Using Core Concerns to Help Dump Trump

My Facebook feed has been dominated by two types of comments of late: my lefty friends are arguing about whether to vote for Clinton or Stein, while my more centrist friends, recalling those infamous 537 votes in Florida in 2000, are frantically posting articles with titles like “Think really, really, really hard before voting for a third party.”

As I watched the inevitable eruption of flame wars, something clicked in my mind.  I had been reading this book called Beyond Reason: Using Emotions as You Negotiate, by negotiation experts Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro.  Between the two of them, the authors’ experience includes helping President Carter prepare for the Camp David Summit and conducting conflict management training during the war in Bosnia. Fisher and Shapiro’s main message is simple: they suggest that, given central role of emotions in negotiation and the futility of trying to escape them, you’ll be better off if you focus on addressing five “core concerns.”

As a voter teetering on the brink of disaffectation who nevertheless does want to see Trump defeated, it struck me: these core concerns could be just the thing that Hillary Clinton’s supporters need as they seek to motivate their reluctant friends to show up at the polls and vote for her.

(Before I go on, I’d like to note that I’m aiming this at Hillary’s supporters here because they are positioned to make use of these at the moment, not because of any unique failing on the part of the Clinton crowd.  I’ve definitely seen instances where Bernie’s supporters and other lefty/progressives could have benefited from putting this knowledge to use.  At the moment, however, Hillary is the only one standing in the way of Trump.)


So!  As I read Shapiro and Fisher’s book, it struck me: I’ve found myself most seriously contemplating a protest vote whenever a Clinton supporter has just said something that tramples one of two core concerns.

The first is of these is autonomy: the ability to make decisions freely, without having a choice forced upon you.

Therefore, my first suggestion is this: don’t make your listener feel like they have no choice.

To explain autonomy, Shapiro and Fisher tell a story of a man who managed to procure two free bunches of roses and then got annoyed when his wife gave one bunch to friends without asking him. The man felt somewhat astonished with himself—after all, if his wife had asked, he would have said it was a great idea to give the roses to their friends. But she didn’t ask; she just went ahead and did it.  So despite himself, he was annoyed.

Now, maybe this guy seems silly to you. Maybe you’re thinking, “Geez, he’s probably a Bernie-or-Buster with that kind of illogical reaction. What else was he gonna do with the roses?” Well, fair enough. But if we’re trying to convince people to vote a certain way, that suggests that we do care about their illogical feelings.

(And let’s be clear here: I’m assuming here that your goal is not to validate your own feelings, but rather, to convince that someone who feels differently to nevertheless act as you want them to.  There’s certainly a place for validating one’s own feelings, of course; it’s just that these two goals suggest different courses of action.)

That’s why I’d encourage you to steer away from flat-out telling someone they must vote for Clinton or else they’re supporting Trump. I guarantee that anyone you have any hope of winning over is already weighing the compelling counterargument of a Trump victory in their mind. Indeed, they already feel trapped, and this perceived lack of autonomy is most likely fueling their impulse to vote for Jill Stein or write in Mickey Mouse.

Aw, man, this is awful.  I am so trapped.

If you seek to convince to them to do otherwise, you’ll want to avoid strengthening this emotion by making them feel defensive. The voters in question obviously have negative feelings about HRC. Whether those are deserved or undeserved, they are in those voters’ heads; arguing prompts them defend their right to choose, perhaps coming back at you defiantly with an argument about the two party system—and increasing the odds that they will convince themselves of the need for a protest vote even if they don’t convince you. Trust me, friend: saying “you must, or else TRUMP” is emotionally counterproductive.

“But I can’t just let this go,” you may well protest. “I have to do something to win this negotiation! OR ELSE TRUMP!”

Never fear! The next core concern, appreciation, suggests a path forward.

You address the core concern of appreciation by valuing the thoughts, feelings, or actions of your negotiating partner. The first step is to see their side, but to really nail this one, the key is to acknowledge the merit of their view. Consider this: the best way to “throw your vote away” is to just stay home and not vote. A person votes for a third party because they feel strongly enough about something to go wait in line at the polls in the hope of making their concerns heard.

I’d humbly suggest that if you can’t find anything to appreciate in their view at all, then you are probably not the right person to be trying to convince them and your best bet might be to avoid talking politics with them at all until after Election Day. I saw, for instance, a post the other day that expressly dismissed all criticism of Hillary Clinton as inherently sexist. Let’s just say that this fails colossally to address the core concern of appreciation. (The substance is beside the point right now, so I won’t digress, except to say that Bernie’s supporters could have acknowledged the perception of sexism as coming from somewhere legitimate, even when it was misapplied. But I said I wasn’t going to digress.)

A better tactic would be to find some concern of theirs with which you can sympathize. Note that this doesn’t require you to rip on Hillary yourself!  My mom demonstrated this quite effectively the other day.  She asked me I thought of the debate, and when my response was something along the lines of “mmmmph,” she responded by saying, essentially, “I hear you. Your generation really got a raw deal.  I see why young people are so upset.” Now, my mom is really excited about Hillary Clinton, and later she did bring up how thrilled she was to see Clinton mop the floor with Trump in the debate. Already feeling that my concerns were appreciated, my thoughts wandered to how truly great it would be for my mom and women of her generation to see a female president. (I’d be happy about that too, but it’s different for the Boomers, as the primary revealed.)  If we think about it logically, keeping Donald Trump out of office might seem like a more powerful reason to vote for HRC, but that argument fills me with sadness and frustration, which fuels a desire to protest the status quo. On the other hand, thinking of my mom being over the moon gives rise to a positive emotion, which subconsciously is a greater motivation.

Hey, don’t knock it!  Human beings are motivated by emotion, and overall, it’s a good thing we’re wired that way. It just means you have to apply some hacks every now and then.  Apply whatever hack you want if this one doesn’t work for the person you’re trying to convince; just know that those hacks will work better once you’ve addressed the core concern of appreciation.

Yes, now I’m just blatantly trying to soothe your emotions with cute animals.

“Nah,” you say. “That only worked for you because you’re a sappy friendly person, whereas the person I’m trying to convince enjoys kicking irrational puppies and making Baby Boomers cry, and anyway, I can’t think of any of these things you call ‘hacks.’ I never even figured out how to program my VCR.”

Okay, then. Another option is to make an argument that is simultaneously rational and affirms the value in their perspective, perhaps along these lines:

“Frustrated friend, I understand your concerns.  In fact, one reason I personally will vote for Hillary is because I think it’s the best path to furthering those very issues in the long term, because who’s better to demonstrate the need for an even more progressive candidate than one who’s arguably not that progressive?”

This is not a perfect argument, but it was one that did make me stop and think when I heard someone else deliver it.  I also recognize that it might leave a bad taste in your mouth if you see Hillary as a real progressive. The question remains: do you want to argue this point in order win a pyrrhic victory, or do you want to motivate those who disagree to do what you want?

And there are many other arguments that are rational but also involve affirmation of your listener’s concerns. The key is to appeal to their desire for positive action, rather than reminding them of their lack of autonomy.  I’ll say it again: if your listener is not already convinced to vote against Trump, it’s likely because the way the choice is framed in their mind makes them want to protest the system as a whole.  I suspect they’ve been told that their hopes are impossible to realize, along the lines of, “you’re so naïve!  Nothing will ever change, so you’d better just get in line.” That’s the sort of thing that keeps idealists sitting at home on Election Day. And even if you think idealists are dumb, you still want their votes.

Because nobody wants to see this.  Or even to feel this.

It must be admitted that this won’t work on everyone. But NPR the other day was interviewing conflicted young voters who were saying things like, “Gee, I know Trump is awful, but…I just feel so awful about this choice.” These are the people you can win over. And you don’t even have to act like you hate Hillary yourself to do it. The trick is to avoid two common responses: attempting to invalidate people’s concerns about Clinton, and telling people that they have no choice. The goal is to help people feel like they are freely choosing to vote for Hillary despite their legitimate concerns.

Remember: you have the power to move people, for better or worse, both now and in elections to come.  And lefties, don’t forget: we’ll have our turn to apply these core concerns, too.  Autonomy and appreciation.  It’s powerful stuff.

Post Scripts:

  • If you’d like to know more about the core concerns, here’s a seven minute video in which Dr. Shapiro explains them. Conveniently for us, he explains the two I’ve discussed here first.
  • I’ve aimed this article at non-socialist Democrats, but it’s worth noting that the core concern of affiliation seems to suggest an opening for socialists to take a different and more direct approach in arguing for HRC, should they choose to do so.  This rings true to me as I parse arguments made in her favor by some members of the Democratic Socialists of America.
  • I also found this transcript of Fisher and Shapiro talking about their work, which is a nice addendum to this discussion:

AAA: Does one core concern leap out as being more important?

Fisher: It depends on the situation, of course, but I think appreciation is fundamental–people love to be appreciated and need to be appreciated. That has to be recognized from the beginning.

Shapiro: I think autonomy is one of the most powerful of the core concerns. Do I have the freedom to make decisions without you imposing a decision on me? Lack of autonomy, I believe, is a major source of strong negative emotions for many people. This is something every arbitrator, every mediator should be sensitive to.

Picture credits: fsHH, mattysimpson, geralt, pezibear, and babawawa on Pixabay. Used under a Creative Commons license.

6 thoughts on “Using Core Concerns to Help Dump Trump

  1. I appreciate this post a great deal. Thank you for helping your readers see a path forward to have constructive and kind conversations with people who are not in political agreement. There’s a lot of darkness and vitriol around this election. Thanks for being some of the light. After the election, we all have to be a country together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On the contrary, thank *you* for sharing it, Rose, and for unfailingly being an example of light.

      I am thrilled that people are picking up that this is about more than this election, too.


  2. Well, guess I should say right up front that I am the aforementioned mother in this thoughtful post, but gotta say, this really hits the mark! And also want to add that I truly do understand that those of you who came of age at the height of the Great Recession…along with all that debt…that your take on the world is VERY different but should be acknowledged…I am actually hopeful in the long run that we will get to a more equitable, just society, BECAUSE you are all forged in the horrible inequities that unbridled Capitalism has wrought. But I am truly excited for the present to consider such a capable women being at the helm! I can’t wait to see her take on Congress…as I don’t think she will underestimate what she is up against…as Obama did at first.
    And I would never argue that someone has to vote for HRC or Trump will win…first because I have never believed The Donald could ever pull it off…it has always been about the size of his loss…Call me naive, but I am not nor have I ever been THAT worried. Unless we have a major terrorist attack…a real one, not a crazy wannabee with no real ties to ISIS, etc. And so true, people need to feel they have a choice…no one wants to be guilted into doing something.
    Anyway, could go on….so much to say in this fascinating campaign…or at times, political soap opera (thanks to DT). Thanks for your insightful post Jessie!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ladies and gentleman, this is my mom. *takes a bow* If my post has any value, I will thank my mom and dad for setting a good example of being thoughtful while also caring about other people. Thanks, Mom!


  3. Thank you, frustrated friend, for the well written, sometimes funny, and helpful post. As a Bernie-voting idealist, I am a big fan of doing what is right and screwing the consequences. I think that has value, and that is my first gut reaction. But then I start thinking, am I just letting someone else do the dirty work for me? Do I just want to keep my ideological purity? I know that Hillary is going to get some serious progressive work done, even if she is steeped in finance money. So if I really am concerned about doing what is right, I might have to make a messy real-world decision. Sometimes you should just eat the bruised apple if its better than being hungry.

    If the apple is just too completely rotten, then throw it out. Yes, someone might force feed a rancid molded Trump steak down your throat later down the road, and there is always a fear based argument around that, but I would never encourage you to voluntarily eat a rotten apple.

    Personally, I don’t think she’s rotten to the core. I can live with the spots and bruises, because deep inside Hillary is still that progressive 1970s hard working attorney and politico. That’s her gut, and that’s her go-to when there is not a pragmatic compromise to be found. Some mushy spots that make her distasteful, but overall, good enough to keep progressive appetites alive.

    Thanks for sharing, and good luck on your well-thought out consideration on how to use your precious vote.

    – Ben E.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ben, thank you for reading the post and for such a thoughtful reply! It sounds like you and I are on the same page. I wonder if the thought process you spell out might be interesting both to other Bernie voters and to HRC fans who don’t get why anyone would struggle to vote for her.

      The thing about democracy — both the great thing and the scary thing! — is that in the end we have to trust people to make their own decision for using that precious vote, and I’d say the most effective way to influence people is to help them find the best space to decide how to use that vote. (And then to get involved in trying to change things outside of picking a president every four years! I find that this type of activism a salve for my idealistic heart this year.)

      Thanks again for stopping by!


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