Karen McKim

Karen McKim
August 30
I have conservative values: I want to conserve things like our traditions of self-government, liberty, justice, religious freedom, voting rights, Medicare and Social Security, good public schools, clean air and water, sustainable management of our national resources, and safe communities. Because I do not want to sacrifice those things to increase the profits and power of international banks and oil companies, most would call me a liberal. Also blogging at karenmckim.wordpress.com

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JANUARY 23, 2012 1:33AM

Resources for talking to right-wing neighbors

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These are the books and other resources I've found helpful so far in learning about interpersonal political communication. I intend to update and add to this list as my study progresses.

Please let me know, in the comments section, about any other books or resources you can recommend.

Political messaging

George Lakoff is headmaster in the school of political communication for American progressives. A cognitive scientist, he has written numerous books. I have read only one so far, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist's Guide to Your Brain and its Politics. Check out his YouTube videos; the man knows how to talk. 

Frank Luntz is headmaster in the school of political communication for the American right wing.  So far, I have read only magazine articles, but his 2007 Words That Work is in my queue.

Progressive values

George Lakoff, among others, believes that progressives' tendency to chatter on about facts without framing our values is one reason we've been losing ground. But talking values and morals seems so, well, holier-than-thou, doesn't it? Garrison Keillor shows us how. His 2004 Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts from the Heart of America is a fun read that will get you firmly centered on the values that shape progressive political positions, "starting with the idea of don't take all the cookies even though no one else is looking. Think about the others."

Why our political conversations need to evoke values rather than just dump facts has never been explained better than in the first four chapters of Jonathon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Speaking to our logic-loving “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic" (WEIRD) culture, Haidt uses neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy to explain why humans need to have our hearts captured before we will open our minds. His last four chapters do a good job of explaining religion and other ‘groupishness’ that might get in the way of communication. I’m not recommending the middle four chapters, which speak about liberal and conservative 'moral matrices.' Haidt caricatures liberal values as focusing exclusively on care-of-the-vulnerable and fairness-as-equality-of-outcome. In doing so, he misses the most sacred liberal values, such as care-for-community and compassion-for-all. I don’t know if his descriptions of conservative values are similarly off the mark; I’ll have to ask a conservative friend.


Karen Armstrong is a world-renowned religious scholar who was awarded a TED prize and used it to start an international compassion movement, the Charter for Compassion. (Go to that website and sign. Right now.) Heavily influenced by all major wisdom traditions (a term I prefer to 'religions,' when I focus on their teachings rather than their ethnic, tribal, or organizational nature), Armstrong writes in a way that is accessible to people of any or no religious background. Her 2010  Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life is a beautifully written and practical approach to living more compassionately around the clock. The whole book is a treasure, but Chapter 8 "How Shall We Speak to One Another?" is most germane to the topic of effective interpersonal political communication. 

Communication among citizens in a democracy

Parker Palmer is an educator and founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. His 2011 book, Healing the Heart of Democracy is an exploration of the nature of democracy that is so beautifully written it approaches poetry in places. Read it to understand, down to your bone marrow, why progressive citizens need to reach out to our right-wing fellow citizens to restore civil civic discourse in America.

Compassionate communication

Marshal Rosenberg  developed a system for what he calls nonviolent communication or NVC, and what others (including me) prefer to call compassionate communication. He and his followers have a cottage industry in books and workshops that teach skills for connecting humanely with others in situations fraught with tension, hurt, anger, or even danger.  The basic book explaining the NVC approach is Nonviolent Communication: A Language for Life. In brief, the method relies upon recognition that all humans have the same set of basic needs (for belonging, respect,etc.); that certain predictable emotions arise when these needs are not met (fear, disgust, sorrow, etc.); that we choose different strategies to meet our needs; and that awareness and acknowledgement of our own and others' needs creates a solid basis for effective communication. I strongly recommend enrolling in an NVC workshop, if you can find one near you.

Angry and abusive people

Steven Stosny's work focuses mainly on emotionally abusive family relationships, but his techniques for dealing with angry people are useful in other situations. The messages of many who write in the area of domestic abuse and anger management boil down to a simple "leave" for the abused person and "stop it" for the abuser--if the abuser is addressed at all.  Stosny maintains a more humane and empathetic approach to the angry person and in doing so finds and explains ways to avoid getting upset by another's anger and to respond to it. His book is Love Without Hurt, 2008.


Michael Maslansky is partner with Frank Luntz (see above) in a right-wing political and business consulting firm. However, his 2011 The Language of Trust is a reasonably apolitical how-to book about persuasive communication techniques in what he calls today's "post-trust era." The book focuses primarily, though not exclusively, on business public relations and sales, but many of the concepts are useful in neighbor-to-neighbor conversations where trust is not fully present. For example, in one of his examples, he goes into some detail about how to convince a right-winger of the importance of health insurance reform.


It's been so long since I read Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (original 1981; 2nd edition 1991) and Fisher and Scott Brown's Getting Together: Building Relationships as We Negotiate (1989) I'm hesitant to write many specifics here. I can tell you this: 20 years ago, those books changed the way I conversed with others, and I'd bet that every difficult conversation I've had since was favorably affected.

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Thank you for this wonderful list. It sounds like everyone could benefit from these books, no matter what their political persuasion. We don't always have to be screaming at each other, trying to one-up each other with who's right and wrong. Civil discourse is so much more effective. So often I find I just clam up rather than get into it when someone I disagree with is getting on my nerves. I will be at my library tomorrow, looking up several of these.
I'm tempted to print this out and keep it handy should I find myself surrounded by extra-industrials bent on spewing nonsense!
Many people are searching answers to questions like, why we are here? Is there a God? Is there life on other planets? When are we going to have a cure for cancer? I know the answers to all these questions. The only question that haunts me is why do Right Wing religious fundamentalists believe against their own interest. This is why I can never have a civil conversation with any of them.

Thank you so much for this comprehensive list of resources. I do appreciate it. Glad to have read you. R
A wealth of great stuff here, Karen. Thanks! I've read Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant" and am working on "Political Mind" now.
Another one I found helpful is Thom Hartmann's "Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America's Original Vision."

(fyi: the link for the Charter for Compassion is broken)
Andrew, thanks for the new reference and for noticing the broken link. I love Thom Hartman's work; I don't know how I missed that! Thanks again!