Common Ground, Common Good

What I learned as a liberal talking head on Fox News (+video)

For a radical progressive who once harbored negative stereotypes about folks on the right, it was a turning point for me: Though Sean Hannity or Sarah Palin and I disagree profoundly on politics – they're personable, kind, and human. If you want to persuade people, you can’t demonize them.

By , Op-ed contributor

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    Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorses Pete Ricketts, Republican candidate for governor of Nebraska, during a news conference April 4 at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island, Neb. Op-ed contributor Sally Kohn writes: 'I've learned that the ideological labels that feel so firm and unyielding among the professional political class are rather malleable among ordinary Americans.'
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In the fall of 2013, I gave a TED talk on what I learned as a progressive, on-air talking head at Fox News, where I worked for two years before leaving and joining my current home, CNN. After all, one of the most frequent questions I was asked during my time at Fox was how I did it, how I was a fox in the henhouse – or a hen in the Fox house, if you will.

The questions came mostly from fellow liberals who had not watched much Fox News but had seen the most outlandish clips of Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity that had made it to "The Daily Show" or YouTube. They perhaps imagined that walking down the hallway outside makeup, Mr. O'Reilly might yell then, too, instead of just saying hello. That's a funny notion, but it couldn't be further from the truth.

My time at Fox News was marked by meeting and working with some of the kindest, smartest, and most talented people I've had the pleasure of meeting in life. As I said in my TED talk, Sean Hannity is one of the sweetest people you'll ever meet – and even now that I've parted ways with Fox, he remains a good friend and mentor.

Recommended: How much do you know about bipartisanship? Take our quiz.

For a radical progressive who once harbored negative stereotypes about folks on the right, it was a turning point for me to meet people such as Mr. Hannity, Karl Rove, Monica Crowley, Sarah Palin, and so many others, and see that – though we certainly disagree profoundly on political issues – they're personable and kind and human. Just like me.

It's strange to suggest that a seemingly simple realization such as that is in fact a profound revelation, but in our hyperpartisan era, when we often vilify the other side as being less-than-human, it is.

We all want the same things

Once I had that experience with some of the most visible voices on "the other side" – in my case, the right – it was an easy leap to find connection and compassion with everyday conservative audiences. These aren't evil people, either, or stupid, or any of the other things that some liberals, in their lowest moments, have suggested. In fact, in many cases, I've learned that the ideological labels that feel so firm and unyielding among the professional political class are rather malleable among ordinary Americans.

Most people just want a better life for themselves and their kids. And they're worried about the things they see as barriers to that opportunity – whether it's big banks gobbling up all the money and real estate titles or higher taxes or struggling public schools or the cost of food. In real communities in real places across the United States, I've found that liberals and conservatives share many of the same concerns and problems and simply gravitate toward two different sides in searching for solutions.

Kindness is persuasive

Personally, I agree with the side that says our problems, our barriers to opportunity, are the result of runaway economic inequality baked into our society by giant corporations that have crippled our government and our community supports in order to get whatever they want, and as much of it, at our expense.

But if I want that viewpoint – and those who share it – to get more powerful, so that we can fix these systemic problems once and for all, then demonizing people who disagree with me won't help. In fact, I need to persuade them. And no one will even listen to your argument, let alone agree with you, if they think you don't like them.

This is where it comes full circle: According to social science research, we're more likely to be persuaded by people we like and we're more inclined to like people who, we think, like us. For instance, in one study that appeared in the February 2010 Journal of Marketing Research, researchers would either compliment or criticize subjects and then ask the subjects for a favor. When the researchers gave positive comments, not only did the subjects report liking the researcher more but they were indeed more likely to perform the requested favor.

The bottom line: We respond more positively to and are persuaded by people who treat us pleasantly.

'Emotional correctness'

That is the essence of my lessons from working at Fox News and the idea behind what I call "emotional correctness" – that the key to persuasion, the key to being an effective communicator in general, in any aspect of life, is making authentic, compassionate emotional connections. Emotional correctness is how we say what we say. It's not only the words or tone we use but the feelings we signal when we communicate. It's how we show respect for others even if we don't agree with their opinions.

If you were a salesperson trying to persuade a potential client to switch suppliers, you would be kind and friendly to that client, not dismiss them as stupid or worse for their current supplier choice. So if you're trying to sell an idea – whether on the national political stage or at a family dinner with your uncle – why would you behave any differently? Kindness, respect, finding the basic goodness and human dignity in everyone – that is the essence of emotional correctness, and that is how we begin the conversations that lead to change.

Sally Kohn is a CNN contributor and columnist for The Daily Beast and was previously a Fox News contributor and regular guest on MSNBC. Ms. Kohn is ranked by Mediaite as one of the top 100 most influential television pundits in America. Her website is sallykohn.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @sallykohn/

Note to Readers: Are you working with others who don’t share your views in order to solve a problem in your community or beyond? E-mail us about it at commonground@csmonitor.com.

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