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  • elainesbelson

Know a Trump supporter? Here’s how to talk to them.

Updated: Mar 31

No matter how logical your argument, how many facts you present, how emotional your pleas, or how often you repeat yourself, you can’t talk a Donald Trump supporter into changing.

I have an expression: “If information and reason were enough to change minds, no one would ever speed on the highway or eat junk food. In other words, Trumpism has little to do with Trump and a lot to do with human nature.

You see it in everyday life: overeating, driving above the speed limit, accumulating credit card debt – not to mention self-destructive choices like substance abuse, gambling, and anorexia. Human beings make irrational decisions. Trump supporters are no different.

People are more complicated than they give themselves credit for. If they weren’t, the country would have solved all it’s problems by now. Changing behavior requires some psychology.

People have good reasons for making bad decisions. Until you identify the underlying needs or threats motivating their behavior and redirect them to constructive solutions, they will not change.

Behavior is motivated primarily by emotion, not reason. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, emotions are a survival mechanism, like pain and hunger – information of a need or threat.

Chocolate or vanilla ice cream, that’s easy but for most things in life, people have mixed feelings. Humans have multiple needs at the same time. Solutions must reflect this. Otherwise, you won’t achieve balance – the essence of well-being. When someone makes irrational decisions, it’s safe to assume they’re ignoring one or more feelings.

Denial is one of the most powerful forces in the Universe. Consider cigarette smoking. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence about the health risks, smokers believed the cigarette industry’s false claims they were innocuous. When restaurants, airlines, and public buildings banned smoking, smokers decried their constitutional rights were being violated. (Sound familiar?) Eventually, smoking waned, but not because smokers were convinced by science but because they were increasingly ostracized.

There is no such thing as a good or bad feeling. It’s how people cope that’s the problem. Ask a smoker what they get out of smoking, and they’ll probably say it calms their nerves, alleviates boredom, or distracts them from their problems. In other words, smoking is a “solution,” albeit a self-destructive one. Obviously, there are better ways to cope with stress and boredom. The same is true with bigotry, violence, and corruption. These are “solutions” for people who lack emotional insight and adequate coping skills.

If we want to bridge the divide with the country and loved ones, Americans must take it upon themselves to do it. Here’s how:

1. Use empathic listening. The most important part of effective communication is wanting to understand where the other person is coming from even though you don’t agree. Empathy is not agreement. It’s a tool. Imagine you’re “Columbo without the trench coat and cigar,” gathering information. Say, “Help me to understand…” and mean it. Stick to open-ended questions (that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer).

2. Focus on feelings. Anger is a very empowering emotion. It can motivate people to do things they normally wouldn’t. But it’s also the “tip of the iceberg” – a byproduct of other feelings such as hopelessness, disappointment, frustration, fear, etcetera. As a result, most people go through life reacting to feelings they’re not even aware of. To foster insight, ask the person how they feel about an issue or event rather than what they think. Let them know it’s normal to have several feelings at once. Ask them if they’ve felt this way at other times in their life. When was it?

3. Get them to problem solve. Ask the person what’s in their control to fix a problem. People often try to change what’s least in their control. Boundaries, expectations, emotional regulation, negative thinking, and communication skills are completely in our control. Ask questions in an inquisitive – not challenging – manner. Present plausible “what if” scenarios and ask how it would change their strategy. Do their solutions address all their needs or just some? Ask how they plan to address the needs left out. An obvious example: If I need money, I could rob a bank, but that would ignore other needs. If I got caught, how would I feel? How else can I obtain money that’s in my control, provides stability, and leaves time for family, exercise, relaxation, etc.?

4. Never make assumptions. If you’re upset by something you hear, ask for clarification. “This is the way I heard what you said, but I don’t want to make assumptions, so I’m checking in with you: was that your intent?” 98% of the time, the answer will be, “No.” I call this perception versus intent, and both are valid.

5. Don’t try to fix people. It’s not your responsibility, and it’s impossible anyway. Take yourself out of the power struggle. Rather than arguing facts and trying to change someone’s mind, focus on helping them help themselves. Don’t think of it as a “me versus you” problem. This is their inner struggle, or what I call a “you versus you” problem. Ask questions that help them recognize their mixed feelings about Trump. I promise you, they’re there!

6. You can win the battle but lose the war. Arguing doesn’t work. It can damage your relationship and your influence. If you sense the conversation is escalating or you’re repeating yourself, simply say, “We’re not communicating. Let’s take a break.” You can add, “This relationship is too important to jeopardize over this.”

7. Be patient. Don’t expect the person to change their mind after one conversation. You are planting seeds of doubt. Trust they will bloom over time.

For reasons beyond politics, we must create an environment in which people feel comfortable acknowledging and expressing feelings (aka be vulnerable). Social media, with its hyper-focus on appearances and political correctness, leads Americans to believe they’re isolated in their feelings. Take it from someone who’s been counseling people for 30 years. Nothing could be further from the truth! Most Americans have the same wants and needs. We must encourage each other to see it.

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