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OPED: Five rules for talking with the other side

Chris Satullo
Tribune News Service

Remember Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware woman who oddly found herself, during a U.S. Senate run in 2010, needing to assure voters she wasn't a witch?

Bernie supporter Steven Saxton of Ohio hugs a Clinton supporter after the two had a heated exchange during a rally outside City Hall in Philadelphia, Wednesday July 27, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

O'Donnell, with a push from the (then-new) Tea Party, upset establishment icon Mike Castle in the GOP primary.

That year, while working for an NPR radio station, I organized voter forums across Delaware to generate questions for a TV debate between O'Donnell and her general election opponent, Chris Coons.

Looking back, it occurs to me those events might have been the first time, and one of the few ever since, when Tea Party activists sat down with NPR liberals for a civil discussion.

From one such night in Dover, Del., two images stick: Tea Partiers arriving early for the forum, clutching pocket Constitutions in their hands — and those same folks lingering afterward in the parking lot, chatting away with the NPR types, fervent but friendly.

Imagine that — a lively, insult-free exchange between folks who vote differently.

It can happen. It should happen more.

It has to happen if we are serious about keeping the Republic, which ol' Ben Franklin warned might prove hard work.

As co-founder of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement, I've spent 20-plus years seeking to help people talk about things that matter, in ways that lead to solutions, not gridlock, to flashes of understanding, not thunderous rancor.

We Americans are in a tough spot, reluctant seat-mates in a leaky boat. We probe scars from a brutal election, suffer a plague of fake news, indulge bad habits on social media.

Even proven techniques of civil dialogue may falter in this toxic environment, I fear. Still, for what it's worth, let me offer five road-tested tips on how to talk fruitfully with someone who voted the other way on Nov. 8.

Don't seek to convert or win.

Seek to understand. The merchants of division don't want you to grasp this, but millions who voted for the other team are nice, solid, ethical people whom you'd feel fine about having next door or at the next desk. If you can leave a conversation with a better sense of why such a person voted in a way that pains you, then that's a real win. For you, for the other person (who probably needs to learn the same thing) and for the odds of saving this democracy. (Consider this pragmatic point: If you ever hope some day to convert a "wrong" voter to your views, best to begin with an olive branch, not a bludgeon. Name calling is not moral courage; it's name calling.)

Start with story.

Not with positions, arguments or labels. Tell me a bit about yourself is a more productive opening bid than: How could you vote for someone who is out to ruin America? Perhaps ask a specific question in the vein of "Tell me about a time when ..." or "Tell me a story that sums up for you why you believe X."

Frame questions as invitations, not confrontations.

The goal here is not to skirt problematic issues. But the way you put such a topic on the table can make all the difference. It's one thing to say, "How could you vote for such a racist?" It's another thing to say, "Just personally, I found what X did about Y kind of troubling. How did you react to that and think your way through it?"

Avoid "fact wars."

I'm a journalist. The notion that facts matter is core for me. But I know just telling people they're wrong, then flinging facts in their faces, does not move opinion. Brandished this way, facts bounce off mental frames, leading people to cling ever more fiercely to their own "facts." In the era of digital bubbles, this sadly grows more true. What I'm about to suggest won't work with truly locked-down minds. But it might help if a person is even slightly open to new information. Try: "I'm not sure that fact you're citing is really true, but put that aside for now. Here's what I'd love for you to talk about: Why this assertion is so crucial to you." Then ask: "If I could show you solid evidence this isn't a fact, can you imagine that changing your thinking at all?"

Admit doubt.

First, to yourself. Second, to the other person. Only the purely partisan maintain that fact, logic, merit and virtue attach only to their team. My Penn colleague Harris Sokoloff often urges warring parties to mull these paired questions: "Is there any part of the other side's position, no matter how small, that makes sense to you?" and "Is there any part of your own position that bothers you even a little, that's a pebble in your shoe?"

That's it. Five tips for talking with the other team. I understand they won't work with everyone. The world, alas, has its stone-headed partisans and bigots. But, guess what, the ranks of those who voted the other way last Nov. 8 includes millions who aren't hopeless. You could talk with them.

Armed with these suggestions, why not give it a try?

— Chris Satullo is a former columnist and editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial page. Readers may email him at