Remember the adults’ voice in the Peanuts TV cartoons: “Wah-wah, wah-wah-wah-wah, wah-wah?” It worked as a joke because we identify with it. Too often, it’s what we hear when others talk.

Effective advocacy begins with good listening, and that’s a learnable skill.

Or we could listen to the Kossascopes. (More)

Fred Whispering, Part III – Attitude and Technique (Plus Kossascopes)

This week Morning Feature will discuss how to be more convincing progressive advocates – whispering to Fred, our archetypal median voter – with a primary focus on listening. Wednesday we role-played some examples based on President Obama’s Oval Office address. Yesterday we considered why listening matters. Today we explore the techniques of active listening. Saturday we’ll discuss how to use what we learn by listening to be better advocates.

As we saw yesterday, at least on high-profile issues where there has been extensive public debate, elected Democrats tend to vote with their constituents. Some call that “a failure of leadership.” I call it “representative government.” Either way, we need majority popular support for more progressive candidates and ideas, both to win elections and to get better policy from our elected leaders. By definition, a popular majority must include the median voter.

Fred is a “different-information voter” who gets most of his information from talking to friends, co-workers, neighbors, and other people he meets. We progressives must join those discussions, or Fred will get only conservative input. In Morning Feature we call joining those discussions “Fred Whispering,” and it starts with listening so we can better understand Fred’s values: what matters most to him and why. Because as we saw yesterday, facts and logic won’t matter unless they appeal to Fred’s values.

The too-typical conversation: talking past each other.

Most of us have experienced conversations where we “talk past each other.” Worse, the more those involved care about the topic, the more likely that will happen. The more we care about the topic, the more likely we will frame the conversation as competition: a contest to be won. We get so focused on what we want to say that we stop hearing what the other person says. A few weeks ago I offered this subtext for a typical conversation with a teenager, but it also fits many adult conversations:

I talk: You should listen to the Important Things I say.

You talk: I think of Important Things to say when you finish.

In part we do that because we think much faster than we or others can speak. By the time the other person has said a handful of words, we begin guessing the rest of what they will say and formulating our response. We seem to listen, and may even believe we’re listening, but we’re really “thinking of Important Things to say when you finish.”

Not surprisingly, the other person often does the same, and rather than a dialogue we get alternating monologues that pass for conversation. We often don’t realize it until someone poses a straw man argument, rebutting something the other didn’t say. The straw man may be intentional – picking apart a similar but weaker position to score a victory – but more often it’s simply that someone heard a few words, guessed wrongly the rest of what would be said, and stopped listening while formulating a response.

There are techniques for active listening, and we’ll discuss them shortly, but active listening isn’t about a set of techniques. Is has to start with an attitude:

Fred matters more than winning the argument.

Back in January I offered “People matter more than profits” as a core progressive value. Today I’ll offer a corollary for progressive advocacy: Fred matters more than winning an argument. It comes down to whether we frame conversations with Fred as competition or as cooperation.

The Conversation=Competition frame has some serious flaws. It offers two initial states: (a) Fred already agrees; or, (b) Fred is an opponent.  If Fred already agrees, we celebrate joint belief without questioning whether we might both be wrong. If Fred is an opponent, we start to argue … and Fred either fights back or walks away. Either of those responses seems to prove Fred was an opponent and not to be trusted. What’s more, if Fred is an opponent then he’s one of Them. It’s all too easy to start arguing with a hypothetical radical right-winger as if Fred is their spokesperson – the straw man argument cited above – just because Fred doesn’t immediately agree. Even if we ‘win’ the argument, Fred may well walk away disgusted with us and our ideas. That ‘win’ may feel good, but it’s a personal victory … not a victory for progressive Democrats.

In the Conversation=Cooperation frame, we invite Fred into the progressive movement. Whether Fred accepts that at first offer – agrees immediately – matters less than whether we offer an inviting dialogue. Fred’s opinions, values, ideas, and feelings must be more important to us than ‘winning.’ We don’t have to agree, but we do have to consider the topic from Fred’s point of view. Active listening techniques can help, but only if we have an attitude of listening: Fred matters more than winning the argument.

Basic techniques: Receive, Reflect, Repeat, Respond

There are many approaches to active listening. Some suggest repeating aloud what the other person said, word for word. Others offer flow charts and other layered-on complexities. Any of them might be useful for you, but what works best for me is a four-step process:

  1. Receive – This includes not only listening to the words and inflections, but also observing expressions and body language. Try not to interpret at this stage. Put most simply, pay attention.
  2. Reflect – Once the person finishes, try to replay it in your mind – word-for-word, expression-for-expression – as if you had said it. For most of us, doing this triggers a cascade of thoughts-as-if, as our brains look for situations or conditions in which we might say those words that way. Don’t try to ‘make’ that happen; just ‘let’ it happen.
  3. Repeat – Clarify and confirm what you heard by repeating what the person said, exactly or with a generous paraphrase. Try to avoid straw men, not to create them. The point is to ensure that you heard and understood what the person said.
  4. Respond – Only now do you actually reply, if you need to reply at all. And often you don’t. We may do better by listening than by talking … especially if our “repeats” paraphrase Fred’s ideas in progressive terms. By doing that you say “We already agree in this sense,” and Fred will often build on that agreement for you.

This sounds slower and more cumbersome than it is in reality, but it does require some practice. It’s better to practice face-to-face with a friend who knows you are practicing, and better yet if the friend is trying to learn it with you.

Good listening helps satisfy one of the most basic human needs: to be heard. Meeting that need makes the progressive movement more inviting for Fred. And we need Fred as much as Fred needs us.


The Janitor Professor of Astrology needs some help too:

Gemini – People often listen to you. Just not the ones you talk to.

Cancer – I know you said something, but I was thinking about the Leos.

Leo – And if the Cancers hadn’t interrupted, I’d have something to say.

Virgo – Repeating Fred’s words in alphabetical order usually doesn’t help.

Libra – Imagine a world where everyone listened to you. Then wake up.

Scorpio – Fred thinks you’re a great listener. You should meet him.

Sagittarius – The “activity” in active listening is not Sudoku. Sorry.

Capricorn – It’s not texting either. Hold on, I have to check this….

Aquarius – The internet develops your listening skills: False or Absurd?

Pisces – Laughter sometimes indicates good listening. And sometimes not.

Aries – Don’t listen to that little voice that says “Don’t listen.” It echoes.

Taurus – We have one mouth, but two ears. And two eyes, but many hairs. So?


Happy Friday!