I’ve adapted this four-step technique from Bonnie Tinker, a Quaker. She used it as an activist and advocate for a cause that was very personal for her, gay marriage, but it can be applied to any situation. As I’ve done research on this idea, I’ve found that many other experts use very similar steps. Some of Bonnie’s specific steps were: Ask questions, listen, affirm what you can, and then finally respond. I’ve modified that to a specific form of response, reframing. (For my newest subscribers who might have missed the earlier newsletters, I’ve included links to previous posts explaining each of the steps here: Ask, Listen, Affirm.)
I’m just going to summarize reframing briefly. If you want to know more, the details of this are in my book, “Persuade, Don’t Preach.”
Reframing is an application of the social psychology theory of Moral Foundations. The idea behind Moral Foundations Theory is we all have the same basic fundamental values underneath our decisions. But we differ in how we interpret those values and which ones we place the most importance on. That’s what leads to conflict in our society. In reframing, we don’t use our interpretation and importance, instead we use one that is relevant to person we’re talking to. Very few of us do this naturally (under 10%), but it can be learned. But it takes work.
And it is effective. Research by two academics, Robb Willer and Matt Feinberg, who pioneered this technique have demonstrated its effectiveness in persuading people in both conservative and liberal causes. For example, Willer and Feinberg’s study that focused on universal healthcare tested arguments about both fairness (access to healthcare is a right) and arguments about purity (sick people are disgusting). Conservatives who saw the purity argument were more likely to say they supported universal healthcare than the ones who saw the fairness argument. That’s because conservatives tend to place more importance on purity than on fairness. Note: This study was conducted several years ago. It would have been interesting to see what the effect would have been if public health authorities had been able to use this argument during the pandemic.
Willer and Feinberg have also done other studies — some in conservative causes like requiring English and support for an army and some in liberal causes, such as environmental issues and same-sex marriage. With their later collaborator, Jan Voekel, they have also done studies related to the 2016 US election.
So, how can this work for you? If you’ve been following this newsletter for the last few issues or if you’ve read my book, then hopefully, you’ve already identified which moral foundations the person you are talking to is using when they talk. And if you’re familiar with the theory and how it maps to political ideology, you probably have a good idea of which other moral foundations the other person would find important. For liberals, the most important ones are the Equality-Based Flavor of Fairness and Care for Others. And even though conservatives place almost even importance on all five moral foundations, the use of one of the moral foundations that skew liberal would serve as a signal that your point wasn’t for them. So, don’t use Care for Others or the Equality-Based Flavor of Fairness if you are talking to a conservative. Instead, you need to use one of the other three (Belonging, Respect for Authority, and Sacredness/Purity) or use the Merit-Based Flavor of Fairness.
So, as you think about how to approach the other person in the conversation, think about what moral foundations you would normally use when you talk about the issue. Compare that to the ones the other person has been using when they talk about that same issue.
Then, get creative in how you pair the issue you’re talking about with the moral foundation. Try out different combinations and see how they work. It’s surprising that many of the moral foundations can be used with almost any issue, despite the idea that we have usual combinations of issues and moral foundations.
If you want more examples of how this can be done, my book, “Persuade, Don’t Preach,” goes through many of the issues of the day and which moral foundations are used on both sides, and then provides some suggestions of how they might be used differently.
I hope that you’re able to implement this in your life and that it helps to heal your fractured relationships.
I have recently added another post in this series about a different way to Respond, Telling a story. The link to that is here.
If I can be of service, please let me know by emailing me on this page.