As it has been for millions of people, one of the most profound books I’ve read explaining how to interact with my fellow human beings is How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Mr. Carnegie breaks down everything we need to do as citizens to address our most complex political issues. And he does it all in twelve easy steps. Let’s apply those principles to the debate regarding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA). If you don’t recall what that mouthful is, I don’t blame you. The blitz in the media, and from critics, have universally labeled the bill “Obamacare.” It certainly is tempting to go “nuclear” on the bill and condemn it using words of harsh judgment. Doing so, however, reveals more about the criticizer’s thoughtlessness than it does the actual bill. If you disagree with the bill, that is fine. However, if you want to win people to your way of thinking you’ll need to follow some of Dale Carnegie’s advice.
The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it.
The first step to avoiding an argument is to not be argumentative. This means you need to accept having an open mind, even if your opponent does not. Those critical of the PPACA can do this by simply stating this: “I have some questions about what is in the act, would you mind helping me find the answers?” If you are in favor of the bill, try this one on: “I may be wrong about my understanding of the bill, would you like to take the time to discuss it with me?” Both approaches set the stage for having a meaningful discussion about the bill rather than a counter-productive argument.
Unfortunately, there are bad examples aplenty. Directly from our political leaders.
“The President and his party believe in massive government intrusions that increase costs and take decisions away from patients.”
- House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor
This instantly takes an argumentative approach by telling the President (and by proxy his supporters) what they believe. How do you feel when someone puts words in your mouth? Of course, Rep. Eric Cantor isn’t the only one setting the stage for a failed discussion.
“It’s unfortunate that the Republican leadership has chosen to set jobs aside — not just this week, but essentially every week that they’ve been in charge … to spend time on partisan messaging only”
- House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi
Rep. Pelosi makes a similar mistake, which is to completely disregard Republican’s concerns about the bill and dismiss them as “partisan messaging.”
We, the people, are better than this. If our leaders can’t agree to listen to each other, we will all pay the price.
Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say “You’re Wrong.”
If you are in favor of the bill, you can show respect for the other person’s opinion by not applying labels to them or using argumentum ad hominem to try and undermine opponents. It is never okay to insult a fellow human being. If you are in favor of the bill, ostensibly you are in favor of it because you care about human beings, right? So why would you insult those same human beings you are trying to help?
If you are opposed to the bill, the majority may well be on your side. That does not give you license to use the same negative tactics I mentioned above. When you call the PPACA “Obamacare” that is exactly what you are doing. You are undermining the sensibilities of the very people you want to try to influence. Proponents of the bill find it offensive, and may completely “turn off” when you refer to the bill this way. You do want it repealed, right? A good way to have that discussion is by helping your opponent keep an open mind… by not offending them.
If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.
The PPACA is complex. Easily one of the most complex pieces of legislation that has ever been drafted. Many who voted for or against the bill still haven’t read it in full. Therefore, who are the experts that really understand everything in it? Wouldn’t that be a handful of people? Therefore, if you think you have a point, you may very well be wrong about it. When you discover you are wrong, admit it. Apologize. Better yet, ask your opponent to explain a particular portion of the bill you find concerning or beneficial (depending on your motivations). Try this phrase out: “Can you please help me understand what the bill means when it says …?” This approach is always better than making an emphatic stance that might later require you to backtrack.
Begin in a friendly way.
Screaming “REPEAL OBAMACARE!” isn’t a friendly way to begin a conversation with someone you’re trying to influence. Maybe that goes without saying, but it seems to happen enough that it is worth mentioning. The most important advice is to keep your anger in check. You might be very upset about the bill, but don’t let that anger show when you meet someone in favor of it. First, get on their side. Understand what they like about it. Then begin asking your more pointed questions.
If you are in favor of PPACA, then remember that those opposed to the bill may hold very strong feelings about its contents. Remember to seek understanding.
Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.
Open minds are key. The foundation for an open conversation is to find the common ground. Good questions might be: “Do you feel health care is important?” “Do you think insurance reform is needed?” “Do you hate paying taxes as much as I do?” “Doesn’t it seem like our national debt is out of control?”
Let the other person do a great deal of the talking.
This is all about listening. Listening is a lost art. It requires your full attention and focus. When discussing the bill, look in the eyes of the person who is talking. Take notes. Be engaged. Try to find the meaning beyond just the words they are using. Body language is an important element of this. Try to understand how they feel about the bill. Is this really important to them, or do they only feel casually connected to the bill?
Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers.
Democrats might think they have done this with Republicans by making statements suggesting that the “individual mandate” was “their idea.” But that isn’t the feeling that is generated. How would you feel if someone did the same to you? How much further would Democrats get if they asked these questions: “How have your opinions of health insurance changed over the last few years? What was it that caused you to re-think your position?” Republicans can help modify the discussion by asking questions like these: “Is there anything in the bill you find concerning? What are some ways you think the bill can be improved?” This opens up the doors to let your opponent agree with you, without you having to say anything at all.
Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view.
The other side is passionate about their point of view. Find out why. Try to see things from their perspective. This requires active listening. You can’t be waiting with baited breath to express your point of view in the conversation. Wait, think, listen. Ask follow up questions. Don’t try to score points, just try to understand.
Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires.
This is absolutely critical if you want to actually try to change someone’s mind. Use phrases such as “I can certainly see how you came to that conclusion,” “That is very interesting, and a very unique way to look at it, tell me more.”
Appeal to the nobler motives.
A great way to do this is to heap praise and compliments on your opponent. Here are some ideas: “How perceptive of you to notice that, I can tell you really took the time to understand the bill.” “I can sense how much you care about this bill and what it means to everyone in our Country.” “So few people take the debate seriously, so I genuinely appreciate your willingness to think about the situation in a new way.” “I am truly impressed with how open-minded you are on this issue.”
Dramatize your ideas.
Tell a story. People love stories. How can you add a human element to your point of view rather than simply reciting facts and figures?
Throw down a challenge.
Never issue a challenge you aren’t prepared to accept yourself. If your challenge is to ‘read the entire bill’ then the way to go about it would be to say “What do you think we could gain if we both read the entire bill together?”
By following Mr. Carnegie’s advice, we will all benefit in the discussion of national health insurance reform, health care, and the politics surrounding it. However, these tips extended well beyond just this bill. Try applying them to other political discussions, religious conversations, etc. You might even want to use them on your spouse every now and then as a way to build bridges, instead of walls.