One of my first jobs was at a call center. It was a while back but something one of the trainers said to us during onboarding stuck with me:
The people with the least amount of power are the people most likely to use it.
What he meant was that people who feel powerless seem to be more likely to try to exert the little power they have. For example, when someone is calling you and their computer is broken, they feel powerless. For this reason, they’re often quite angry and “demandy,” to coin a term. They’ll often demand that you do something immediately, as if somehow this is going to fix things faster.
Perhaps this lesson has stuck with me because of how often I’ve observed it to be true. Why care? Because I think this has a lot to do with the current state of politics. And if you recognize it, it can help you have better political conversations.
How this was used in our contact center training
Basically, I learned that a lot of angry people were going to call—some of them justified, many of them not. All of them angry. If you’re going to help them, you’re going to have to deal with the anger.
How I learned to do this was by convincing them that I was going to help them. Yes, that’s right. I was an honest technical support center rep. I was also pretty skilled though, and could almost always actually help them. So what I’d do is say, “Let’s get this fixed.” And if that didn’t work, which it often didn’t, I’d remind them, “I’m going to help you but we need to work on this together.”
Then, I’d simply ask them to start going through the troubleshooting steps with me. No matter how qualified they claimed they were. Because, more often than not, the problem was something simple. If I genuinely thought someone was pretty qualified I’d say something like, “I’m sorry this is tedious for you. You seem pretty knowledgeable but I need to check the boxes so I can eliminate these things as well.”
Now don’t get me wrong—I hate calling technical support today. Especially because if I’m calling, the first guy I get can almost never help me. In other words, I am that qualified guy who gets impatient. But I remember that the agent doesn’t know this and try to keep my goal in mind of getting to someone who does.
This is more what actual power looks like—keeping the goal in mind, and understanding what’s going on with the other person.
How this relates to politics
People tend to feel powerless when it comes to politics.
Unfortunately, there are those who understand this very well and spend a great deal of time talking to these people and aiming them at targets that aren’t really responsible. Let’s call these targets scapegoats: Anyone who is “different” from these generally white, male, blue collar workers.
This said, the disenfranchised who these folks attack also often feel quite powerless. So the tendency is to attack back, reinforcing the view that there are two “sides” who are at war with each other. Meanwhile, the one percent buy off members of Congress and rewrite the rules in their favor.
When conservatives say there are two “sides,” this is what they mean. This is very different than there actually being two groups of people who are somehow intrinsically different from each other. It’s more like fans of two different sports teams who are really the same, except when it comes to their sports team.
Yet the sports team can make people feel powerful when it wins. These are some of the emotions behind political discussions.
Conservative pundits show conservatives how to exert a small amount of power over liberals by saying outrageous things. If you call them stupid, they will then fight you to the grave.
The people with the least power are the most likely to use it.
What to do?
But you know this. Or at least you’ve seen it. The bigger question is:.Is there anything you can do?
The simplest answer I’ve found is to like them.
I know this is hard. And I am not by any means saying “agree with them.” You should never say anything you don’t believe. I am always 100 percent honest.
Because I like people and because I understand how powerless they feel and can put this into words, they’re often more willing to listen to me. When we’re not talking about politics, I joke with them. I talk about music. I talk about things I’m doing. I get to know them and talk about some of the things we have in common.
Here’s a few more easy ones:
And there’s many more. Often, I’ll offer to help with something. I’ve actually, drawing back on my technical support knowledge, helped many folks with computer or software issues. My standing policy is that the advice comes with no strings attached—we can still disagree.
I also find it easier to like conservatives by remembering that these people aren’t like the pundits on TV. They don’t tend to be deliberately trying to mislead. They tend to have simply bought into some really bad ideas.
Another way to say this is that what you really don’t like is the behavior, not the person.
How do you talk about politics then?
It’s actually easy if you can get to this point. I’m honest and I always make sure to talk about what I believe—and what I’m doing.
For example, with it looking like Hillary Clinton is going to win the nomination, I’ve been asked if I’m going to vote for Clinton.
“Yes” is the easy answer. I then typically get accused of being some kind of hypocrite for having supported Bernie Sanders.
What I say is something that typically looks like the following:
I believe in democracy, equality, freedom, a middle class, and an economy that works for everyone. I have no illusions though. I know I’m going to have to fight Clinton on these things if she’s elected. I think there’s a better chance she’ll listen.
By talking about me and what I believe, I don’t come off as “attacking” people, they’re far more likely to listen to me, and my opinion is often received better simply because I like people. It’s not fun for people to try to exercise some small amount of power over me.
It’s hard, I know, because some of the things they say are designed specifically to make people angry. It helps to remember that the people with the least amount of power are the people most likely to use it.
David Akadjian is the author of The Little Book of Revolution: A Distributive Strategy for Democracy. Cross posted at Daily Kos.