The proverbial visitor from Mars – especially one who was here for a return visit — might be pardoned for wondering how societies across the globe have become so polarized in their beliefs.  Whether it’s the Trump crowd, or its opposite, or the Brexit fans or the Remain folks, or the Marine le Pen people or les autres – every formerly civilized country seems to have become weirdly bifurcated with no middle ground remaining.

That leaves speakers in an awkward position.  Do you bring up the giant political elephant in the room, or do you leave it standing there, glaring, blocking everyone’s view of just about anything else?  And if you do bring up the cultural divide, in any context, how do you handle it?

My Facebook feed has become a wasteland of worry on one side or the other, and what’s really difficult is that the sides aren’t even looking at, or celebrating, or obsessing about the same things.  They’re occupying two different, parallel universes, and they don’t even overlap much, let alone talk to one another.

Of course that’s worrisome on a number of levels, but the particularly issue I found myself worrying about recently was whether or not you could actually argue productively with the other side.  I mean, would the facts of the matter make any difference?  Given that these parallel worldviews seem to be held with passionate conviction on both sides, is there any possibility of changing people’s mind with some sort of argument?

And if so, what would it look like?

Fortunately, neuroscience comes to the rescue.  Apparently it is possible to persuade people, even those holding very deeply to their views, to reconsider those tenets – if you go about it in a highly counter-intuitive way.

And this holds an interesting insight for speakers of all stripes who are trying to bridge the current divide, or simply talk to people who think differently from them on any subject at all.

The secret is not to argue, but to agree.

But agree in a very specific way.

Take the most extreme version of the view that your audience holds (and from which you wish to dislodge them) and embrace that.  Then tell that you agree with them, the audience, because they believe this version of the argument.

Don’t mess around with trying to find middle ground, in short.  Double down.  Embrace your inner extremist.

But begin by telling them you agree with them.

This is the rhetorical equivalent of Nixon going to China.  Back in those days, a more liberal President couldn’t have managed it, but Nixon could, because he was seen to be strong on the subject of world communism.  He wasn’t going over to the enemy, he was taking it to the enemy.

Much different.

So if you want to argue the rights and wrongs of this infinitely depressing moment in world history, agree with your enemies – or at least the audience in front of you.  Embrace the extreme.  Then, try to walk the argument back from the abyss.

This rhetorical approach, in fact, is similar to an ancient Greek method of argument:  reductio ad absurdum, where you appear to embrace an argument and then take it to its extreme.  Expel all the undesirable foreigners from our country?  Why stop there?  Let’s start subjecting people to purity tests.  Unless you’ve been in this country for, oh, eight generations, then you should be sent back to wherever it is your ancestors came from.

If you can get your audience to see the extreme nature of their views, by holding them up to (very gentle) ridicule, rather than criticism, then that is the first step toward getting them to change those views.  The problem with our cultural divide today is that it has normalized the extremes and led people to believe that the beliefs they hold are not crazy.  Embracing the craziness rather than ranting against it may be a first step in the right direction.

Learn how to argue effectively and other essentials of public speaking at our Power Public Speaking workshop in Boston March 31st.  Space is limited so please sign up soon – click here.





  1. There’s wisdom in what you’re saying here, Nick. I can’t imagine touching a political rail when presenting a keynote unless it’s the point of the presentation.

    The clearest voice in my life for your subject matter is a neighbor of yours: Havard’s Dan Shapiro. His book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable is masterful at explaining how to navigate cultural and political divides. The tribal mindset is so deep in our culture now that anyone who assumes they are going to change someone’s mind through a social media post or a speech is likely naive.

    Shapiro would suggest we not think of the people with other views as enemies, but offers far more than platitudes as strategies. If someone would like to hear Dan talk about this in his own voice, check out:

    Thanks for helping us think differently, Nick!

    1. Thanks, Andy, both for the comment and the link. I know Dan’s work; it’s great stuff. I’ve noticed two trends since the American election, one probably short-term only, the other longer term. First, some groups just spontaneously want to talk about President Trump, even if the subject matter is only somewhat related. Mostly, those groups are liberal and still feeling bereft as a result of the election. Second, the political is seeping into more speaking situations, not directly (as in the first instance) but more indirectly. The tribal thing is precisely bigger than just whom you voted for; it’s also a mindset that covers a lot of things. So there are more moments in speeches where there’s a possibility (or a risk) to touch on the political.

  2. Love your ancient Greek method of argument. Maybe another way is to start with something everyone agrees on, like Clinton did with kids smoking. Almost everybody would agree that it’s not a good idea for kids to smoke. Find common ground and expand it.

    1. Thanks, Julie for your comment. And yes, starting with areas of agreement is a classic way to begin attempting to talk about a controversial subject. It’s often the way negotiators start, too.

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