How Not To Win Friends….Or Persuade People

When he was asked about policy disagreements, former Indiana Senator Dick Lugar had a favorite saying: “That’s something about which reasonable people can disagree.”

That attitude–that recognition that well-meaning people can come to different conclusions–is the foundation of civil discourse and democratic deliberation. Unfortunately, Americans have lost that essential insight (along with the reasonable GOP to which Lugar belonged).

What triggered this recollection was a distasteful display at a recent meeting of the Indianapolis Public School Board. (In the interests of full disclosure, our daughter is a member of that Board, which also includes a former student of mine.)

Serving on a school board, or City Council, or on one of the City’s many boards and commissions is often a (thankless) labor of love, undertaken by people who care deeply about the missions of those bodies and who spend innumerable hours reviewing reports and budgets and meeting with concerned citizens. That doesn’t mean that every decision they make is the right one, or the best that could be made–but in most instances, those decisions have been made in good faith after many hours of weighing the available information and debating alternatives.

Like many other urban districts, IPS educates significantly fewer students than it used to. In 1968, the district’s high school enrollment was 26,107; this year, it is 5,352. The current capacity of the seven high school buildings it operates is 14,450–nearly three times the number of students attending them. The money spent operating and maintaining buildings with so much excess capacity could be better spent improving classroom performance, and the  Board has recently faced up to the necessity of closing three of its underused schools.

Such decisions are always difficult and contentious.

The Board has scheduled meetings around the district to explain its deliberations and to hear community responses to the planned closures. At its most recent meeting, members heard from a self-identified “urban education expert” who holds an academic appointment at a local university. This individual has testified at previous Board meetings, and his presentations have been consistently arrogant and accusatory: he has lectured the Board that it is “amateurish,” accused members of being “bought and paid for,” and characterized their elections as “undemocratic.” Rather than a courteous sharing of perspective or evidence, he has delivered boorish, self-righteous  rants–the sorts of performances that give academics a bad name.

He outdid himself at the recent meeting. Board members had ulterior motives; board members hadn’t really looked at alternatives; the pending closures would ruin the lives of students whose schools were being closed. (I’m not making this up.) He topped it off by telling the white members of the Board they were racists. (He’s white.) He rarely looked at the Board during this extended diatribe; instead, he aimed his rhetoric at  the largely African-American attendees who were clearly his real audience.

Not exactly how one wins friends and influences decision-makers.

I don’t understand people who behave this way. I assume–perhaps naively–that people attend and testify at public meetings in order to influence policy, to offer perspectives that may not have been considered or pose questions that might not have been asked.

Telling policymakers that they are corrupt, racist ignoramuses who don’t know as much as you do is not a strategy likely to persuade them to your point of view, and it certainly isn’t the evidence-based, informative testimony we should expect from an “expert.” (It’s worth noting that, in the testimony I reviewed, he offered absolutely no alternative proposals or constructive suggestions. Just insults.)

If this episode of incivility was an anomaly, it wouldn’t merit a blog post, but such behaviors have become far too common in our toxic political age. Policy differences are no longer issues about which reasonable people can differ; instead, they are showdowns between good and evil. People with whom we disagree can’t simply be wrong, they must be  bigoted or “bought.”

This sort of indiscriminate nastiness is deeply corrosive. When everyone who comes to a controversial conclusion is labeled a corrupt racist, we lose the ability to identify people who truly are those things. Voters become cynical about our governing institutions, and public-spirited people–the very people we most need to involve in local government– retreat from public service.

I don’t know how we restore civility to public debate, but we need to figure it out. Sooner, rather than later.


  1. Speaking of Dick Lugar….
    Where is he now that the “R” folks are going insane? What is his input? What does he think about all this? How does this end? Any thoughts Sen Lugar?

  2. I don’t believe throwing barbs in public discourse creates a positive atmosphere for discussion. But my experience with many families in IPS is that they feel they do not have a seat at the table where decisions are made. And they do resent how many of the people elected to the school board had financial support from people or organizations that have little to no ties to IPS. The biggest problem with the closing of high schools is the continuance of opening “innovation” schools or partnering with a charter school to open other high schools.

    I just hope that the IPS board would listen to people in the community more – reach out to them instead of making parents come to the board; when you have limited resources such as time and money, trying to talk to a government entitiy is daunting. The end result here is that IPS families will continue to feel left out, feel like they have no voice and continue to ask why they cannot have the same kind of local public schools as the surrounding townships and counties.

    I can completely relate to the disgust and anger of the presenter toward the board. He voices the same disgust and anger others feel that are not a part of our political discourse. And when you leave people out, deliberately ignore their wants and needs, you get a disfunctional government.

  3. Quote: “And when you leave people out, deliberately ignore their wants and needs, you get a d(y)sfunctional government.”

    Response: And you drive the “governed” to anger, lash-out behavior…and eventually to coup attempts, take-overs and revolutions.

    Quote: “Americans have lost that essential insight (along with the reasonable GOP to which Lugar belonged).

    Response: A reasoned GOP ceased to exist when it bought the trickle down theory of economics. I believe that diversion from reason happened during Lugar’s time, and that he–despite his modest virtues–bought into it enthusiastically, as did all the members of his lost and unreasonable party.

  4. Freedom of speech no longer provokes feelings of pride in this nation when those speaking are not required to speak facts or speak in a civil manner – that would limit speech, thereby rendering it no longer “free”. So what is the answer; locally and nationally and on all issues when ranters such as the obvious Trumpite at the School Board meeting who disallowed room for debate with his scorn and insulting discourse? At least there was no violence, other than verbal, unlike Charlottesville or Berkeley and San Francisco recently. He added nothing of value to the meeting to improve the sagging public education conditions but obviously his lengthy tirade will be the most memorable part of that meeting. Was there a representative from Indiana Coalition for Public Education in attendance? Being a member, I’m just askin’

    How can we rely on meetings scheduled to provide answers and progress regarding education here or any issue nationally with a fool in the White House who takes cruel actions against our civil and human rights and “walks back” his views almost hourly. He may have outdone himself yesterday with his DACA back and forth Tweets; and DACA does effect our education systems, when he Tweeted “There are no mixed signals on “contradictory statements”. Can this be explained by an educator; explained to Trump…maybe by Betsy DeVos?

  5. An article in the Guardian Weekly a month ago distinguished between skeptics and cynics. Skeptics question the evidence for a claim, to see if it is believable, whereas cynics question the motives of those who present the evidence, regardless of whether it is believable of not. Cynics contend that any facts presented are just presented to suit the interests of those presenting them.

    There is too much of that going on these days.

  6. The complete takeover of media sources that used to actually report the facts is much to blame for our lack of civil discourse. We are bombarded with hateful rhetoric from the media sources that have become owned by powerful people and entities who are force feeding to us the divisive messages that they know will give them the results they want – divide and conquer. It has been working beautifully.

    Sheila, I just spent Labor Day weekend in Philadelphia and DC with a dear friend who is the sister of MaryAnn Ruegger. I am sure both you and your daughter know MaryAnn well, as she works tirelessly for the public school system and fights the voucher program. Like your daughter (and you), she keeps fighting to save the public school system that she believes to be so important for all students and does not want to see them left behind.

  7. It seems that for the past forty years or so, we have been raising children with an abundance of self esteem and a paucity of knowledge. Perhaps, if we could reverse that tide, we could return to civil discourse.

  8. Nancy has put her finger on the problem – the takeover by media of certain points of view, a media that does not report facts but the opinions of those who own them (see Fox et al.). What to do – keep on keeping on, trying to ignore the insults with civil responses from the standpoints of citizens and not propaganda meisters. It isn’t easy because we really get to a point where we dislike the people who are repeating the propaganda in lieu of fact. However, reason, one would hope, would ultimately triumph with the return of civil discourse on public matters.

  9. One thing about extremism is that it doesn’t work on the long term but may on the short term.

    It only breeds more extremism. The more extreme, polarized, sides get the less progress results.

    The media entertainment world brought us here because their one job is to make more money regardless of the impact on others.

    Now nobody knows a route out of here.

  10. As Sheila has so often reminded all of us; Civics classes must be required for all students in public education funded by our tax dollars. Today’s youth are usually better informed and more aware of what is happening around them than older generations (including young adults and middle aged) so I suggest Civics classes begin in Middle School with required refresher/higher level required courses in high school. The courses should also be offered at college level and, if not part of SATs, should be added.

    The origin, unfairness and uselessness of the Electoral College is an issue we must demand our Representatives and Senators form committees to work on dismantling and ending; before the 2020 presidential campaign. We cannot afford more Electoral College APPOINTED presidents and their destructive laws and especially we cannot afford their wars economically or the body count. We are still losing our sons and daughters in useless battles in foreign countries which are unable to rule themselves humanely, let alone democratically. These issues should be part of our national public education system with encouragement for all private schools to require the same.

    The speaker Sheila referred to and quoted at the School Board meeting obviously did not receive enough education to understand why School Board meetings are held, why they are open to the public and was obviously never taught respect for others. If there isn’t a time limit set for speakers at these meetings; it should be added to future schedules.

  11. Unfortunately, the difference in the numbers you are citing – 26,107 in 1968, and now 5,352 represent something quite a bit different than just fewer high school aged students in Indianapolis.

    They represent the number of high school students who have moved out of public schools and into charter and private schools. There are quite a bit more than 5,000 high school-age students in the city.

    It also represents continued white flight to Hamilton County and Greenwood, which has been ongoing since Unigov and the 1960s.

    Both of those shifts (towards private, out of Indy) are due to systemic racism over time. Unfortunately, Indianapolis has enabled and cultivated that, and we are continuing to do that, rather than recognize the forces at work and trying to find solutions that mitigate the problem. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what we’re doing.

    Certainly it makes financial sense to close high schools where there aren’t enough students to attend, but that’s a short-term fix of an ongoing long -term problem. The reality is that in 15 years there won’t be a public school system in Indianapolis, and there will be thousands of kids who don’t have the money to pay for school. We’re marching inexorably toward that fate, and at this point there doesn’t seem to be any interest in turning that around.

  12. A reasonable GOP? The GOP has always been a racist organization,and it will always continue such a trajectory. Lugar supported harsh drug penalties for minorities…Of course his own son’s transgressions with respect to those very same laws didn’t apply.
    Lugar believes the laws he helped to develope do not apply to his own family. Lugar supported a nefarious type of Jim Crow. You can deny it,but history sayeth different.

    Did the academic call the school-board deplorable?

    Funnily enough,this blog has a tendency to use the very same rhetoric you accuse “the academic” of using.

    Hawthorn Mineart’s last paragraph is so true. Teresa Kendall and Larry bring up some things as well.

  13. Hawthorn M:”Certainly it makes financial sense to close high schools where there aren’t enough students to attend, but that’s a short-term fix of an ongoing long -term problem. The reality is that in 15 years there won’t be a public school system in Indianapolis, and there will be thousands of kids who don’t have the money to pay for school. We’re marching inexorably toward that fate, and[b] at this point there doesn’t seem to be any interest in turning that around.”[/b]

    So true,it needs to be repeated.

  14. I suspect that Sheila and her paraphrasing Norman Vincent Peale, that Senator Dick Lugar, and that the late Indianapolis Mayor Hudnut had something special in common, a basic foundational element that accounted for their admiration of Statesmanlike qualities, for their seemingly innate abilities to work effectively with people from all different walks of life, and for making positive impacts in our world without unduly ruffling feathers.

    Perhaps I’m not alone in tuning out those people who use divisive terms, turn-off words…people from both sides of the political aisle, people who appear to occupy the ugly fringe edges of each political aisle.

    In fact, I have developed an informal list of ‘turn-off words’ from Internet forum posters that lead me to dismiss their comments. Included in this list of ‘turn-off’ words or phrases are:

    Wingnut – pejorative word used to describe both the far wings of either political party
    Obummer or Obammy
    Trumpf or Trumpet
    The Kenyan
    The Orange One
    Drinking the Kool Aid – another catch-all pejorative term referring to any person who demonstrates unquestioning obedience to a set of political talking points

    If we could eliminate these and other tacky and ignorant sounding terms from our written and spoken vocabularies, then we might be moving toward setting the stage for a civil discussion.

  15. BSH: Perhaps a minor point, but germane to this discussion. A pejorative phrase in your list is based on something that never occurred. At Jonestown, the people drank—many at gunpoint or with loved ones in peril—fruit-flavored beverage powder mixed with water and toxins. The Reverend Jim Jones apparently was so cheap he killed people with poison-laced generic punch.

  16. @Hawthorn Mineart, after almost 30 years in the public schools of 4 different states, I understand every word you speak about parents who perceive themselves as being left out of the loop when School Boards make decisions for the schools where their children will be assigned by default.

    Let’s be honest, this situation of parents feeling left out of the loop would NEVER occur in Hamilton County. The School Boards of the 4 major Hamilton County Schools would never have dared pull off such a coup, would never have attempted to cajole or smooth talk parents into accepting something they knew did not feel right or did not sound right.

    And, yes, I can understand why IPS parents might question the extremely generous outside funding that supported the current IPS Board Members’ most recent election and the election before that. Unfortunately, the Indianapolis Star no longer has an education reporter, not one. The only local education news we receive is via a nonprofit education news outlet that may, or may not, be a bit biased toward school reform groups that involve Teach for America.

  17. There were members from the IPS Community Coalition as well as parents, students, and community members who also spoke at the meeting Ms. Kennedy references. Ms. Kennedy’s daughter and other board members have ignored parent voices EXCEPT those parents whose students are in Butler Labs or CFI. It seems their voices regarding not to have a K-5 school, as proposed by Ferebee, instead of the expected K-8 is unacceptable. So, the board is attempting to accommodate that request. I signed up for an 8-12 school but my voice and the actions surrounding my suggestions is less important. Racism? Maybe, my school is not near Butler or convenient for Butler students to travel to (a voiced concern by a speaker to the Board from Butler Labs). But, my children have to inconvenienced AGAIN by a school closing, bused across town, and siblings split up (Bultler Lab patents did not want their children potentially split up, either). What makes those parents so much different than me and others like me?

    Can you ask your daughter for me, Ms. Kennedy? She doesn’t respond to patents like me.

    This link is a great response to this blog.


  18. Please excuse the typos in the previous post. But, my point is this: MANY have asked “what other solutions have you all considered before making my child move for a third time in years?”

    They do not care about those with less resources than those with less economic and other resources. This Board does not represent me or my children. Stop standing on children and start standing UP for children.

  19. Julianna; from your comments, there appears to be little consideration given to students needs as when busing was initiated here back in the 1970’s. The first meeting for parents to get first-hand information was held at Arlington High School; we arrived to find Indianapolis Police Department Officers heavily armed and in full protective gear in case of problems. The second meeting was held at Howe High School where a Black attorney, Mr. Sawyers, stated repeatedly that children were not being bused for racial balance but for quality education. I pointed out that meant my children were being sent to the school in the Black neighborhood so those children could attend the school in my neighborhood for quality education because they were not receiving quality education in their school where my children would be sent. I am against busing; by the time it began many neighborhoods in Indianapolis were becoming racially mixed, they were deprived of after school activities and spent 2-3 hours waiting for buses and traveling. Mr. Sawyers repeatedly tried to convince me that all public schools provided quality education but had no explanation for why the children were simply trading schools if all schools provided quality education…but it wasn’t being done for racial reasons. My thoughts were, are and always will be for the best benefits for ALL children.

    Now we are faced with a future of forced voucher system to educate all American children into “God’s Kingdom”. This can only be accomplished by ending public education.
    The Supreme Court’s highly questionable ruling in the Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer case in Missouri ruled the Lutheran Church “is eligible to participate in Missouri’s tax payer funded grand program that awards money to nonprofits and schools to pay for playgrounds to be resurfaced with scrap-tire material.” (From the article, “A Hole In The Wall” from the “Church and State” magazine, September 2017 issue.) ” SCOTUS voted 7-2 that Trinity Lutheran Church must get equal access to the states funds because the scrap-tire program is a generally available public benefit that the church would not use to support religious activity.” So this means the Lutheran Church and school are tax exempt, will be receiving tax money in the form of vouchers plus tax payer funded resurfacing of their school play yard. Is this step one; not only in Missouri but how many other schools in how many other states will be seeking tax money for renovations, repairs and what else. Receiving tax free infrastructure maintenance and repair, police and fire protection are also public benefits and do not support religious activity…but they have always benefited by it.

    The school board meeting you attended appears to have made no progress and reached no decisions on any issue regarding K-12 education here. But; the entire education system in this country is now in a state of flux thanks to Trump’s appointment of Betsy DeVos and no matter what decisions are made during or regarding this school year will matter; it may all be ended soon as “God’s Kingdom” goes into effect.

  20. The truth is the members of the board couldn’t care less about the children of IPS. Members of the board are simply using the school system to fulfill political and business ambitions. None of them will ever admit it.

    Your chance of receiving a response from the daughter of the professor via this blog is about as promising as a chance of winning the lottery. You and your children simply don’t matter to the members of the board.

  21. Julianna:”They do not care about those with less resources than those with less economic and other resources. This Board does not represent me or my children. ”


  22. A few minutes ago I ran across a Facebook post from a friend in public school education, one of those professionals who’s devoted an entire career to working inside public schools and to furthering the cause of public schools. I both respect and trust her posts.

    She’d posted a blog article on Facebook from a former IPS Board Member, a decidedly Liberal Board Member, a former Board Member who’s spent time inside the classrooms of IPS as a professionally certified, licensed teacher in the State of Indiana and as a person who knows her way around the IPS Central Office and knows her way around the various neighborhoods and diverse demographics in the IPS District. I have to say that I agree with her letter to Sheila re: the 9/7/2017 post “How Not To Win Friends….Or Persuade People”.

    And, by the way, this has absolutely nothing to do with school vouchers, with Republicans, or with Betsy DeVos but has everything to do with the IPS School Board’s current focus and direction pointed toward more Charter schools and those non-profit or for-profit entities who receive public school funds as Charter school operators.

  23. Interesting that so many people seem to know what the motives are of people they have never met. Some folks simply want to believe that all public servants, including members of the IPS Board are corrupt, and there is little I can say or do to change their minds. I accept that people may disagree with the decisions we make, and that is certainly their right, but my colleagues and I have listened to parents and other constituents, studied the IPS financials and revenue projections, and looked at the population projections for the district. We have made and will continue to make decisions that we believe are in the best interests of the children in IPS. The recently released test results for IPS high schools are shocking and unacceptable, and provide more proof that the status quo is not an option. We have to do better for our kids.

  24. In addition, IPS doesn’t authorize charter schools. That would be the Mayor of Indianapolis, the State Charter School Board, Ball State, etc. You don’t like charter schools? Take it up with them. IPS does have the authority to enter into Innovation agreements with charter schools, and have done so (and will continue to do so) when it is in the best interest of kids and their education.

  25. @Kelly Bently: Have you thought that maybe the scores are bad because the Board keeps disrupting the continuity of education for those who need help? Or, maybe it is because the majority of the teachers hired have ZERO experience and di nit know how to teach to children with cultural backgrounds different from theirs. And you still have not answered if other options have been considered that do not disrupt the education of the neediest of students . Have you the board considered other options like a phase out to close schools instead of moving my stidents a third time? That may dear is a question for the IPS Board. If rhis was happening to Butler Lab students, I guarantee you would accommodate their request, again.

  26. Btw, Kelly, the status quo has been disrupted for 4 years. The board has been talking about money NOT academics. Plus, the schools you want to close are IMPROVING. So, something is working.

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