The Yes campaign is failing. If nothing changes soon, then October 14 will see constitutional reform fail, setting back recognition and reconciliation by years, if not decades.

And no amount of impassioned speeches by politicians, mass rallies by the Yes faithful, uplifting advertisements or – dare I say – editorial columns are likely to shift the needle towards Yes.

This is because voters who are currently unsure or leaning towards No have tuned out the “official” platforms. Their trust in mainstream media outlets has collapsed to single digit figures. It’s not even that they’ve switched to social media. It turns out that the only ones who have their ear are friends, family and colleagues. In this age of mass cynicism and social media schisms, it’s good old-fashioned relationships that still matter.

So, if you believe in the Voice, as I do, if you believe it represents an opportunity for Australia to take meaningful steps towards reconciliation with First Nations peoples, and if you believe it could be a stepping stone to a more unified Australia that each of us can be proud of, then your time to act is now.

But how? The key is to leverage the power of relationships and dive into conversations with your friends and relatives, especially people over the age of 55, who are currently the most likely to vote No. That’s your parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, or if you’re in that age group yourself, your childhood friends or neighbours.

If the prospect of starting a “political” conversation with family members fills you with dread, that’s understandable. These conversations often succumb to pitfalls that only increase animosity and polarisation. But get them right and they can be transformational. If you’re brave enough to strike up a conversation over the dinner table, here’s how to do so constructively. In fact, these tips can help you have better conversations regardless of how you intend to vote.

First: show respect. It’s all too easy (and, in some circles, encouraged) to believe that those who disagree with us must be either stupid or malicious. Sometimes they are. But signalling disrespect is a surefire way to kill any possibility of persuasion. Even the faintest whiff of disrespect triggers defensiveness, and when that happens, constructive conversation is over.

One way to show respect is to hold your tongue and listen – really listen. Often, people get belligerent because they don’t feel heard. That means two of the biggest tools in your arsenal are your ears. Just listening carefully, asking a few questions and repeating back a summary of what they have said can be transformative. It makes them feel heard and it gives you a fighting chance of understanding where they’re coming from.

Do this before you’ve shared your views. Our natural tendency when we hear someone say something we don’t agree with is to immediately open our mouths and tell them that we think differently. But this sets you at loggerheads from the outset. Instead, hold back. Hear them out and show you’re interested into getting to the bottom of the matter. That way it’s not a tug of war between the two of you but one where you’re on the same side pulling against ignorance.

While listening, you’re likely to hear them offer reasons to support their view. Some will be authentic, but many will be post-hoc rationalisations of deeper unstated motivations. You can spot a post-hoc rationalisation because when you show that it’s false, it doesn’t change their mind. That means it was never the real motivation for their beliefs, just a distraction.

The trick is not to challenge or fact check post-hoc rationalisations head-on but to change the way they perceive the issue in the first place. Once you’ve generated enough goodwill, offer an alternative perspective on the issue. You don’t need to encourage, let alone demand, they adopt your perspective, just offer it as your reason for voting the way you intend to.

You’re nearly done. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve done just about all anyone can do in a single conversation. Thank them and move on to something else. Let them mull over your perspective, and perhaps in the next conversation you might be able to go deeper. Minds rarely change in a single sitting.

Of course, there will be times when the conversation goes off the rails. Maybe your discipline cracks and you scoff at one of their remarks. Perhaps they refuse to engage in good faith. Maybe they just want to troll you to get a reaction. If any of these happen, back out. Focus instead on reinforcing the relationship based on other shared values – family, sport, food, whatever it is that brings you together – so perhaps in the next conversation they won’t feel the need to get defensive, or offensive.

Good conversations, particularly persuasive ones, take work. But it is possible to avoid the worst pitfalls and have a constructive discussion. If even a few unsure voters are swayed, it could shift the tide of the referendum. And given the Voice is about being heard, it’s rather fitting each of our voices could help make the difference.


An edited version of this article appears in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Image: AAP Image/Jono Searle

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