Megan Phelps-Roper picketing before she left the Westboro Baptist Church.

A couple weeks ago, a new TED talk came out by Megan Phelps-Roper, a former member of the Westboro Baptist Church. In case you’re unfamiliar with this organisation, it’s a small radical group that are infamous for picketing at military funerals and celebrating national tragedies to (somehow?) show their loathing for stuff like other religions and queer people. She talks about what ultimately convinced her to leave the hateful community where she was raised.

A major turning point in her development was engaging with people that had opposing views on Twitter. Of course, she wasn’t won over by the combative people, who insulted her for having such radical opinions. Instead, her views were changed by those who made their point with compassion and willingness to understand.


Compassion Can Be Your Best Weapon

Genuinely compassionate people probably don’t see their skill as a weapon, but it can be. Even in fierce arguments, showing compassion diffuses the situation. It’s almost impossible to stay angry at someone who cares for you. I wrote more about how this works (and two other strategies) in a previous blog post about avoiding conflicts.

In her talk, Megan tells the story of her husband, David Abitbol (founder of the blog Jewlicious). In the beginning, they had “heated but friendly debates online.” With their growing friendship, “the line between friend and foe was being blurred.” David’s genuine compassion, curiosity, and insight planted seeds of doubt in Megan’s mind that ultimately resulted in her leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, even though she knew it would cut making-your-point-via-understandingher off from her family. Compassion was key to changing her perspective.

The first of the Glisten Training’s 5 Keys (which we use in all coaching and training) is Compassion. Showing compassion, for example by making empathetic statements, builds rapport. In her eloquent talk, Megan says “The care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was… growing evidence that people on the other side were not the daemons I had been lead to believe.”


Do 3 Things Before Making Your Point

In her talk, Megan explains 4 steps to having “a real conversation.” I think the first three are important to do before the fourth, which is making your argument.

These steps help with understanding and engaging people with opposing views, and they all link to listening. This will help massively in any debate or argument – even if you’re not feeling so compassionate.

  1. Don’t assume bad intent. Coincidentally, I wrote about this in my last blog post about avoiding assumptions. Meagan beautifully explains why this assumption is so damaging:

“Assuming ill motives almost immediately cuts us off from truly understanding why someone does and believes as they do. We forget they’re a human being with a lifetime of experience that shaped their mind, and we get stuck on that first wave of anger, and the conversation has a very hard time ever moving beyond it.”


  1. Ask Questions. This is actually another one of our 5 Keys. It is difficult to understand someone without asking questions first. It gives them the chance to speak, and shows that you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say. Focus especially on asking about their values and how they came to their conclusions. Understanding what is important to them will help you tailor your message later, so you can make your point more convincingly.


  1. Stay Calm. Being aggressive is counter-productive. It will only make others dislike you, and therefore less likely to listen to you in return. Megan says, “Instead of lashing out: pause, breathe, change the subject, or walk away and come back when ready.” Perhaps staying calm should be put as step 1 or 2 because, like avoiding assumptions, it’s something you should be doing throughout the whole conversation.

Only after doing these three things, should you make your argument. These three steps ensure that your conversational partner feels heard. They also make them feel like you genuinely care for them, and it makes them think that understanding your point might help them in some way.


Don’t Abandon Your Position

I think some people are sceptical of Glisten Training because they think we value listening to others over the other objectives that companies might have. To the contrary, we value great listening because it helps you achieve your objectives.

Especially in professions like management and sales, it’s important that you don’t abandon your objective. In management, you sometimes need to tell employees to do unpleasant tasks or perhaps you must reprimand unruly employees. In sales, you always want to convince the customer that your product is worth buying. However, before doing these things, it helps to listen to the position of your employee or customer.

Always remember that listening to people results in understanding, which will help you argue your position. Why this happens is a whole other blog post, but it does two things. First, it makes other people like and trust you. Second, it lets you know what is important to them so you can tailor your response, thus making your point more convincing.


In Short, My Point

This whole post can be summarised on one sentence: if you listen before making your point, they will hear your point better.


Executive Summary

A recent TED talk about what convinced a woman to leave the Westboro Baptist Church made some very important observations about how listening can help to transform viewpoints.

Showing compassion for others, even if their views are very different from your own, helps to diffuse arguments. Before making your point, do these three things: (1) don’t assume bad intent, (2) ask questions, (3) stay calm. These three things are linked to Glisten Training’s 5 Keys from our coaching and training.

Some people are sceptical of Glisten Training because they think we value listening to others over the other objectives that companies might have. To the contrary, great listening will help you achieve your objectives. Always remember that listening to people results in understanding, which will ultimately help you make your point.


The full talk (which I obviously highly recommend) can be seen below. Thanks to Megan for such a brilliant presentation, and to David for a brilliant demonstration of compassion and understanding.


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