Bridging the Divide: How to communicate effectively with conservatives

By: Sarah Eisenberg, LMSW

There is a reason we, as progressives, have been so ineffective in changing other’s minds with our impassioned arguments and personal stories, and that reason has nothing to do with the validity of what we have to say.

Think about it for a second.  When has a passionate, outspoken conservative changed your mind with their arguments and their stories?  Never, right?  Or almost never.  If anything, hearing someone with opposing views get animated about their ideas tends to either turn us off or causes us to feel defensive and battle against their narrative with our own.

This is because of some basic facts about human psychology.  We humans tend to have very strong confirmation bias, meaning we favor information that confirms what we already think, and we tend to be skeptical or dismissive of information that contradicts our worldview.  This fact holds true in most cases, regardless of how compelling or how much evidence we are presented with.  We like to think we are rational creatures and that our views and beliefs arise from our observations of facts, but decades of scientific research has shown that this is just not the case.

So, if facts and evidence aren’t all that effective in changing people’s minds, what is?

People respond to information and communication when it confirms their pre-existing beliefs and values.  Those core values and beliefs are the key to effective communication.  On any given issue, people are open to persuasion if someone makes an argument that connects with their worldview rather than challenges it. 

Let’s look at the Flint water crisis as an example:

Liberal and Progressive people tend to have values like justice, equality, fairness, and human rights.  So, we view issues like the Flint water crisis, we see injustice, disregard for human rights, and people being treated unfairly, and we get very upset about it.  Conservatives may care that people are being treated unfairly, but it doesn’t resonate with their core values, so they don’t get as upset or mobilized by it.  Conservative values that might be of relevance in this example are personal property and economic development, and autonomy.  If you made the argument that the Flint water crisis has robbed homeowners of their property value, has interfered with manufacturing and business operations and increased their costs (driving business and jobs away), and has been the result of state takeover of local government, a conservative listener might feel more concerned and connected with the issue.

The key to winning hearts and minds is not to try to convince conservatives that our liberal and progressive values are better or more correct than their conservative and traditionalist values.  The key is to learn to speak to those values, to translate the issues that matter to us into the language of conservative values and priorities. 

To do this, it helps to ask some questions and do some listening.  Don’t assume you know why conservatives feel a certain way about any issue; that they are ignorant or selfish or racist, or some other stereotype.  Even if an individual may be somewhere on the spectrum of those things, they probably don’t think of themselves as such, and appeals to those oversimplified and negative labels will not be effective.

This brings us to another basic fact about human psychology; that humans are generally functional.  This means that the things we think and do are generally all about trying to function, to get by and to be ok in our everyday lives.  There is usually a personal, practical reason motivating our choices, even if those choices result in unforeseen or undesired consequences. 

Let’s look at another example:

Most conservatives are not interested in destroying the environment.  But they tend to favor deregulation, less funding and protection for wildlife and natural resources, and less action on climate change.  Why? What is the functional basis of these positions?  Because they are trying to prevent themselves and people they love from losing jobs if industry is challenged, they are trying to prevent prices for cars and electricity and other costs of living from going up because they are afraid of themselves or others not being able to make ends meet. They don’t want environmental devastation, but they are willing to accept some environmental harm as an unfortunate side effect of their more immediate concerns about economic well being. An effective way to move a conservative on this issue needs to involve acknowledgement and validation of their concerns and their values, and seek to address them without environmental harm.

To move forward, we need to learn how to be effective with those who see the world differently than we do.  Like it or not, for now we are stuck with conservative Republican leadership, both on the state and federal level.  If we are to have any success on immediate issues, we need to be able to get through to our lawmakers in a way that will resonate with them rather than turn them combative against us.  If we are to turn the tide in 2018, we cannot rely on the usual ebb and flow of political power.  Gerrymandering is at a staggering level, and we will need to win over some of our friends, neighbors, family, and co-workers if we are to achieve real, meaningful change.