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Talking Politics with People Unlike Ourselves
Published on Thursday, August 5, 2004 by
Talking Politics with People Unlike Ourselves
by Wade Hudson

Less than two days after the conclusion of a Democratic Party National Convention focused intently on reaching swing voters, the Commonweal Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank, conducted an informative workshop in Palo Alto, California, titled "Talking Politics with People Unlike Ourselves." Many of the fifty participants were activists working to elect Kerry-Edwards this November. About half the participants expressed strong interest in learning how to talk with conservatives.

Led by the institute's co-founder, Katherine Forrest , the workshop dealt with methods of persuading people to engage in specific political action. Forrest provided "tools for reaching the uncommitted, the wavering, and people who differ in style, interests, party affiliation, or level of interest in politics -- whether talking to the public, family members, neighbors, or work colleagues."

Coming out of this workshop, Commonweal Institute has received requests to do several more workshops and plans to publish a stand-alone guide for political activists and a training manual.

George Lakoff has made breakthroughs concerning WHAT progressives should be saying (see "Reaching Beyond the Choir," Common Dreams, July 26, 2004). Forrest presents innovative insights concerning HOW we should be communicating. These two approaches complement each other well.

Forrest supplemented her presentations with a 14-page technical handout divided into several sections: "Stages of Change for Political Action," "Factors that Increase Influence," "Creating Idea Epidemics," and "Tips for Approaching Different Types of People." Workshop participants contributed to the workshop by reporting on their own successful efforts to persuade others to take certain actions.

At the heart of Forrest's recommendations was an analysis of the "stages of change" that were initially developed by J.O. Prochaska and C.C. DiClemente for health clients. Their work draws heavily on social science research about how people change behaviors such as smoking and over-eating. Forrest has adapted this framework to politics and identified numerous examples of how it can be applied.

Forrest described the first stage of change as "pre-contemplation." People in this stage are not interested in changing their behavior. Getting into political arguments with them is counter-productive. The more people repeat their beliefs, the less likely they are to change. If time is short and prospects are slim, it's best to simply move on.

The next stage is "contemplation," which refers to being uneasy and ambivalent. People in this stage are beginning to consider making a change, but have not yet made the commitment to do so. Here too, Forrest said that it's important not to push too hard. Maybe send them an incisive article, invite them to a thought-provoking film, explore together the pros and cons of taking a particular action, increase stress by pointing out contradictions, and respond to questions.

The third stage is "preparation," during which people resolve to change and begin to experiment with small changes. Ambivalence decreases and confidence grows. Others can assist with planning, defining viable methods, setting dates for specific actions, and encouraging others to connect with sources of personal support.

"Action," the next phase, usually lasts about six months. During this period, people are vulnerable to "relapse," or returning to their old habits as they encounter frustrations. Dedicated activists can be helpful by offering congratulations or other positive reinforcement, including small celebrations. Encouraging people to verbalize their new sense of satisfaction can help reinforce their will to push on.

After adopting their new life-style for six months or more, people typically enter the "maintenance" stage with solid confidence in their new direction. They rarely return to their old behavior and recover from occasional "slips" by understanding the causes. Others can assist by continuing to be supportive. Particularly helpful are brainstorming together on new goals and discussing how people can use positive "self-talk" to cope with disappointments.

In the professional literature, "termination" is the final stage, at which point people no longer feel tempted to revert to their old habits and are fully at home with their new self-image. Their friends and fellow activists should take nothing for granted, however. Encouraging one another to reaffirm decisions and celebrate accomplishments is still important. Comparing notes on challenges and ideas about how to deal with them can be a source of support.

Forrest said that when trying to change another's political beliefs or actions, one should first ask questions and listen carefully in order to determine that person's position on the change continuum. Then one can match interventions to the other's position. Reluctance to change or outright resistance is likely if one's method is out of sync with the other's stage of change. But well-timed assistance can facilitate moving from one stage to the next. Forrest emphasized that it usually takes considerable time for a person to move all the way from pre-contemplation to action.

During the workshop, participants offered many tips concerning how to interact with potential recruits. Let people know they've been heard. Keep your voice calm. Tread softly when people are close to admitting a mistake. Identify common ground and shared goals. Explore how certain methods can be counter-productive. Validate others' feelings. Tell stories that let the other person know that they're not alone.

Forrest acknowledged that many people feel squeamish about being so calculating. But she insisted that her recommended methods have been found to be effective. If used honestly, they are an ethical way to foster change.

Wade Hudson ( is editor of Toward Peace.


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