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. Many social ills derive from our aversion to talking about feelings. If you ask a smoker questions about their feelings, you change the dynamic from a power struggle of “me versus you” to an inner struggle of “you versus you.” Rather than arguing facts, imagine if someone explained they smoked because it calms their anxiety, distracts them from uncomfortable feelings or alleviates their boredom. Smoking is just one “solution.” There are other ways to cope with anxiety and boredom that are not self-destructive. This is also the case with bigotry, violence and corruption. They are regarded as “solutions” because of repressed emotions, unmet needs and limited coping skills.
If we want to bridge the divide in our country, family, friends, neighbors, even social media followers must take it upon ourselves to do it. Here’s how:
1. Use empathy. The most important part of effective communication is wanting to understand where the other person is coming from even though you don’t agree with them. Empathy is not a weakness. It’s a tool. Imagine you’re an investigator gathering information. Tell the other person, “I really want to understand where you’re coming from,” and mean it. Ask open-ended questions (that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer) for the purpose of understanding, not arguing.
2. Focus on feelings. Anger is a very empowering emotion. As I’m sure you’ve personally experienced, 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 have ever felt this way at another time in their life. When was it?
3. Get them to problem solve. Ask the person how they would fix the problem or how they would manage the situation if they were in charge. But in an inquisitive, not challenging, way. Present plausible “what if” scenarios and ask how this would change their strategy. Do their solutions address all their needs (feelings) or just some? Ask how they plan to address the needs left out. A simple example: If I need money, I could rob a bank, but that would ignore my desire to stay alive and live freely.
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. Focus on helping people help themselves, not on changing their minds.
6. You can win the battle but lose the war. Arguing doesn’t work and can further damage your relationships. 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 the first 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 28 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.