UPDATED October 5, 2013: If post about the next instance of this seminar is gonna refer everyone back here, I’m gonna make sure this post doesn’t bury the lede.
Last month, I had the pleasure of serving as a discussion facilitator for the Aspen, CO presentation of the Conservative Persuasion Bootcamp, hosted by John Andrews and the Centennial Institute and keynoted by none other than American Enterprise Institute founder and director Dr. Arthur C. Brooks. The Bootcamps are a series of seminars held around Colorado with the goal of helping Conservative Coloradans find respectful and persuasive ways to present their views in social situations without watering down their beliefs or inviting hostility with tone-deaf arguments.
I have nothing for respect for everyone I got to meet and especially for everyone who helped make this event possible. In this post I’m going to recap the principles of persuasive communication that we were taught, along with my own thoughts and observations as they relate to the current political landscape. These are effective techniques that can apply to any message and any movement. I trust you’ll use them for good.
(ADM note: I don’t think my political leanings come as much of a surprise at this point, but yes, I am a Conservative with social, fiscal, and foreign policy influences from several generations and wings of the Movement. But if you’re willing to read my thoughts, I’d like to think you can have some respect for my choice to pursue principles like equality of opportunity, limited government, and free enterprise. And you might even indulge my fixation on esoterica such as individual liberty and responsibility, respect for life, and freedom of religion.)
First we had a facilitator training prior to the event proper, which was led by Ms. Antonette DeLauro Smith. Her presentation was sourced in part from Dr. Susan Heitler’s research and was very intuitive once the new framework was accepted. Here are my take-aways:
- In a one on one conversation you are a leader for your cause, and you have no reinforcements coming. Conversations are not like other forms of communication by which we might convey our views, but they are likely the most common form of communication opportunity you will face (unless you’re a big deal, in which case I surmise you already know what you’re about to read). Moreover, each of these opportunities will be a lasting win or a loss for your cause in the minds of the people with whom you converse. It is very important, as soon as these everyday interventions appear, to ‘begin with the end in mind’.
- Affect and body language are key. Revolutionary, I know. But I will underscore the point if only because conservative advocates have been commonly accused of impersonality and hostility. So remember the fundamentals like eye contact, open body language, and active listening (which classically is a different animal entirely from waiting to have your turn to speak). Remember that the person with whom you are conversing is, in fact, a person and may even have some redeeming qualities to offset their transgressions, such as they are, against your beliefs. There is nothing to be gained in persuasion by ignoring a person’s feelings. The process of reaching that point of empathy was termed ‘Feel – Felt – Found’ and the understanding it is meant to create is a prerequisite for making these conversations count.
- Appeal to a common affective vision. Being in the weeds with policy usually just calcifies stubbornness if it isn’t prefaced thusly. It is necessary but not sufficient to (have the ability to) robustly articulate an alternative to flawed policy. The best ideas will not count for much without an appropriate acknowledgement of intent and endstate. Moreover, without getting on the same ethical and emotional page, the chance of leading your opposite number to a win-win outcome (a good goal for these conversations as it will engender more investigation of the issues and philosophies in question, which only favors you and your ‘better’ position, right?) are drastically curtailed. That’s one more reason that a word like ‘but’ is of no use; it pushes back where a construction like ‘yes, and’ repeatedly redirects feelings towards a baseline concern that can be separated from its less agreeable solutions.
- Positions come from values. This was my first time hearing of a new model for the spectrum of voter positions as researched by Ms. DeLauro Smith and building of the work of Dr. Susan Heitler. I think we can all agree that the left-right-center model has become obsolete for describing an increasingly chaotic and uncertain discourse where advocates of issues and positions generally attributed to one ‘side’ have
bastardizedhybridized their platforms with elements from their classical adversaries, for better or for worse (done by everyone from Theodore Roosevelt to Harry Truman to John Boehner, some better than others). So I was happy to learn a better way to explain policy to people who aren’t as cold as I sometimes sound. It has more parameters and better accommodates hybrid alignments. Here are the five pure types: (1) Fair & Care voters who don’t wish to be bothered with the inner workings of policy so long as the humanitarian outrages of our time (e.g. food insecurity, poor standards of education) persist; (2) Equal Outcomes voters best characterized as hardcore advocates for transfer payments who cannot see past economic inequalities structurally sustained in any capacity, regardless of overall prosperity; (3) Economy voters who are persuaded towards effective policy stewardship of the same no matter its origin; (4) Law & Order voters who have a strong sense of adhering to legal and systematic solutions to problems and do not appreciate cultural or political deviance from those laws and systems (e.g. the current administration’s difficulties with obeying and enforcing both the laws they inherited and some of the ones they themselves promulgated ); and (5) Higher Power voters whose positions on issues are subordinate to their moral convictions. The dominant type can be ascertained through a person’s response to issues likely to inflame each of the five types. These types underpin the true concerns of a person on a given issue. That makes understanding a person’s motivations key to interrogating their (disagreeable) policy at the outset and leading them towards one that is win-win. Repeated over enough issues, this process can alter a person’s entire worldview.
- Re-imagine discourse. My greatest impression of these proceedings was that I was mistaken to view the seeming repudiation of conservative values as a failure of other people’s intellect (no matter how personally satisfying or absolving of advocacy failure that thought may sometimes be). The reason we end up holding the bag while some other idea makes off with the bacon is, honestly, a failure of our own imaginations. I will slip briefly into a post-modern or ‘untethered rationalist’ mode of thinking, simply to offer that nothing can be of use that is not adopted and used by people. Who can forget the superior technical quality of Sega Dreamcast or American Motors? Everyone who has the luxury of forgetting, which is to say everyone save the industry insiders and unlucky stakeholders privy to those innovations. What this means is that a teleological commitment to your principles is a beautiful thing within your own mind, but teleological principles and $8.00 will buy you a cup of coffee. (Thanks, Starbucks!) It is anti-conservative and anti-integrity, not to mention lazy and risky, to believe that your argument will make itself or that your inherent rightness will carry the day. This dysfunction, and the disdain (however justified) that underpins it, may even be a greater enemy to persuasion and evangelism for your movement than the opposition that causes it.
After Ms. DeLauro Smith’s introductory presentation to the seminar proper, Dr. Brooks took over to deliver the keynote. And deliver he did. The effectiveness of his framework for a new conservative advocacy seemed to simply wash over us with no room for criticism that merely devolve into the denial of human nature. I’ve done my best to capture and unpack the themes of his presentation and our subsequent practical exercises (wherein the group facilitators role-played the liberal viewpoint to a number of current issues and encouraged the other participants to find affect- and persuasion-based strategies to respond to the ‘soft’ arguments). I greatly admire Dr. Brooks’ insight and I must impress the viability and power of bringing to bear all these tools in breadth and depth, especially when combined with intimate knowledge of technical policy and theory.
- We must begin by convincing ourselves. How would a conservative accurately convey the compassion and desire for prosperity and liberty that is on his heart if he has never considered the cries of his heart? It is not enough to understand the ‘right’ answers intellectually if your argument can simply be led into some edge-case ambush and bludgeoned to death under cries of ‘uncaring!’ and ‘out of touch!’ or the like. If you haven’t walked through and verified your moral and emotional certitude even in the most uncomfortable corners of applying your ideas, you will fall short of making your idea ‘morally magnetic’, and that idea will fall to someone who did a better job of imputing morality to theirs.
- It won’t work to sell products against someone who is selling a purpose. Too often conservative arguments have been pigeonholed into arguing against things (and people, depending who you ask) when the initiative to argue for people has already been lost. As social and heavily cognitive beings, humans are suggestible with regards to existential and missional motivations, and will display great determination in service of an ideal that taps into that capacity for suggestion. It isn’t that function follows form. It’s that What follows Why. A purpose-driven movement will compensate for many flaws in the nuts and bolts, at least as far as public opinion is concerned. That’s why popular history remembers FDR fondly and Coolidge not at all.
- There are very few moral values with universal appeal. The upshot is that arguments based on moral values outside of universal appeal will not be universally considered. To be exact, there are only two universal values (according to moral philosophy researcher Jonathan Haidt): (1) compassion for the less fortunate and (2) the importance of fairness between like people and circumstances. There is no monopoly of these values conferred to any side of a given argument. And to fail to make the case for your side without respect to these universal values is most inadvisable ‘moral messaging’. The 2012 elections will be considered a strong testament to that reality before long. Do not accept for advancement any message that does not tie to a universal moral appeal. In fact, any opinion held by a person desiring to be
seen asgood (regardless of the quality of that opinion) ought to be able to be couched in terms of bringing moral fulfillment and prosperity to pass, lest it require reevaluation either of the case or the advocate. In (popular) debate, do not accept any question or proposition that does not allow an answer by positive citation of explicit moral values (Dr. Brooks pointed out in particular that money is only amoral and instrumental, and this commentary on gun rights pointed out that a calculus of lives is to be avoided as well whenever possible). Never lack either for a beneficiary of the proposal or a victim to its alternative.
- Always be prepared to pivot back to a resolution based on morality, and move to the particulars of implementation and their proof only after the acceptance of the moral premise in which they are properly couched.
YourTHE truth is that Your views consider more stakeholders, more natural laws, and more people in need, than Theirs, and You won’t let Them ignore the creditors, whom You positively identify where They do not, to whom You and They alike owe the ‘moral debt’ of Our blessings. Don’t assume people will ascribe the correct policy to the correct purpose; show them.
- Oh, and you pretty much get 7 seconds to create a first impression of your values and ontology that will either make you or break you on these points.
Obviously, I would be remiss to discuss my experience without reproducing a few awesome quotes from Dr. Brooks:
Why are you answering the questions they ask?
Never doubt the power of your own story.
I knew that Ronald Reagan loved me…he consumed the oxygen [normally available for liberals’ moral arguments]
Just start with ‘I WANT TO HELP PEOPLE’.
Surely we’ve all figured out that it’s about more than mere defense of Policy in the Age of Endemic Sophistry. But it is just as critical to understand that we can no longer suffer the vicissitudes of leaving policy unwinnowed from politics. The great tragedy of the modern advance of the Left is that people’s capacity to dream is being lessened, far more than individual dreams failing to be realized. Even at its biggest, Big Government is far too small for all of our dreams. Policy brings dreams to life where politics just rouses the dreamer awake to demand of him in a reality they control. The difference lies in the engagement of human experience, and morality is the loom that spreads wide the dream-brocade of our civil society for its enrichment by the shuttle of our freedom, industry, culture, and finally, policy.