A metal toggle switch with plate reading Listen and Ignore, symbolizing how we choose to pay attention to certain messages

Recently I shared an article on Facebook by a Bernie-supporting Hillary skeptic who articulated his reasons for voting for her. He’d decided the volatile political climate and the increasing unreliability of polls made it too risky–even in “safe” states–to stay home or to vote for a third-party candidate.

I had not heard this argument before, and wanted to inject this thoughtful piece into a discourse largely dominated by bashing from both sides of the political divide.

Right away a Facebook friend I haven’t seen since college commented: “Don’t you think that incessantly hectoring people might have the effect opposite to that desired?”

I was taken aback. My posting rate on Facebook hardly qualifies as incessant. Besides, there was nothing remotely hectoring about this article. Still, there’s no denying that my motivation in sharing it was to persuade reluctant voters to choose Hillary.

I decided to engage with rather than ignore my friend. He immediately replied that he didn’t mean me personally, “but that the daily attacks on the folk who are not gung-ho for HRC, including the accusation that we are women-haters, are really counterproductive.” He likened well-meaning attempts at political persuasion to the noxious proselytizing meant to convert people from one religion to another. Besides, it made him think that Hillary’s supporters lacked the faith that she should and could win, and found their apocalyptic pronouncements about not voting for the Un-Trump unhelpful.

His response reminded me of a party I attended right before the 2004 election. Amid a dozen or so Chardonnay-sipping liberals eternally bitter over the selection of W four years earlier was one lone Nader supporter. Unrepentant, he planned to vote for Nader again.

“How COULD you?” everyone exploded in unison. As we all moved in for the oh-so-persuasive kill, I could see this man’s jaw tighten, his posture stiffen. You can probably guess who he voted for.

I’ve learned a lot since that encounter—if you want to preach outside the choir, it’s better not to screech or beseech. Still, there are reasons to try. Or was my Facebook friend a case in point that such attempts invariably backfire?

Recently I’ve had many conversations with my friend Linda (who also doesn’t like Hillary but who will vote for her). She has been talking with her son and his friends, most of them young, fervent Bernie supporters who care deeply about racial justice. They now feel totally disillusioned by the political process, seeing little difference between the parties and no point in voting. Linda has a lot of empathy for this viewpoint, and mostly listens. But when she does talk, whatever she has to say doesn’t only fall on deaf ears—it closes those ears further.

Periodically I send things with a fresh or compelling perspective to Linda, saying, “What about this? Could this help?” One was a recent column by Charles Blow. Linda was almost persuaded until the last paragraph:

Protest voting or not voting at all isn’t principled. It’s dumb, and childish, and self-immolating. I know you’re young, but grow up!

With those words, Blow blew it. Of course, Linda never forwarded the article to her son, and has wisely stopped talking to him about the election altogether.

Years ago Republican pollster Frank Luntz quipped, “The trouble with Hillary is she reminds everyone of their first wife.” She also reminds people of their mothers. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of Hillary, but this unconscious association has gotten short shrift in understanding the level of antipathy generated by the candidacy of the first woman who has a shot at the presidency. Often what mothers say, no matter how wise and well-intended, has the effect of generating resistance. You should listen to your mother, but do you really want to? Middle-aged mothers like me who are trying to persuade others, especially young people, may only be perpetuating the maternal nag problem.

Is it possible to change people’s minds? We are now inundated with 24/7 information and misinformation, and live in silos that reinforce our worldview while keeping out other perspectives. Social science research demonstrates that when people are shown evidence contradicting their firmly held beliefs, they don’t reconsider; instead, they double down.

If one person’s persuasion is another’s hectoring, what’s a mother to do? What’s a concerned citizen to do?


 Have you tried to influence anyone’s vote in this election season? Has anyone tried to influence yours? What works and doesn’t work?



8 thoughts on “Persuasion

  1. I think a lot of people have presidential politics overload right now, partly because the process has been going on for so long and partly because Trump and his campaign has lowered the bar so much, most thinking people are over and done. Personally most of the women I know are so anxious about this election that any social media articles feel stressful. But sharing thoughtful political commentary is still important. And there are tons of interesting articles on the process. And it is every citizen’s responsibility to keep informed (that is over of the main reasons for a constitutional protection of the press. So while since people find it hard to listen to thoughtful commentary, for others it is a way to become better educated on what is going on. And of course my bias is that many anti Hillary comments are really sexism in disguise….

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Heidi. There is so much out there, it’s hard to know what to read and easier to just tune out completely. Though I am among the many who are mainlining political news/podcasts/fivethirtyeight probability ratings. Wonder what November 9 will bring.

  2. I’m finding that the most productive tack has been to be really curious as to how the person is thinking — to ask questions, rather than to try and persuade, to find out what the appeal is for them of someone like Trump, and to ask what they don’t like, if anything. In other words, rather than try to “tell” them what I think, to make room for them. This approach, although often depressing, is, on the whole, a bit less frustrating for me.

    In the end, if trust is established that their views will be respected, then they often will say something like, “Well, he is a bit unhinged”. Overall, the appeal of Trump seems to be wanting someone to shake things up, causing what many imagine will be a kind of “reset” of a system they see as entirely corrupt.

    The next question would be to explore what that reset might actually look like in everyday terms. I haven’t gotten to this point yet, and I don’t know if it would change anyone’s mind, but this approach generally has resulted in my learning a lot about the other side, and it does at least not push them into a more rigid position than they already held. My fantasy is that it leaves them a bit inclined to “think” about the views they hold and the evidence upon which it is based.

    • I appreciate your thoughtful comment, Ann. Listening and drawing out are definitely the way to go rather than imposing one’s own opinion. I am doing this while phone banking. I personally don’t know anyone who is voting for Trump (or who will admit to it), but I do know of people, especially young people, who supported Bernie and are thinking of either not voting or voting third party. At this point Donald Trump seems like the best persuader, but one never knows. Besides which, if we don’t retake at least one chamber of Congress, we can pretty much expect to get more of the same gridlock and obstructionism, which is a finer point that a lot of people seem to miss.

  3. It’s a tricky one, getting the balance right between trying to advise and guide your kids and being a nag. We try and lead by example and be open to questions. My only advice I nag about to my kids is that you have to vote. You can’t expect to complain about any political decisions if you’re not a voter.

    • Very sound policy, Wendy. When I think of all that people have gone through and are still going through to be able to vote, it pains me when people think it’s too much trouble, doesn’t pertain to them, or that it doesn’t matter.

      • This election really pushed me to research the pros and cons of who to vote for and vote I did. I listened to people who are feeling disengaged from the U.S. They probably are having a hard time seeing a bright future for the generations ahead. It is important to vote with a well researched backround. I have to say in past elections where I did little research and went for the popular vote I felt fine about my decision. This time I chose the not so popular or are both not so popular? Seems even though I researched a lot feeling good about my choice is not like I would like it to feel

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