How do you discuss your political ideas? You wonder how to begin? How to phrase things?

But the most persuasive people listen more than they talk. They listen, not to rebut, but rather, to understand. Focus first on the other person. Learn what she thinks and how she feels about it. You want to address the concerns she does have, not those you think she should have.

For example, different people might favor a U.S.-Mexican border wall because they think:

  • Illegal immigrants are taking jobs from U.S. citizens.
  • Potential terrorists on the U.S. watch list might enter from Mexico without going through U.S. Immigration.
  • One elderly, single, Hispanic, South Texas woman’s yard lay adjacent the current wall. But the wall was ineffective. She’d been frightened by people moving in or around her yard at night, and wanted an effective barrier.
  • And many other reasons.

Other people might oppose the wall because:

  • It won’t work. It’s a waste of taxpayer money.
  • It’s inhumane.
  • I don’t live in a border state. Why should my taxes pay for this?
  • It will spoil relations with a neighboring country.
  • And many other reasons.

When the time is right to express your opinion (not yet), it won’t help to tell the woman who’s scared of people in her yard that the U.S. wouldn’t have enough farm workers without Central and South American laborers. It won’t help to tell the man who thinks the wall would be inhumane that new technology could make it effective and inexpensive.

So, if someone else starts the conversation, relax. Consider it a gift. Now you don’t have to fret about how to start the conversation. You don’t even have to reply. In fact, it’s better not to reply–not yet.

Instead, adopt the curious frame of mind you feel when listening for information you want, but that is not emotionally charged. Listen as if a waiter is telling you about daily specials. Not only do you want to know the specials, you wish to be able to tell your hard of hearing companion about them.

In front of a mirror, close your eyes. Imagine you’re listening to the waiter saying, “Cheese enchiladas with chili con carne sauce, spinach enchiladas with creamy tomatillo sauce, catfish tacos with Spanish rice and Guacamole.” Notice how the muscles in your face and body feel. Now open your eyes and notice how your face looks. Notice your posture.

This is how you want to feel and look while listening to someone’s political views—intellectually curious about the person’s ideas. Call it your “daily-specials mode.”

Now let’s say your coworker Joe tells you, “I’m glad the federal government is taking on the U.S.-Mexican wall project.” Get in daily-specials mode. Set a goal to understand why Joe is glad. Look at Joe as if he were the waiter, and say—nothing. Pause.

Silence plus attention encourages people to elaborate. The more you hear, the more you understand Joe’s concerns. He might elaborate, “That long border is a portal for terrorists, and it’s impossible to police the whole thing.”

When Joe has said all he has to say at present, paraphrase his ideas. Your goal at this point is simply to see if you understood Joe correctly. Don’t parrot Joe’s exact words. Express his ideas in your own way, as if you were telling the waiter, “Fish tacos and two kinds of enchiladas, cheese with chili and spinach with tomatillo. Right?”

When you paraphrase: 1. If you didn’t get Joe’s point, he’ll clarify. Then, you paraphrase again. 2. Once Joe hears you correctly express his ideas in your own words, he knows you understood. This builds trust, makes Joe more comfortable with you, and therefore, more interested in hearing and understanding you. Think of it as another tortoise step.

[For more on paraphrasing and other communication skills, see “Magic Mirrors,” Chapter 11, Bridges to Consensus.]

If Joe says, “I’m glad the federal government is taking on the U.S.-Mexican wall project,” and even after you pause, he doesn’t elaborate, you paraphrase, “So you think a border wall is a good idea, right?”

If Joe did elaborate, “That long border is a portal for terrorists, and we can’t police the whole thing,” you paraphrase, “If I’m following correctly, you believe a wall is the only practical way to stop foreign terrorists from entering the U.S. via Mexico. Have I got that right?”

If at any point, you feel upset, activate your grounding trigger and wait till you can put mind over emotions. If you need a longer break, that’s perfectly OK. Simply tell Joe, “Hmm. That’s interesting. I’ll think about it. But back to work for now.”

Here’s another perspective. Your neighbor Susan says, “If the feds want to spend money on the Mexican border, they should remove the wall that’s already there in Texas.” You pause, listening in daily-specials mode. If Susan doesn’t elaborate, you paraphrase, “So you feel we’d be better off with no wall at all, right?”

Susan elaborates, “The existing wall makes border crossing more difficult, but not impossible. So desperately poor people are even more likely to rely on coyotes who mistreat them.” You paraphrase, “No wall could work perfectly, and so you’re saying any wall exacerbates the dangers of border crossing. Have I got that?”

Practice listening in daily-specials mode, pausing and paraphrasing non-contentious statements if you want to call up these skills in a political conversation. Your spouse says, “I’m getting tired of this left-over turkey.” Pause and listen in daily-specials mode. If your spouse does not elaborate. You paraphrase, “Sounds like you’d like something different for dinner today.” Or your spouse does elaborate, “Let’s freeze the turkey and cook something else.” You paraphrase, “So you want to save the turkey for a rainy day and make Chinese while the sun shines, huh?”

Use the three-rubber-band technique to remind yourself to practice.

In a future post in this “Bridges Across Politics” series, we’ll discuss if, when and how to introduce your own point of view. Meanwhile, put those rubber bands on your wrist, get out there, and listen, pause and paraphrase!