I recently watched an amazing TED talk (TED.com) that was not only fascinating but contained practical information which can be applied in numerous common situations. The talk itself focused on how we can reach others with different beliefs or viewpoints. As an attorney, I spend a lot of time trying to convince others to see things the way I, or, more importantly, how my client sees them. As a result, this talk was especially relevant to me, and I thought the information could be helpful to anyone who negotiates deals, talks politics with friends, or ever has a conversation with someone who has a different opinion.

How Megan Phelps-Roper was convinced to change

The TED speaker was Megan Phelps-Roper. Ms. Phelps-Roper is the granddaughter of Fred Phelps, and daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper, of the extremely controversial Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. She grew up in the church, and started marching on church protest lines and holding offensive signs at age 5. Virtually her entire family were members of the church, and it was all she knew growing up. But, a few years ago, she made the decision to leave the church, and her family and friends, behind. In this TED talk, Megan Phelps-Roper explains how people were able to reach her and convince her to see the world in a different light.

The first thing that I noticed about this talk is that Ms. Phelps-Roper is not telling us how she prevailed on others. In fact, her talk is all about how other people were able to convince her to change her views. So the perspective is fascinating – I know these techniques work because they worked on me. The next thing I noticed is that Ms. Phelps-Roper expressed no rancor or bitterness towards anyone. She acknowledges the hurt that Westboro’s words and conduct may have caused, and she apologizes, but she does not turn on her family in any way. I think she wishes they would reconsider what they are doing and saying, but she does it in a kind way. It is clear she has elected to move forward without burning bridges.

As part of her work for the Westboro Baptist Church, Ms. Phelps-Roper engaged on social media. She sent posts and tweets pushing the church’s message, often using hateful sounding phrases. The goal of her social media was not to engage in civil conversation but to enrage and provoke the other side. It was speech that appealed only to those who already agreed with her and insulted or belittled anyone who disagreed. If you think this sounds like current political discourse, you are not alone. Megan Phelps-Ropers discusses her fear the current political scene is falling into the trap she fell into as part of Westboro Baptist Church. Many of her ideas are expressed with the hope of facilitating more productive and reasonable political discourse. Somehow, despite the fact she was acting more as agitator than reasoned philosopher, some people were able to break through to her. In her talk, Megan Phelps-Roper outlines four steps those people took that allowed them to reach her.

  • Don’t Assume Bad Intent
  • Ask Questions
  • Stay Calm
  • Make the Argument
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She referred to these as four steps that made real conversation possible. It is those four steps that I found to be so profound and practical that I wanted to share them with you in a short series of articles.

How to better engage with people who may not see the world the same way we do.

The first step is to assume the party you are dealing with has a neutral or good intent, rather than a bad intent. As Ms. Phelps-Roper says in her talk, “Assuming ill motives almost instantly cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do.” She goes on to say, “When we assume good or neutral intent, we give our minds a much stronger framework for dialogue.”

This simple idea, that we start conversations or negotiations from a neutral view, is incredibly powerful. Here’s an example of a divorced couple where mom has been given the majority of parenting time and dad is paying child support. When dad requests more parenting time a very common response is that he is only attempting to reduce child support payments and not because he really wants to spend more time with the children. I have even seen judges make this assumption from the bench, asking a young dad, “So, am I right in assuming this is about child support?” Not surprisingly, dad then responds by arguing that mom is actually the one fixated on the money and the only reason she is refusing to grant him more time is so she can collect more child support. Notice what has happened in this scenario. Each party assumed a bad intent on the other party. Mom assumes dad just wants to save money because he is a cheapskate; dad assumes mom is a money grubber who only wants to maximize support. The entire conversation has broken down immediately. The other thing to notice is the reason for the breakdown has almost nothing to do with the original issue. Dad asked for more time with the children. Now they are fighting over child support and calling each other greedy. The actual issue for discussion is not being discussed at all.

Obviously in case like this it is very easy to assume a bad intent. Both parties have a history that likely includes a lot of distrust. But, if both sides would agree to assume a neutral motive instead, the conversation could be much more productive. Mom could point out that dad’s job starts at 7:30 on the Plaza, and the kids’ school doesn’t start until 8:15 in Olathe, so dad’s request for additional time during the school week will not work for the children. But, we could look at days the children are out of school. Or, dad might be able to arrange to go in at 9:00 every Thursday, because he works late on Tuesdays to attend a weekly teleconference with the home office. Just by deciding not to assume a bad intent the conversation gets more productive, and we actually spend time talking about the issue we were intending to discuss.

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Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

In Roger Fisher and William Ury co-written book on negotiation, called Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, they express a similar idea to Megan Phelps-Roper’s first step. Chapter 2 of their book is called “Separate the People from the Problem.” They list several tips for how to do this. One of those tips is “don’t blame them for your problem.” Another tip is “don’t deduce their intentions from your fears.” These tips are simple ways to follow Megan Phelps-Roper’s first step. To highlight the potential pitfalls of not following these tips, the authors use the following example:

People tend to assume that whatever they fear, the other side intends to do. Consider this story from the New York Times: “They met in a bar, where he offered her a ride home. He took her down unfamiliar streets. He said it was a shortcut. He got her home so fast she caught the 10 o’clock news.” Why is the ending so surprising? We made an assumption based on our fears.
The first step can often be the most difficult. But, if we want our conversations to be more productive and meaningful, we all need to take that first step. This is true whether we are discussing a tense negotiation or a casual conversation with friends about third-rail political issues. Simply giving the other side the common courtesy, and benefit of the doubt, to assume their motives are neutral rather than evil can get the conversation off on the right foot.
The remaining three steps will be covered in future articles. Stay tuned for Step Two: Ask Questions.

The TED talk can be found at TED.com and on YouTube.com. It is just over 15 minutes and was filmed in February, 2017.
Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, Second Edition. Fisher, Roger and Ury, William with Patton, Bruce. Penguin Books. 1991.