— and resuscitate stifled political conversations

It’s nearly impossible to change someone’s views if you appear unwilling to change yours, if you are not curious. So how do you stay curious when voters have atrocious views: If someone is offhandedly telling you who you or your friends can marry, and voting to make their views override your choice of life partner, to hell with them. But then without curiosity you’ve lost your leverage. Below are some techniques — please add yours — to be curious, to purposefully seek out ways to be curious, when you're talking about an issue where you're just not curious whether you'll change your mind.

Experiment with any of the paths below, to be curious about something in the conversation, an exercise that can help you take a step back from the conflicts so you can connect.

Be curious how they feel.

Be curious about their underlying values — wonder if they fit Moral Foundation Theory, or not?*

Be curious about their frame and the metaphor underneath: do they see themselves on a journey, waiting in a line, fighting a battle, struggling with a disease?

Be curious like a newspaper reporter: who, what, when, where and how questions can be helpful, especially around where and when they learned what they learned.**

An honestly asked How would that work out in the world? can be very powerful.

conversation bubbles: red

I find this difficult in real-life conversations. For online chats, it might help to write down a conversation goal on a piece of notepaper: find a way to stay focused on a side-goal that lets your conversation dig deeper before going back to the default of arguing to change minds.

* Chapter 2 of Cognitive Politics explores Moral Foundations Theory: one of the best ways to get curious is asking about someone’s underlying values, and wondering if their values match Moral Foundations Theory or not. I find this exercise a way to basically distract myself from getting angry and anti-curious about offensive political views.

**"Why" questions tend to get you in trouble in politics, since people have often divided the world into good-guys and bad-guys, and reinforcing that doesn't help. "How does that work?" or "When did you learn that? What brought you to that view?" can sometimes open up a conversation.

Stephen Wed, 03/20/2019 - 15:48

Business Insider's article Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's tweet about workers being paid 'less than the value they create' is essentially a restatement of Marx's Labour Theory of Value — here's why that's interesting is so far wrong that it's fascinating:

Twitter post by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Hers is a restatement of Adam Smith, not Marx. Marx said labor created *all* value, denying that saving or management or resources were part of the process; Smith wanted labor (and other factors of production) to be paid the value they create, what AOC says.

We've gone so far to the right we don't even recognize capitalism. If workers were paid fairly for the value of what they created, while savers created productive capital and it got paid fairly, that's capitalism.

And if we were capitalists under Eisenhower, then we are no longer. Savings no longer turn to competitive capital (eg productive factories) but financialized assets, savings become more expensive land-values under houses that earn rent, savings become tools to buy back stocks — pieces of paper not factories. This creates returns without product: no other explanation for how much of our economy is Wall Street staring at it's own bellybutton, uber-profitably, instead of creating jobs that create new wealth.

Now even Business Insider can't tell the difference between a functioning free market and Marxism, because we've left capitalism so far into cronyism, rent-seeking, monopolies and financialization that we've forgotten what free markets (kept free and fair by a functioning government, or they collude to prevent competition, as Smith said long before Marx) that we've forgotten how to advocate for competitive free markets.

I write about framing: it's important to remind people that the words used by Roosevelt and Stalin are not the words we use anymore: Socialism and free-market capitalism have gone through odd convolutions. Many people who want to "make America great again" are nostalgic for the years from Roosevelt through Eisenhower, when idealized capitalism included trust-busting, fair markets, and trying to give everyone a job with dignity and a job that provided a living wage. Even Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are near the center for those years. Watch the way capitalism and free markets and socialism are framed!

Stephen Tue, 03/12/2019 - 19:44

With Michael Cohen’s testimony, we’re seeing something that looks like a scene from a mobster movie: watch Representative Steube (R) try to prove that Cohen paid hush money for Trump but wasn't acting for Trump, or any of countless other bizarre moments. How did we get here? More importantly, how do we create a path for ordinary conservative-minded voters back to conservative values like balancing budgets, serving in the military when called, integrity, law & order?

So, what is an opening that splits the Trump train? Is there a way to start “on the train” and then change directions? Here’s my first draft. I'm wondering if the first sentence, on it's own, leaving the question open without conclusion, might not be the most powerful? Thoughts?

Before Trump stepped on the stage, Washington DC was a swamp. Many of us hoped he would turn that around.

We wondered if the FBI — people who believe in law and order, largely Republicans — hated Trump for deep-state reasons, or because he flagrantly violates the law and pissed off lifetime officers of the law. After Cohen’s testimony, we have an answer.

A lot of politicians seem to want Americans who live together in cities to hate people who live in open spaces, and vice-versa. I want to be on the other side of that. If I don’t like the tv shows you watch, if we disagree about guns — let’s go back to being Americans together anyway.

There aren’t a lot of conservative Republicans left in DC — politicians who balance budgets, who believe that the President should follow the constitution rather than declare an “emergency” when he loses a vote in Congress, who believe in integrity and law and order. There are a few, it’s time to get behind them.

When I look on Fox, I see comments where people are uncomfortable with Trump but not ready to stand:

"Republicans don't like Trump either. Remember he was a Clinton supporter before he decided to run." These need follow-ups like: This is the moment we find out who has backbone. This is no longer an argument over lesser evils. This is just truth or lies. If you are against corruption, stick with being against corruption: don't divide into two teams unless you desire the world divided into two teams.

There are some great Republican messengers

This corruption should not be, and to a small extent is not, partisan:
(Planning to add to this as I find more sources. Let me know what you find!)

Stephen Wed, 02/27/2019 - 16:49

Trump often tries to get moderates to look at the left and say "I'm not one of them." He often trolls us into overreacting. That's kindof a natural part of politics, there's always a big center trying to figure out which side is crazier. From the left-media silo it's not obvious how good Trump is at playing media to make us seem like we are vicious and he merely speaks his mind, but he's good at that.

I think when Trump supporters are jumping around with all caps and just cheering any and everything he does, progressives shouldn't despair, but leverage that: to be more welcoming and less bonkers to any moderates listening to the conversation. That's the time to sound particularly reasonable. I think there are times to expand the Overton window, too — but not talking to ALL CAPS craziness. We talk about a time when left and right didn't hate each other — that's what moderates want, it's vital that the blame for dividing America goes where it belongs, and the left is terrible at staying calm long enough for Trump's violations to stand visible.

So maybe:

I miss when Americans of both parties used to talk to each other. Obama had Republicans in his cabinet. McCain worked with Sanders.

Big money started tearing us apart years ago. There was a moment of hope when Trump claimed he'd drain the swamp and bring Americans together. I hoped he would divide Washington DC from the swamp of lobbyist money. Instead he divided Americans from each other. Many people felt hope, but it was a mistake to trust him. Onwards.

(I never believed Trump would drain the swamp, but did have a tiny hope. It's good to be ready to welcome people who had a bigger hope of that worthy goal — we need to be in solidarity next election.)

Stephen Fri, 02/15/2019 - 17:51

When politics leaves you feeling angry, how do you vent? Who do you vent to? Are they listening? Do you feel heard?

Venting at people who don't already get it usually means you won't be heard and will push people further away: Have you found a way to vent among political friends, and stay curious and open-minded when reaching out to people you disagree with?

Vent to people who agree with you and are no less privileged; echo the anger of people who are under attack

Stephen Cataldo Tue, 01/29/2019 - 15:09

All of us should have at least two goals for the primary in common:

That the primary does not damage the general election. Primaries should vet candidates, expose their weak points so those are old news in the general. But don't go too far. And more than anything, we all need to keep the process fair. Party primaries used to be non-democratic choices by the party; I want democracy in the primary, I want the candidate I support to push for that.

Create an Overton window, together with your opponents. I would like to hear ideas that differ, I would like debate, from "good" to "better." Show the American people the range of reasonable ideas within the Democratic Party. Focus on these ideas — not attacking Trump all the time. Leave America ready to have a reasonable debate, which will leave Trump outside. And while we're here — I want to know your framing strategies, and how you hope to get the Democratic Party on message and clear.

Stephen Sun, 01/27/2019 - 01:27

This quote speaks true to me. It seems accurate and eloquent, calling out a true phenomena we are seeing: To much of this country, black lives don't matter, while mistaken accusations against white kids are the apocalypse. The parents who watch black children get shot without lifting a finger, now freak out that all the kids from Covington High are called racists on a day where only some of them were caught, that day, in clear acts of contempt.

It is also, also, especially when this quote is shared in my mostly-white, mostly-privileged zone of the angry-left internet: my side has made a scapegoat of one teenage boy for every action done by anyone else wearing the same hat. The quote is accurate: we have in fact made similar excuses around dehumanizing kids in maga hats as the "y'all" make about kids in hoodies. Millions of adults have descended on one kid on a school trip, we've sought out the worst-looking frame of a video and made a kid who was minding his own business into our scapegoat, millions of people aimed our hate at him, have continued looking for evidence that maybe he is a racist after our initial attacks were found to be full of holes, have called for his expulsion and doxed him and his family.

This week, this one week, I haven't seen this before and I have been watching, the internet-mob on the left went truly overboard. Millions of us have directed hatred at a teen who whose worst clear crime was wearing a maga hat, we've doxed him, we've dissected some videos, we've made him a mirror for our vast and well-earned anger at the Trump movement, a scapegoat for more powerful men that we can't touch, a scapegoat for other kids from his school. He is no longer Nick, he's "#CovingtonKids," all of their sins on him. Once we realized the facts didn't line up like the first accusation, we didn't apologize and back off, we kept digging, hoping we could prove that our initial accusation and gut instinct could be proven.

Image of Nick turning from the drumming, aiming to calm another student getting into an argument behind him:
Nick turns away, indicating calm down to another student getting into a conflict behind him

And we are not apologizing, we are holding strong, digging in.

Morally: this is bullying. We haven't defeated the powerful racists, so millions of us went after a kid, literally whose face we didn't like.

Politically: this is, so obvious I feel funny saying it, guaranteed to fail, to solidify votes Trump's movement.

The angry partisan internet this week has undone a year's effort by people trying to get decent, busy people to open their eyes and stop falling for the right's blame-and-shame politics.

The quote is right, the people who've been watching black kids get gunned down and not care, who are up in arms today, they are not in the right. But today is our turn, at least I'm making it my turn, to model a politics of dignity without bullying. If we want to be effective, every one of us that overshot the truth and made accusations without clarity and without proportion, who made a scapegoat out of one kid for a whole movement — all of us who've faced bullying by powerful men and in turn bullied a kid — it's time to stop and apologize. No #whataboutism: Apologizing is not the apocalypse, either.

I would like to see the quote as the opener for this: Adults should not see kids in hoodies or in maga hats as thugs or racists, to be shot or to be pilloried, doxxed and made the scapegoat of the week.

Yes, we screwed up and made a scapegoat of a kid. Groups I support screwed up this time. I'm sorry.


This blog is about communications and elections: one thing for absolute sure, there is no keeping "score" about right -vs- wrong in a way that apologizing weakens your team or weakens your cause. All the moderates, the quiet people appalled by today's politics: whoever starts to show some decency is going to win the next election. What would the world look like, the election look like, if progressives got ahead on this: if the internet were full of thousands of apologies for over-reaction, immediately followed calls to action stand against racism in the halls of power? What would your friends who hate politics think of that?


This is intended as one of two posts about displaced anger: when to let it go (this article), when to focus and make it clear (upcoming).

Stephen Sat, 01/26/2019 - 12:59

People opposed to Trump need to stop saying it’s like a cult, as if that alone would work, and look at the tactics that actually work against cults.

Imagine decent Republicans as on a train they have been on their whole lives. It left the station last election cycle, with Trump mocking a disabled reporter, and millions of riders cringed, but didn't get off the train just for that. Weird tweets people wish he wouldn’t say. Says that weird thing about shooting people on 5th Avenue. He mocks McCain, does weird stuff with Putin, declares the people he himself picked to surround him to be wildly losers … each of these is a decision moment, where people get off the train and walk back or stay on the train. Eventually the train is a thousand miles from decency: do you get out and walk a thousand miles, alone, mocked by liberals saying "I told you so"?

Progressive activists need to help people exit the Trump train. They might come join us — that's hard, a big ask. They might join politicians they've always appreciated more — veterans with basic integrity in the McCain pattern, who might finally say enough. They might retire from politics for a while. Any of these exits are the end of Trump's electoral cult: are we working toward this end?

The easiest way to help Trump exits not to ask people to backtrack the train a thousand miles, alone and on foot. Instead, find conservatives exiting the train, regretting their decision. Make sure that Trump voters don't feel like they need to move to Berkeley to leave Trump, they can follow the lead others have set. Find those stories, get out of the way, don't comment on them, just share them widely.

(Please add the best to the comments below!)

Stephen Fri, 01/18/2019 - 03:23

Imagine a "Wall."

What is it for? Before you know anything about any particular wall, what comes to mind? What feelings does it evoke? If a wall is used as a metaphor, what is the point of the metaphor?

Linguistic framing expert George Lakoff writes: Democrats must block Trump’s wall of hate.

Lakoff claims that Trump's wall is "a metaphor for racism, nationalism and white supremacy. The wall Trump desires isn’t made of concrete or steel. It’s made of hate." The article ends with a reminder of the racists marching in Charlottesville, carrying torches, one giving the Nazi heil Hitler salute.

I personally don't know any, and don't think there are that many, tiki-torch carrying white supremacists. What I've encountered is people scared of the future, sucked — by their fears, not their hates — back into tribalism including a racist disdain for people they see as not like themselves. With frightening exceptions, typical voters seen as "deplorable" have very little energy or thought for other races: they never take a second glance to wonder if Birtherism might really piss off many African Americans, which is totally obvious if you spend thirty seconds thinking about it — but they don't spend the 30 seconds of actual thought. When they see statistics about or hear stories about police stopping and sometimes shooting innocent black people, they shrug their shoulders and glaze their eyes as if the targets aren't their fellow Americans, as if this is happening many timezones away beyond their influence. This laziness is not anywhere near the same as the active, energetic-hate of the tiki-torch and hiel-Hitler crowd.

A metaphor of a wall, to me, in general, is about security and protection. So Trump's physical wall is evoking security from fears — fears based mostly on a changing economy, that Trump, from the top down, has focused vague fears into fear of other races, cultures and religions. Trump has found scared people — not so much angry racists — but through repetition he frames their fears, calling Mexicans murderers and rapists because scared people are too ready to believe, not because they are already actively, energetically racist.

The Democrats lost the last election over this: believing that "deplorables" were really deeply entrenched in their deplorable choices, instead of realizing that there are millions upon millions of people who are ready to get over their little hates when they feel safe: that if you offer a vision of the future that involves a decent job, only a microscopic few of the racists care about their racism more than their jobs. There are countless people who are mildly racist or susceptible to racist ideas when afraid, whose votes are actually in play — many voted for President Obama.

We keep calling people who resonate with Trump while he listens to their fears — we keep calling them racist. And whether they are or not: in their conscious minds, they know they are not, so they feel insulted. And we lose them completely, even if they initially had mostly agreed with us, issue after issue, because we just called them racist — and they really desire not to be racist, they see it as an insult.

So do we have this backwards?

Trump's wall is aimed at fearful people, willing to turn to anything — yes, including racism — for protection from the future. To defeat him, we have to pull the focus off the border, which is where people's fears are focused, and remind ourselves to be human: more stories of refugees. Don't say "No" to the wall, don't think about the wall. What is our frame?

Where are the "Joe the Plumber" stories of refugees? Why can't I name a refugee family? Know what church they used to pray in, before they had to flee?
Our frame, it seems to me, is simple: the refugees are human beings. We have to pull people back to their hearts, stop joining Trump in focusing on their fears, stop joining Trump in focusing on the divisions. Yes, write our politicians not to spend money on the wall. But the public debate should not focus on the border at all: it should focus on human beings with real stories.

Stephen Cataldo Wed, 01/16/2019 - 15:23
The border wall is a hot topic right now in the news. Exercise:

(1) What are the policy choices? What are all the different frames you can think of — the different ways to focus on the story — that you hear?

Important: people can usually take either side within a frame:

Take relief => the frame is that taxes are an affliction. "No new taxes" and "The rich should pay more" => both positions treat taxes like an affliction, opposite positions within the same frame.

(2) [usually easy] Which of these frames is more focused on the values you want to emphasize?

(3) Draw a chart. For each frame, write a phrase, slogan or point at a story *for each policy position.*

Grab a piece of paper and sketch out a chart like this example for abortion:

frameAffirm that frameSay "No" to that frame
Choice"Women have a right to choose."No! Abortion is murder
LifeStories of beating hearts; pictures of unborn that look like babiesIt's a lump of cells!

(Extra credit) How is framing going to get you in trouble if you take it too far?

How do you mix framing with active listening and/or compromise, to get make sure your values are heard without running over a conversation partner? Framing is how to be heard — it's not active listening, not how to make compromises; how do you balance these in your social media, in your conversations?

frameAffirm that frameSay "No" to that frame
focus/frame 1:
focus/frame 2:

My Partial Answers Below
The two foci, the two main frames, are something like (1) border security — controlling who gets across, and (2) people – fleeing violence, families are in trouble and need our help. Inside each frame policy can say yes or no, yes or no cross the border, yes or no we hear your pleas and will help.

(3: a secure border ) "We should let anyone seeking asylum across the border." => the frame is "controlling who gets across" which is a conservative frame. To imitate George Lakoff's title "Don't Think of an Elephant," you are saying "Don't think about the controls at the border." And obviously, "secure the border" is the conservative frame and conservative position. (And both "security" and "border" generate powerful metaphoric background imagery — the powerful framing is a reason that a party whose elites happily hire people without green cards is making this a big issue.)

(3: people) Share a story about a person who lived in Honduras, where she grew up, where she went to church, what her job was, how many kids she has — start with her as a person. Then once people know something about her and her family, include the threats she faced. Then the story should engage the question she faced, what were her options. Then, what can we do to help her? This is the progressive frame, about refugees, about people, lives like ours. The normal-time conservative "no" to this frame is either to ignore or de-emphasize the complex realities of individuals and focus on numbers "we can't help everyone," or with Trump to dehumanize them and call them murderers and rapists.

Warning: Frames are just Frames

You can't force people to think of an issue the way you want them to. If someone feels unsafe, and is talking about security, and you ignore them or talk over them — they're just going to feel more insecure, to be pushed further into the "security" frame.

Frames are great for sharing, for when you lead a conversation. Ask questions that get people's focus to the places they haven't paid enough attention, that match your frame, rather than continuously assaulting the other frame. In active listening, and in compromising, it's vital to understand their frame. Know what the frames are, but don't ignore other communication skills.

Stephen Wed, 12/12/2018 - 12:19

A Framing 101 Post written for Radical Conversation enthusiasts.

Framing creates context for an issue.

Framing is unavoidable.

Even just one word, like “taxes,” will evoke a frame. When you think of taxes, do you think of social programs, a strong defense, money coming out of your pocket? Do you imagine you would trust the people spending the taxes? Are taxes already too high, or inadequate? What emotions arise — do you feel bitter that you pay more than your share, or are you proud to help?

Word choices, or especially references to a metaphor, can influence which frame is evoked. For a simple example, a "school bond" might get you thinking about schools. "Tax relief" aims to get you to think of taxes as something you requires relief — the phrase evokes the metaphor that taxes are a disease or affliction requiring relief. Facts work — when they support and reinforce your story or metaphor.

This isn't magic. For example, if you are Pro-Choice and someone insists on calling fertilized eggs "babies," or if you are Pro-Life and someone tells a mother-to-be that that kick was just from "a lump of cells" — do you think these words will create the desired frame, or just convince the listener that you have little in common? Don't overdo framing: keep it simple, but make sure that when you share, you share values true to your heart, that you build and repeat stories around those values — and minimize time spent arguing against the other frame.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff is the most famous voice for framing on the left, especially for his book "Don't Think of an Elephant" — you can not argue "against" a frame without evoking that frame. If you say "don't think of an elephant" everyone will think of elephants; if you say "I oppose tax relief" everyone will think of taxes as an affliction. You have to argue your own points.

He has a growing community on Facebook. This is a great place to get involved: proponents of framing and of radical heart-centered communication techniques have a lot to teach each other!

“For Democrats, we recommend sincerity and transparency. Understand your values, speak them out loud, repeat them, use the facts honestly, and link facts and policies overtly to values. Do this over and over… Do this not just as individuals, but together as a party.”
— George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic.

Another way to imagine frames is optical illusions. If you say "I'm against seeing a vase" while looking at this image, you're encouraging "moderates," people who can see this image as either faces or a vase, to focus on the vase. Trump has been a master at drawing our attention to issues that divide Americans, to issues that bring up feelings of defensiveness or shame for many people. Trump acts like a gang-leader, and has convinced just barely enough of the electorate that America is a gang-fight. Democrats often participate in this, treating him as a rival gang leader — with a rival gang! — reinforcing his metaphor, reinforcing his frame.

If you ask Radical Conversation style questions, you evoke frames. What frame do you evoke with each of these questions:
"What should happen at the border?"
"Do you think we should build a wall?"
"How should a refugee family apply for asylum?"

For immigration issues, framing isn't magic, but it is key: the more time spent on the stories of immigrant or refugee families, going into the story of their lives, ideally repeating the stories of a few until everyone knows their names, where they grew up, where they went to church — that is our frame, make those people real. The border, yes, do active listening, repeat back people's fears so they feel heard by you, but otherwise minimize talking about borders.

Repetition is Key: the Death of "Civility"

A great example of framing is the "Contract with America" from the 1990s. There's not much inherit meaning in that phrase — liberals could have used it just as easily — but by using it over and over, Republicans gave it a meaning. Eventually, it became a shorthand: Republicans could rapidly evoke a whole set of ideas with just that phrase. Frames are built up. It's important that politician who agree on a policy goal start to build the same frame, the same underlying metaphor, together. Republicans are good at it: how many times have you heard "tax relief." They spend money on it: the experts I hear on the left write blogs, Frank Luntz on the right has big focus groups. Many more examples are easy to find — all from the GOP, in recent years.

If you believe in something, you have to work with others until you can frame it quickly, not write multiple pages each time you bring up the concept. For example, the word "Civility" has been reframed in the past few years. Ten years ago, "civil" in a political conversation might have evoked "civil disobedience" and Gandhi or King. Today, it often evokes "civility police." Think of the optical illusions: brains can conceptualize the word as one or the other, but not both at the same time. How did the transformation happen? How can your movement succeed if you can't control the narrative around some words or phrases that describe what you believe in? What can you do make sure that the words you use create the frame you want?

More Resources and Actions

I love this introduction to framing. Where the article you just read tries to explain different components, this gets straight to the heart: There is sometimes a tendency among liberals to be cowardly about their own supposed values, and to try to argue based on conservative premises.

Lakoff in his own words.

Framing is often about issues like protections (regulations), about Nazis (free speech) — but it can also be about the conversation. Radical conversations call for metaphors that evoke connection: Do you use facts like artillery?

Action — Lakoff says: "Do this not just as individuals, but together as a party.” The Rapid Response team hopes to be the seed, combining all the techniques from SMART Politics and Cognitive Politics and anywhere else we find them into a form that can spread to Indivisibles and then politicians. After you've taken the Radical Conversations training, if framing and other techniques to influence social media at a large scale excite you, look for announcements on the facebook group and get involved!

Optical illusion from… by Brocken Inaglory from Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Tue, 12/11/2018 - 02:22
When you have political conversations, how do you use facts? Do you lob them at opponents like artillery? And then your opponent digs a deeper trench to avoid the blast? If you use facts like artillery, your opponent will dig trenches and build bunkers: facts work in the story you use them. Or do you architect a building of shared values, and build it by placing facts like bricks, building up the story of your values? A story people are welcome to explore if they are curious — not a battle for you to win and them to lose. Facts work there too. In politics, most of use facts like artillery, so they have gained a reputation as a thing that doesn't work.
Stephen Fri, 12/07/2018 - 22:40