Connecting Across the Great Divide — Women’s Campaign Fund

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It’s that time of year again. Many of us will gather around the Thanksgiving table with relatives, some of whom likely have views that clash with our own. As much as we try at family events to steer clear of the “p” word, politics, it often finds its way into conversation — and usually with poor outcomes.

We know it’s close to impossible to sway someone with ironclad views. No matter how persuasive we think we’re being, people don’t change their perspective just because we want them to. Researchers tell us we avoid facts that challenge our core beliefs.

That said, three techniques can make for a more productive exchange when politics comes up in conversation. Let’s take a look.

As easy as A-B-C

One way to maintain civility in tense discussions is the A-B-C method: Affirm, Bridge, and Connect.

Since the early ’90s, the Boston-based organization Youth on Board (YOB) has empowered young people to make sure their voices are heard. In 2016, YOB, launched a technique for being more persuasive. It’s called A-B-C, which stands for Affirm, Bridge, Connect.

YOB offers a description of how this works in a conversation.

  1. Affirm something the other person said that you acknowledge as valid. For example, “I agree. Education was one of the most important issues in this election.” Even if you totally disagree with what they’re saying, any affirmation you can offer opens the door to trust. The person you’re talking with feels heard and respected.
  2. Bridge between your point of view and the other’s. Use words and phrases like “and,” “I also think,” and “the way I see it” rather than “but.” For example, “Education is a critical issue, and I also think the recent election raised some important questions about the role of parents in their children’s education.”
  3. Connect by communicating your perspective through a story, such as your own life experience. “When I was in school, my parents had just one thing to say about my education: ‘The teacher is always right.’”

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These techniques may not turn around another’s point of view. But they can turn down the volume in a tense family argument — and open the door to finding shared ground.

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Processing

A practice known as “active processing” is often used in door-to-door canvassing of voters. It’s about talking one-on-one with voters to build empathy for both parties. It can also be helpful in conversations with friends and family. One person solicits another’s view — without judgment — and asks open-ended follow-up questions about their personal experiences with the issue.

Based on the principle that people open up more readily when they’re invited to share their own story, active processing has been found to increase the likelihood of engaging with viewpoints other than your own. For example, a study published in the journal Science found this way of interacting reduced prejudice when talking about transgender legislation.

Reframing

A third way to bridge divides is called “moral reframing.” Stanford sociologist Rob Willer and University of Toronto social psychologist Matthew Feinberg published a key study on how this method improves political conversations about contentious issues. Basically, a position the other person would not typically support is talked about in a way that’s in line with that person’s moral values.

The authors note that when conservative policies are framed around the values of liberals, like equality, they are more likely to accept them. Similarly, if liberal policies are framed in terms of conservative values, such as respect for authority, they are more likely to be received.

Do unto others

The A-B-C, active processing, and moral reframing approaches can be powerful tools in bridging the divide between ourselves and those who don’t appear to be aligned with our political point of view. The key, researchers say, is to listen. Get the other person to think about their own experience. Then, talk from the standpoint of what the other person values rather than what you value. Affirm that person and those values while being true to yourself.

These techniques may not turn around another’s point of view. But they can turn down the volume in a tense family argument — and open the door to finding shared ground.

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©2021 Women’s Campaign Fund

A point of view is the angle of considering things. It’s a platform for people with a vision and a story to tell.