How to Build an Exit Ramp for Trump Supporters
Deepak Malhotra has a very interesting article in the “negotiations” section of the Harvard Business Review:
Despite recent setbacks — from video of Donald Trump bragging about committing sexual assaults, to increasing concerns regarding his preparedness and temperament, to the unprecedented pace at which high-profile Republicans are pulling their support — polls show that approximately 40% of likely voters continue to support Trump. On the one hand, this is good news for Clinton supporters who foresee a comfortable margin of victory. On the other, unless Trump loses by historic margins, it is bad news for America.
When Americans wake up on November 9, we will need to reexamine how we can work with and live with each other. We will have to re-learn how to respect and listen to one another. It’s never easy after a national election, but it has also never been more difficult. There is one simple reason for this. While presidential candidates of both parties, throughout American history, have often relied on fear and anger to boost their electoral odds, Trump is the first major party candidate to have relied so intensely on hate.
Hate is unique in its ability to spare neither perpetrator nor victim. It’s very hard to hate without inspiring hate in others. Hate is not easily contained. Fear can grow or shrink, anger can escalate or subside, but hate sinks in. It becomes a part of us. It even begins to dictate what is to be feared, why we should be angry, and who is good or evil. Fear and anger might make it difficult for us to work with each other, but hate strips away our willingness to even try.
It’s normal—and okay—for some people to be jubilant and others to be upset after an election. It’s okay for fear and even anger to linger in the wake of a national referendum. There is a lot at stake. But hate is not normal, and it cannot be allowed to gain legitimacy. If it does, it can irreparably rend the constituent fabric of a country.
If this ends up being a close election, it will allow hate to retain the foothold it needs to survive. That is why, for the first time in U.S. history, Americans need one candidate—in this case, Donald Trump—to lose decisively. A loss of historic proportions is the only way to ensure that future candidates are never again tempted to consort with the politics of hate. It is the only outcome that will allow Americans of tomorrow to peer into the reflecting pool of history and say “that is not who we are.”
So how do we get there? Is it really possible to change the minds of those who continue to support Donald Trump? In some cases, almost certainly not. But in others, I am confident that it is. More generally, how can you nudge someone to reevaluate a deep-seated belief? How do you make progress when people are entrenched in their positions? How can you convince someone to abandon a course of action to which they are emotionally, ideologically, or publically committed?
In my research, consulting, advisory work with businesses and governments, and in my bookNegotiating the Impossible, I focus precisely on situations that seem hopeless. One of the problems that we regularly face in these environments is how to get someone to challenge a long-held belief or preference. As it turns out, having facts and data on your side is not enough. If someone’s ego or identity is on the line, overwhelming them with evidence will do little good.
If you want people to change course, you have to create an “exit ramp” for them. This entails creating the space and safety they need to acknowledge and pursue a better way forward. Here’s how you might go about doing that when the situation is emotionally or ideologically charged.
- Don’t force them to defend their beliefs. Whether you’re having drinks at a bar or scrolling through your Facebook feed, when you come across someone whose views you find abhorrent or absurd, it’s tempting to engage them in a debate. After all, it seems like a reasonable way to get someone to change their mind. The problem is, when you tell people they are wrong, stupid, immoral or irrational, they simply dig in and get more entrenched in their views. This is because no matter how confident you are that they are misguided, they will always be able to find at least one line of defense. All they need is one reason that you might be wrong, one weakness in your argument, or one factor that supports their position—and then they can claim it is the most important factor in the entire debate. When your “discussion” is over, they are more firmly committed to their position than they were before.
- Provide information, and then give them time. When dealing with someone who passionately disagrees with you, a more effective approach than debating is to provide information without demanding anything in return. You might say (or post on Facebook) something along the lines of: “That’s interesting. Here’s some information I came across. You might find it useful given your interest in this topic.” Or, “when you get a chance, I’d appreciate you taking a look at this.” You’ve done about as much as you can for now. If they can consider what you’ve said without carrying the additional burden of having to agree with you, it is more likely it sinks in a little bit. This is why, over weeks and months, polls do change. Trump has lost ground as additional information about his behavior and temperament and weak grasp of issues has come to light. But the change doesn’t tend to happen during a heated argument. It doesn’t happen immediately.
- Don’t fight bias with bias. . . .
The whole list is worth considering, and it obviously has broader application than just Trump/Clinton. Later in the list:
- Help them save face. Just because you’ve finally convinced someone that they were wrong, or that they should reconsider their point of view, doesn’t mean they will actually change course. People won’t change their behavior if they can’t find a way to do it without losing face. The question we often fail to ask is: have we made it safe for them to change course? How will they change their mind without looking like they have been foolish or naïve? If you can’t find a way for them to change their attitude or actions without being able to save face, you still have a problem.
- Give them the cover they need. Often what’s required is some change in the situation—however small or symbolic—that allows them to say, “That’s why I changed my mind.” For example, a former Trump supporter who is looking to abandon Trump might find the excuse they need to do so after a poor debate performance (“It showed me he is not prepared for the job”), a new allegation of sexual assault (“It’s now too many for them to have all been made up”), or a recent Trump attack on other Republicans (“Going after Paul Ryan shows that he really isn’t a conservative”). For most people, these events are just “one more thing” that happened, but don’t underestimate the powerful role they can play in helping people who, while finally mentally ready to change their position, are worried about how to take the last, decisive step.
UPDATE: And very relevant to the above, read “The white flight of Derek Black,” by Eli Saslow, which describes how going to college, learning new ideas, and making new friends allowed a young white nationalist to wake up, re-evaluate his beliefs, and find a new direction. Well worth reading and a very interesting story about how much a college can affect the direction of one’s life.
UPDATE 2: And read “Unfollow” in the New Yorker about a woman raised in the Westboro Baptist Church (“God hates fags”) and her awakening.