People have good reasons for making bad decisions. Until you identify what those are and offer better solutions, they will not change. No matter how logical your argument, how many facts you present, how emotional your pleas or how often you repeat yourself, you cannot convince people to change. You see it in everyday life – overeating, driving above the speed limit, accumulating credit card debt – not to mention more self-destructive choices – substance abuse, gambling, anorexia. Trump supporters are no different.
Behavior is motivated primarily by emotion, not thought. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I firmly believe our emotions are a survival mechanism, evolved over thousands of years. Imagine what would happen if you put your hand on a hot stove and couldn’t feel pain? You’d damage your hand. Feelings work the same way. They help you meet your needs and protect you from making personally harmful decisions.
Chocolate or vanilla ice cream, that’s easy, but most things in life we have mixed feelings about. When you see someone making irrational decisions, it’s because they are ignoring some of their feelings – either because they’re uncomfortable (such as anxiety or guilt) or because other feelings are more compelling (such as love or anger). You may have heard the term “cognitive dissonance” tossed around over the last four years. When people have beliefs that conflict with their behavior, they will dismiss their beliefs rather than change their behavior. Then they justify it after the fact. This is called rationalizing.
Denial is one of the most powerful forces in the Universe. For decades this was the case with smoking. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence about the health risks, smokers – aided by the cigarette industry – would focus on the (ever-decreasing) “evidence” contradicting it. When restaurants, planes and public buildings started to ban smoking, smokers decried their constitutional rights were being violated. Sound familiar? The reason smoking bans were successful is not because smokers were eventually convinced by science. It was because they were increasingly ostracized.
There is no such thing as a good or bad feeling. It’s how people cope with them that can be problematic. If I ask a smoker what they get out of smoking, they will probably say it calms their nerves, alleviates boredom, or distracts them from problems. But smoking is just one “solution.” There are other ways to cope with anxiety and boredom that are not self-destructive. It is the same with bigotry, violence, and corruption. These are “solutions” for people who lack insight into their feelings and the skills to cope with them.
If we want to bridge the divide in our country and with families, friends and neighbors, Americans must take it upon themselves to do it. Here’s how:
1. Use empathic listening. The most important part of effective communication is wanting to understand where the other person is coming from even though you don’t agree. Empathy is not a weakness. It’s a tool. Imagine you’re Columbo without the trench coat and cigar, gathering information. Say, “Help me to understand…” and mean it. Stick to open-ended questions (that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer).
2. Focus on feelings. Anger is a very empowering emotion. It can motivate people to do things they normally wouldn’t. But anger is also the “tip of the iceberg,” a byproduct of other feelings such as hopelessness, helplessness, hurt, disappointment, shame, guilt, etcetera. Most people go through life reacting to feelings they’re not even aware of. To foster insight, ask the person how they feel about an issue or event rather than what they think. Let them know it’s normal to have several feelings at once. Ask them if they’ve felt this way at other times in their life. When was it?
3. Get them to problem solve. Ask the person what’s in their control to fix a problem. The vast majority of the time, people try to change what’s least in their control, like dysfunctional people or work environments. Setting boundaries, adjusting expectations, managing emotions, changing negative thinking, problem-solving and how you communicate are some examples of solutions completely in a person’s control. Ask questions in an inquisitive, not challenging, manner. Present plausible “what if” scenarios and ask how it would change their strategy. Do their solutions address all their needs or just some? Ask how they plan to address the needs left out. An obvious example: If I need money, I could rob a bank, but that would ignore my desire to live freely. If I get caught, what would I do, how would I feel? What are some other ways of obtaining money that’s in my control and doesn’t ignore other needs?
4. Never make assumptions. If you’re upset by something you hear, ask for clarification. “This is the way I heard what you said, but I don’t want to make assumptions, so I’m checking in with you: is that how you meant to come across?” 99% of the time, the answer will be, “No.”
5. Don’t try to fix people. It’s not your responsibility and it’s impossible anyway. Take yourself out of the power struggle. Rather than arguing facts and trying to change their mind, focus on helping them help themselves. Don’t think of it as a “me versus you” problem. This is their inner struggle, or what I call a “you versus you” problem.
6. You can win the battle but lose the war. Arguing doesn’t work and can further damage your relationship and, as a result, your influence. If you sense the conversation is escalating or you’re repeating yourself, simply say, “We’re not communicating. Let’s take a break.” You can add, “This relationship is too important to jeopardize over this.”
7. Be patient. Don’t expect the person to change their mind after one conversation. You are planting seeds of doubt. Trust they will bloom over time.
For reasons beyond politics, we must create an environment that allows people to feel comfortable acknowledging and expressing feelings, rather than regarding them as abnormal. Social media, with its hyper-focus on appearances and political correctness, leads Americans to believe they’re isolated in their feelings and circumstances. Take it from someone whose been counseling people for 30 years, nothing could be further from the truth! Most Americans have the same wants and needs, but we must encourage each other to see it.