Yesterday we again met Fred, the archetypal median voter whose support we need to win elections. To get Fred’s support, start by listening. (More)

Back to Work, Part II: Fred Whispering, Again

This week Morning Feature will discuss getting back to work on grassroots political activism. Yesterday we reviewed Fred, our archetypal median voter. Today we revisit Fred Whispering, those vital one-to-one conversations with voters. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with the importance of planning and working together.

What is Fred Whispering?

We use the term “Fred Whispering” to mean one-to-one, usually face-to-face conversations with voters like Fred. Advertisers call it buzz marketing. We call it “Fred Whispering” to focus our attention on who Fred is, and on the attitude we should try to maintain during these conversations.

You may meet Fred while canvassing or phone-banking. You may meet Fred at work, in your neighborhood, at a religious or civic event, at a repair shop, in an elevator, or a waiting room. You may start the conversation, or you may join one that is already happening. The conversation may begin with Fred directly, or Fred may be listening while you talk with someone else. While archetypal Fred is an independent, the Fred you meet may be a registered Democrat or even a disaffected Republican. Regardless, Fred has not decided whom to vote for, or perhaps whether to vote at all.

Fred Whispering is vital because, as we discussed yesterday, these conversations are how Fred gets his news. Media surveys show Fred doesn’t watch cable news unless they’re covering a breaking event, or listen to talk radio. He may scan headlines if he sees a newspaper or when he logs on the internet, but he doesn’t subscribe to a newspaper or read political blogs. In short, if Fred doesn’t hear positive messages about progressive ideas and Democratic candidates from conversations with people like you … Fred may not hear those messages at all.

Two common objections:

Still, when I talk about Fred Whispering with activists, I often meet two objections. One is valid insofar as it goes. The other is dangerous.

1. “Fred is not our base” – This objection says that, as grassroots Democratic activists, our job is to turn out base Democratic voters. Reaching Fred, in this theory, is up to the candidates themselves. And in terms of of allocating grassroots volunteers, research shows we gain more votes-per-contact-hour if our canvass and phone-bank lists focus on registered Democrats. But we’re still likely to meet the Fred during that process, and we will meet Fred in other settings. Fred may not be on our contact list, but that’s no excuse to ignore the Fred we meet. Finally, Fred Whispering should be an ongoing effort between election seasons. For grassroots Democratic activists, Fred Whispering should be a habit, not an assigned task.

2. “Fred should…” – This objection says that if Fred should research progressive policies and Democratic candidates on his own. If he hasn’t, he’s too lazy or too stupid to understand why our ideas and candidates are better. Thus we should not waste our time with him. But as progressives, we have to deal with Realworldia. In Realworldia, Fred has a job and a family and friends and stuff to do. Politics are not at the top of his priority list. But Fred still votes and, by definition, we need Fred’s vote to win. What’s more, insulting Fred is not a good way to convince him to vote for us. So flush that should.

How not to Fred Whisper – a typical conversation:

Whenever we care deeply about a topic, we tend to frame the conversation as competition, a contest to be won. We can get so focused on what we want to say that we stop hearing what the other person says, and the conversation really happens like this:

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. 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 debating point – 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 at its core active listening isn’t about technique. Is starts with an attitude:

Fred matters more than winning an argument.

One of our core progressive values at BPI is “People matter more than profits.” When it comes to talking with Fred, there’s a corollary: Fred matters more than winning an argument.

The Conversation As Competition frame has some serious flaws. In that frame, either Fred already agrees or 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 personally, but it’s not a victory for progressive Democrats.

In the Conversation As Cooperation frame, we invite Fred into the progressive movement. Whether Fred accepts immediately, or even during that conversation, matters less than whether we have 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 start with the attitude that 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 take 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.

As you’re listening to Fred, listen for shared values. Fred may express those values in different words: “Rich people have too much power” rather than “People matter more than profits,” or “Politicians just argue with each other” rather than “We need good government.” Once we identify those shared values, we can discuss why progressive policies and Democratic candidates give us a better chance – not a guarantee, but a better chance – to realize those values.

If you can’t find any shared values, you’re not going to agree on policies or candidates. Arguing further will only make both of you angry. Thank Fred for the conversation, and move on.

Fred Whispering is usually an individual task, but we can’t rely on individual effort. Tomorrow we’ll discuss why we need to plan and work together, in local party and/or campaign groups, over the coming year.


Happy Friday!