How to Talk to Someone You Can't Stand
If more people learned the art, we'd have a lot less sound and fury in this country.
It was hate on first sight. This dude was sitting in an airport restaurant, eating huevos rancheros (he later called it "wetback food") when my friend Heather and I walked in. Turns out the guy was Heather's bro-in-law, and we were supposed to have breakfast with him.
I'll call him Buff, even though he wasn't; he looked like he had played football in college and had put on a steer or two since. He was wearing an expensive suit, a Rolex, and a button supporting a presidential candidate I couldn't stand.
We sat down and I asked him what he did for a living. Turns out Buff works as an executive for a private prison company that has made a huge income from government contracts to lock up people who snuck across the border. During breakfast Buff made a sexist joke about women that mentioned his own wife. And that was before he started lecturing me about politics and how having a black president had divided the country.
Killing him wasn't an option. He was bigger than me, and Heather and the TSA wouldn't have wanted me to choke him with his Rolex. So I employed a set of techniques I've spent years teaching nicer people. They come from rhetoric, the art of persuasion. If enough people learned the art, I believe we'd have a lot less sound and fury in this country, along with better elections. Not to mention tolerable meals with asshole relatives.
I've broken down the techniques for this sort of occasion into five tools: Goal, Audience, Aggressive Interest, Sympathy, and Love. Yes, Love. Bear with me on that one; we'll use it with a vengeance.
1. Goal. As in, set one
The biggest mistake we make in any disagreement is to start fighting without a plan. The first thing to do when you're face to face with a jerk is to ask what you want to get out of it. Do you want to humiliate the guy? Good idea! Except maybe not in the long run. It's not like you want to drive him to be a serial killer. Besides, in my case I didn't want to hurt my friend's marriage. Angry fights with jerks risk collateral damage. So what kind of goal could you set?
One goal is a better relationship, if not with the bad guy then with someone else; in this case my friend Heather.
Another goal might be to learn something. Buff knew a side of life—a mean, nasty, possibly corrupt side, but still—that I knew little about. Over breakfast I asked him a bunch of questions about what those prisons were like and who was in them. He told me things he never would have told a reporter.
Yet another goal might be to try and find anything—anything—you might have in common. Make a game of it, a sort of I spy something nice in the guy. Buff turned out to be crazy about his kids, so there was that. But Buff wasn't my real target. My real target was the…
2. Audience, as in onlookers
Think of Abraham Lincoln. No, he usually doesn't come to mind when we're ready to strangle an asshole. But that's my point. Toward the end of his presidency, people were saying he didn't just win the war, he won the argument. Don't focus on beating your opponent, physically or otherwise. Think instead of winning over the people listening in.
How? By being the better person. If someone is truly an asshole, you're probably not the only one noticing. Stay classy. When Buff bragged about how much money there was in locking up "illegals," I didn't push back. I just looked interested and asked questions. When he complained about his wife in front of his wife's sister, I said, "My own wife has plenty to complain about. But she's a saint." Heather jumped in to tell Buff about my saintly wife—while shooting me a grateful look.
That moment of calm didn't last. Buff looked bored and then switched the subject to the election, saying racist stuff about Obama and praising Trump for stands even Trump has taken back. Did I argue against him? No. This may sound cowardly, but rhetoric offers a more effective weapon…
3. Aggressive Interest
I began asking questions, focusing on definitions, details, and trends. When Buff said that Mexicans don't ever really become American, I looked fascinated and asked him what he meant by "Mexicans." People born in Mexico? Second-generation Mexican-Americans? Third? Fourth? I told him my mother's family came over from Cuba sometime in the 1800s. Do Cubans ever become American? When Buff informed me that wives just want bigger allowances, I asked him what he meant by "allowance" and asked whether his wife worked.
Why go to all that trouble? Because people asked to define the meaning of their terms tend to come up with less extreme terms. Buff ended up admitting that second-generation Mexicans tend to assimilate pretty well, and he corrected "allowance" to "family budget."
Details do the same thing. Buff talked up the wall Trump promoted during the campaign (and seems to be backing away from). I asked him what he thought the wall would be like, where it would go, what it would be made of, and who exactly would pay for it. Like Trump, Buff ended up turning the wall into a fence and admitting the Mexicans would never pay.
Finally, trends. Buff, like Trump, claimed that Mexicans were swarming over the border. I asked him how many, and whether the number was increasing. "I find this stuff confusing," I said. While Buff never went so far as to admit that there's been a net outflow of Mexicans from this country, he did mention that fewer Mexicans were coming into his prisons.
In short, the more I asked for definitions, details and trends, the more he modified everything he said. But that wasn't the only reason to use this strategy. My questions made him so sick of the whole conversation, he couldn't wait for breakfast to be over. And he paid my bill. I almost started feeling…
Rhetoric isn't about you. If you want to persuade anyone, you need to work with your audience's beliefs and expectations. This doesn't mean feeling everything they feel. That's empathy, a fine trait but not rhetorically useful. Sympathy means understanding what the audience is feeling. In my case, the audience was Heather. But as the breakfast continued I noticed that Buff was coming a little closer in my direction. He wasn't about to burst into tears and join the Green Party. But my questions revealed he wanted to do what was best for his country and, despite all his macho bravado, was a little confused about what actually was best. It made it easier to fake…
As part of my consulting practice I teach clients to give TED talks or corporate presentations. One of the best pieces of advice: Before you start talking, tell yourself how much you love your audience. This works with a hostile opponent as well. Imagine the jerk fawning over a kitten or crying when Leonard Cohen died. Think of pure love. Shoot love beams out of your eyes.
I don't mean you should actually try to love an asshole. We're talking rhetoric, not religion. Instead, pretend to love him. Onlookers will think you're noble. Or they might think you actually agree with the guy—until you start asking questions.
Besides, faking love can work much the way asking questions does: it creates a sort of persuasive tractor beam, pulling your opponent a little bit in your direction. Combine that with rhetorical sympathy and awareness of your audience, and the situation gets a bit warmer, a bit less awkward.
You could even start looking as good as my wife. Who really is a saint.
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