and most dangerous cognitive bias in our country.

We can literally block any voices that don’t agree with us. We can hole up inside our own silo communities, populated exclusively with people who agree with us, and never have to hear anything else. After 4 years of this, an election will pop up, we’ll emerge from our caves, grunting our mottos and clubbing our enemies with memes and soundbites, then go back to intellectual hibernation until the next argument arises.

Let me be clear: removing toxic influences is a good thing. Removing differing opinions is not. Separating these takes practice, wisdom, and discernment.

If you don’t interact with anyone who disagrees with you, it’s in your best interest to make some new friends. We all need to grow, whether that’s by changing our beliefs or simply testing them in reasonable discourse against alternate viewpoints.

We need to listen to other people and seek to understand and integrate them, not defeat them. Two of the main suggestions from another fantastic book, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, are:

  • Habit #4: Think Win/Win
  • Habit #5: Seek First to Understand, then to be Understood

We need to remember that everybody wants the same things. We all need food, water, shelter, and clothing. We all need physical and emotional security. We all need love and belonging. We all need esteem and self-actualization. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs isn’t broken into “Republican” and “Democrat” or “liberal” and “conservative” categories. We may have different ideas on the structure and materials, but we’re all building the same pyramid of things we need to live a happy, fulfilled life.

Our country, our government, our technology, our medicine… all of these were born by creative destruction. We had to divorce ourselves from the status quo to progress and grow. We had to say that what exists – whether I’m vested in it or opposed to it – isn’t good enough. We can do better. Let’s create together.

There are certainly hills that we should be willing to die on. But if we’ve assigned that level of criticality to each and every one of our political positions, we’re far too closed off. We need to open the dialog back up. It starts with each individual, and it scales up to nations. That’s how it always has been, and always will be.


Tips for Improving

In addition to some hopefully thought-provoking questions, I wanted to include a few easy tips to improve both your influence and your interaction with political debate. None of us is perfect at this, so even if you already actively try to implement these, let them serve as a reminder now as we enter the most heated part of the election cycle.

Tip 1: Ask more questions. Make fewer statements.

Asking good questions is incredibly tough, but it has massive benefits. Sometimes, questions clarify a position and remove disagreement before an argument begins. Sometimes, questions turn up the reason for a belief, which can be compelling or at least contextualizing – you may still disagree, but you understand. And often, a good, critical question is more penetrating and powerful than making a bold statement.

  • How to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment #4: Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.

Tip 2: Pull the thread.

Find out why people – including yourself – believe the way they do. Can you build up your argument from universal axioms, or is it “Just the way it should be”? Often, even if you still disagree on the how we achieve our objectives, you can find common ground in what we’re trying to accomplish. It can often take the edge off, even if a disagreement remains. That’s not only mature, it’s healthy for our shared growth and progress.

  • Ways to make people like you #4: Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.
  • Win people to your way of thinking #6: Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.

Tip 3: Be Objective.

Don’t be dismissive of valid criticisms and counterpoints. Be open to saying, “What if this critique is valid?” and following that thought through. Most of us recognize that we’re not perfect, that we have growth potential. And yet, we often become so attached to an idea, belief, or political candidate that we become immune to facts that don’t support them. Be willing to be wrong. Poke at your beliefs from every angle. If it turns out you were right, you’ll still reap the rewards of having an impeccable defense for it – after all, if you thought of every way you could be wrong and overcame it, you’ll likely be able to defend against the best intrusions. And if you were wrong and you adjust your perspective, then you now have something that better resists criticism. You’ve made your beliefs better. That’s growth.

  • Win people to your way of thinking #3: If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.

Tip 4: Go deeper.

Stop flattening people out and judging them by one aspect – in this case, who they’re supporting. There are people I love and respect supporting and voting for each candidate. Saying someone is dumb because they’re voting for A is no better than saying they’re a bad person because of their skin color. Honestly, it’s dangerous to compress three dimensional people into 1D. Stop assigning simple identifiers and segmenting people off based on a handful of – or single – metric. It takes effort and time to see people for the rich, complex blend of upbringings and beliefs that they are, but it’s worth it, not only for the personal rewards, but in that it’s the only way to effectively exhibit influence.

  • Ways to make people like you #1: Become genuinely interested in other people.

This has been extremely long, but I wanted to put my thoughts out there, in what I hope is a positive and constructive manner. I hope you’ve found it useful and sensible, in an environment that is often fraught with frustration and anger. We can all improve in these ways if we remember that we’re not dealing with pixels online, but real people… each one of which is the main character in their own life story.

Here’s hoping that this can improve your interactions in politics and beyond.

Best wishes.