Discover more from Discourse
How Can You Advocate for Abundance with Skeptics?
Successfully advocating for an abundance agenda requires emotional intelligence
By Joshua Bandoch
Advocating for abundance will succeed or fail based on how well we address skeptics’ real emotions, legitimate concerns and understandable fears. Far too often, supporters of an abundance agenda dismiss their concerns or try to beat them back with data alone. This doesn’t work. In fact, it’s counterproductive. To see why, consider how one skeptic—let’s call her Susie—might not think abundance works for her, her family and her community.
Susie lives in Rustington, an imaginary, close-knit community of 12,197 neighbors in America’s “Rust Belt.” She’s the mother of three kids, Rob, Emily and Leah. Her husband, John, has worked at the local factory as a welder for nearly 25 years, starting straight out of high school. The family is lower-middle class, and John provides the family’s only income. Rob’s dream is to enter an apprenticeship program to follow in his dad’s footsteps. The factory is the lifeblood of the community and has been for three-quarters of a century, as long as just about anyone can remember.
One Friday morning, at 10:31 a.m., Susie hears the front door swing open, and it’s John. John has devastating news: The factory is closing and production is moving to Asia to cut costs. He’ll be out of a job in a month. Poof: John’s livelihood and the family’s sole source of income is gone.
Upon hearing the news, Susie is immediately overcome with anger. Rage, actually. How could they, those greedy fat cats? And both Susie and John are full of fear: How are they going to make ends meet? They have bills to pay, a family to feed. The factory was all they knew. What will they do?
A company moving production facilities overseas to cut costs occurs often enough. And in theory, it sounds like a win-win-win: for consumers, who get cheaper goods; for producers, who can make more things at cheaper prices; and for workers in Asia, where the factory will be. On average, that creates abundance.
Susie doesn’t care about any of that—and why should she? Rustington loses. Susie’s family loses. And Susie loses. The decision to close the factory harms all of them. As author J.D. Vance showed in his bestselling book “Hillbilly Elegy,” these communities are hurting, and we can’t ignore their suffering.
What we say to people like Susie will determine whether or not an abundance agenda implodes or flourishes. Will we just dismiss their concerns?
The reality is that the principles and policies that promote abundance are far from widely accepted, let alone embraced. And a major reason for this is that abundance agenda supporters don’t advocate for them with sufficient emotional intelligence—that is, they don’t address the valid concerns skeptics have on an emotional level. The harmful consequence of this is that the people most in need of abundance—the poor and dispossessed—suffer due to unnecessary and often debilitating scarcity. They lack access to the goods they need to be secure, free and prosperous.
We know, in the aggregate, it is only the policies that promote abundance that can alleviate scarcity and maximize opportunities for people to unleash their potential. And when some Americans—Americans like Susie—doubt the virtues of abundance, this agenda is in trouble. How do we square this circle?
Making the case for abundance requires emotional intelligence. This has two parts. First, we need to understand and address negative emotions provoked by this agenda on our audience’s terms—not ours. Second, we need to promote positive emotions, encapsulated in a positive vision, that will motivate even skeptics to support the moral, economic, political and social imperatives of abundance.
Don’t Lead with Data
Whether we like it or not, data isn’t going to open Susie up to a conversation about the benefits of abundance. In a companion essay, I explained that good data is necessary but not at all sufficient when it comes to abundance advocacy. Susie’s story shows why: Her personal experience has stirred in her real and reasonable emotions that countless Americans share, feelings of frustration and fear. To successfully advance an abundance agenda, we need to recognize and effectively address these emotions and their underlying causes. Otherwise, they’ll remain impediments to this agenda.
Just imagine what a data-driven approach to responding to Susie would look like. We could say something like: “In the aggregate, the sorts of decisions the factory owners made are better for everyone. When a company can produce things at lower cost overseas, this results in cheaper goods. That combats inflation. Besides, the purpose of a company is to maximize profits. When they do this, they can send money back to shareholders, who in turn invest that money productively in the economy. More investment boosts innovation and production. This creates more jobs all around the world.”
“This is the beauty of globalization: On average, it makes everyone better off. Just check out this graph: It’s called history’s ‘hockey stick,’ and it shows how gross domestic product per capita has increased so much over the past couple hundred years. So really, in the long run, these sorts of decisions make us all better off.”
This approach completely ignores what Susie is going through—her anger and fears about the future. No graph or spreadsheet will persuade her. She cares about her family and her community, both of which will clearly be worse off when the factory closes. Unless she feels like the abundance agenda is good for the people she cares about, she’ll reject it.
Millions of Americans have these kinds of concerns, and public opinion is shifting. According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, while Americans still generally support free trade, they also favor government support for semiconductor production as well as a range of other industrial policies and tariffs on China. They’re willing to pay more for products not made in China. And a 2021 Gallup poll found that only 44% of Republicans—the party that traditionally supported economic liberalization—now view free trade as an opportunity. So Susie is far from alone in her feelings, and these feelings need to be taken seriously when we consider how to advocate for abundance.
Intelligence Must Be Emotional Too
Data alone can’t make an effective case for abundance. Emotional intelligence (EQ) needs to be a cornerstone of our abundance advocacy. EQ is a type of social intelligence that enables us to recognize our own emotions and the emotions of others, and then use that information to determine how to act. And since emotions come first in our thought processes, this is where we need to start. Otherwise, our advocacy will be ignored.
What does this look like in practice? Emotionally intelligent abundance advocacy has two steps.
Step One: Observe, Understand and Address (And Don’t Judge) Negative Emotions
The first thing we need to do is observe the negative emotions our audience is experiencing—and how these concerns drive their support for policies and regulations that are impediments to abundance. As my colleague Richard Morrison and I previously discussed:
A successful abundance agenda will have to directly address the concerns critics have about the pathways to greater production and growth. We need to understand and address the worries—for example, over fairness and safety…. We have to understand the values that motivate most political (and personal) action.
Second, we must work hard to understand those concerns on our audience’s terms—not our own. Otherwise, what you say and do won’t resonate with them. Restate their concerns to them and see if you’ve gotten them right. Let them tell you whether they feel like you understand them. Give them the chance to correct you, and listen carefully if they do so.
Third, we need to address our audience’s negative emotions directly with emotional intelligence. Don’t run and hide from their real concerns and frustrations.
Throughout step one, refrain from judging their concerns. This isn’t just unnecessary. It’s counterproductive. It’s important to recognize your audience’s concerns as legitimate—because they are.
What would it look like to observe, understand and address in Susie’s case? You could just ask her. She’ll probably tell you. So start there. If you need to talk, you might say something like:
Observe: “Susie, geez, this is awful news for you. I’m sure you’re angry and afraid. I certainly would be.”
Understand: “This has to be just gut-wrenching. Your husband is out of a job and doesn’t know what he’s going to do next. You’re wondering how you’re going to put food on the table for your family. And you’re scared this is going to crush your whole community, the only home you’ve ever known.”
Address: “You’re right to feel this way. That’s how I’d feel too. There’s a lot of pain for you and everyone else here. There’s no way around the fact that this will be difficult for you and your family.”
The goals of all this are to 1.) help Susie feel like you understand her; 2.) let her exhale a bit; and 3.) create fertile soil for conversation. It doesn’t guarantee she’ll start to think like you. Nothing can do that. And as Morrison and I explain, it’s a much better path to persuasion than trying to turn someone “into an abundance activist with research studies and data tables.”
Crucially, when you say these things, you have to mean it. She’ll know it you don’t, and that won’t go over well. And once you say them, pause and give Susie a chance to respond. Listen to what she says.
Step Two: Promote Positive Emotions
At this point, Susie might at least be willing to hear what you have to say, even if only for a moment. With this small window, how might you approach the situation with enough emotional intelligence to help her consider the appeal of abundance?
Start by asking what positive emotions you want to elicit. You can strive to have her feel positive emotions like happiness, anticipation, love and trust through an abundance agenda, either generally or on a specific issue.
Craft a positive vision that appeals to her, a desirable destination. She’ll only be drawn to it if you communicate at the level of her values, not yours. You’re trying to persuade her, not you. We know she values her family and her community and wants what’s best for them. She needs a vision that has them in it.
You need to help her feel that an abundance agenda can solve some of her real problems. Otherwise, anything you say is dead on arrival. Bring positive solutions. After all, as Morrison and I note, “Our job as abundance backers is to show those people that the things they love will survive and even flourish in a more abundant society.”
You could try something like this: “Susie, you might be skeptical of anything I say because this decision looks so obviously bad for you and those you care about. I’d like to share a couple of thoughts about how these sorts of decisions help people, too.”
“First, we have to figure out how you and everyone else affected by this decision will land on their feet. And we need to make sure the community stays strong. Obviously, that’s not going to be easy. In the short term, everyone involved—the company, the local government, the community—needs to figure out how to take care of everyone affected by this. We need real, tangible strategies to do this.”
“In the long term, people will need to find new jobs and craft new futures. As scary as this sounds, every generation has had to deal with this sort of thing. When computers were created, people worried that they’d put lots of people out of work. They certainly did lead to some people losing their jobs. Happily, though, they’ve created many more jobs than they’ve destroyed. We need to make sure we get the same thing here in Rustington so there’s a future people want to be a part of.”
“Second, what kind of America do we want to live in? And what kind of America do we want for our kids and grandkids? We want a country that is free and prosperous. We want one that cares for everyone by providing as many opportunities as possible to grow and unleash their potential. We want a dynamic America that is more innovative and creative than anywhere else on earth.”
“If we don’t let companies make these sorts of tough decisions, we put that bright future at risk. Do you want your kids to lose out on future opportunities because of limits on how much companies and individuals can innovate and create? The creation of airplanes eventually resulted in fewer jobs in some other transportation industries, like trains, because people had a new, exciting choice. Five hours from New York to LA, not five days or five weeks. These sorts of developments open doors to things we never could have seen otherwise.”
“In fact, tens of millions of heroic pioneers, including your ancestors, have flocked to America for the freedom and prosperity we have here. Tens of millions of Americans unleash their potential every single day because of the dynamic environment we’ve worked so hard to create. It’s a cornerstone of our success. For that creativity to flourish, we all need to be free to make personal and professional decisions we think are best.”
“For better and, yes, for worse, this sort of creation also involves some destruction, like in Rustington. We can’t overlook that. These decisions also make a lot of Americans better off. Consider your neighbors 30 miles down the road in Stonehill. Five years ago, their factory was at risk of closing because costs were getting too high and they were losing money. Now that they have access to cheaper parts imported from overseas, their factory is growing and they’re creating lots of new jobs. That’s exciting, and it’s possible only by focusing on abundance. Is it fair to hurt the Stonehill community by making it harder or impossible to import foreign parts, which could jeopardize the factory and everyone who works there?”
“If we stop letting people innovate, we won’t ever make progress, and we’ll miss out on cures to terrible diseases, awesome new technologies, and powerful ideas that help a lot of people. We won’t create new opportunities for Rob, Emily and Leah. If we want our kids to have a better and brighter future, we need America to be innovative, creative, free and prosperous enough to give people those better lives. And while it isn’t perfect, that’s what the abundance agenda does.”
We must recognize that the goal here isn’t for Susie to have some sort of “road to Damascus” moment. She won’t. She’s not going to pause and say, “Wow, you know, I’m so glad John is losing his job.” Rather, the goal is to facilitate a conversation that isn’t filled with fear and anger, and that can open her eyes to some of the benefits of an abundance agenda. After all, there’s no silver bullet for making the case for abundance.
EQ or Else
Who could possibly be against abundance? Do you know anyone who says: “We need fewer jobs, less energy, unaffordable housing, lower quality education, and generally fewer resources and opportunities for people. Long live scarcity!” Probably not. That means the case for abundance is a slam dunk, right? Alas, no.
The reality is that critics of the abundance agenda lead with emotional intelligence because it’s effective. They fully grasp that things like zoning laws and regulations are deeply emotional issues. That’s why critics on both sides of the political spectrum play on those emotions.
When supporters of an abundance agenda try to respond with data, our claims fall on deaf ears. Our advocacy is ineffective. And, ultimately, the people who need abundance the most won’t get it. It’s therefore necessary to start taking EQ more seriously, and incorporate it into our advocacy. The alternative—scarcity—is too scary for everyone, even Susie.
This is the second of two articles on making the case for abundance. The first can be found here.