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Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America's Original Vision

Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America's Original Vision

by Thom Hartmann


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Millions of working Americans talk, act, and vote as if their economic interests match those of the megawealthy, the multinational corporations, and the politicians who do their bidding. How did this happen? According to Air America radio host Thom Hartmann, the apologists of the Right have become masters of the subtle and largely subconscious aspects of political communication. It’s not an escalation in Iraq, it’s a surge; it’s not the inheritance tax, it’s the death tax; it’s not drilling for oil, it’s exploring for energy.

Conservatives didn’t intuit the path to persuasive messaging—they learned these techniques. There is no reason why progressives can’t learn them too. In Cracking the Code, Hartmann shows you how. Drawing on his background as a psychotherapist and advertising executive as well as a national radio host, he breaks down the science and technology of effective communication so you can apply it to your own efforts to counter right-wing disinformation. It’s both an art and a science—as Hartmann explains, political persuasion is as much about biology as ideology, about knowing how the brain processes information and how that influences the way people perceive messages, make decisions, and form a worldview.

Throughout the book, Hartmann shows you precisely how to master this technology, providing examples dating back to the time of the Founding Fathers. As you read deeply in this book, you’ll see things you hadn’t realized were there—in everything from advertising to political rants—and discover abilities you didn’t know you had. Whether you’re a politician, an activist, a volunteer, or a concerned citizen, you’ll develop a strong sense for how to reach into that part of the collective human psyche where we truly do have the power to create a new world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781576756270
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 09/01/2008
Series: BK Currents Series
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 262,906
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Thom Hartmann is the host of a nationally syndicated Air America radio program. A four-time Project Censored award winner, he is the bestselling author of more than nineteen books, including Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class—and What We Can Do About It, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, and Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights.

Read an Excerpt


Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy, and mutual valuing.


My wife, Louise, and I live atop 30 feet of water, 100 feet from shore, in a houseboat on a river in Portland, Oregon. One day I stepped out our back door onto the floating deck that serves as our backyard and found myself confronting a very upset Canada goose. He bobbed his head up and down, lifted his wings to make his body look larger and more intimidating, and ran straight at me, hissing and trying to nip at me.

Observing this behavior my comedian friend Swami Beyond-ananda (Steve Bhaerman), who was visiting us that week, named the bird Goosalini.

I had no idea why this psycho goose was attacking, but there was no mistaking what Goosalini was trying to communicate: Stay inside that house and don’t come out! I got the message, but I didn’t stay inside. Instead, every time I went out to water the plants on my deck, I brought a broom with me to fight off Goosalini.

I found out what was going on a week later, when I learned from my neighbor that a female goose had settled on her back deck, just a few feet from our own, and was sitting on a nest. I realized that Goosalini must have been the proud papa, protecting his territory, and I stopped swatting at him with my broom.

Goosalini has a lot to tell us about communicative strategies. Even though he was just doing what a gander does when he wants a predator to leave—draw attention to himself and away from his mate, attack first and ask questions later—he was able to communicate the “go away” part of his message to me pretty well. We all communicate all the time, even when we don’t give much thought to what we are saying or how we are saying it.

Because Goosalini was unable to use what we would call rational powers of persuasion, he communicated by going straight for the more primitive parts of my brain—the parts we shared as human and goose, the center of our gut feelings. The first time Goosalini attacked, I backed off because he was successful in communicating an intent to harm me, which caused me to feel fear, that most primal and visceral of human emotions.

The first key to unlocking the communication code is to understand that when we communicate, feeling comes first. Emotions will always trump intellect, at least in the short term.

This emotive form of communication, however, ultimately didn’t get Goosalini the response he wanted. On its own the attack wasn’t very persuasive. Instead of shooing me away, Goosalini got me angry.

Effective communicators know how to get the response they want because they understand how to tailor a message to the person who’s listening. They know the second key to unlocking the communication code: the meaning of a communication is the response you get.

Because Goosalini couldn’t tell me his story, I had to imagine his story for myself. The first story I came up with was that he was simply a psycho goose, trying to hurt me for no reason I could understand. The second story that I came up with—after talking to my neighbor—was a story of a dad protecting his soon-to-be-hatched goslings. Both stories accurately described what was happening, but the stories led to very different endings. The psycho goose made me angry; the dad goose made me feel protective of Goosalini himself.

In this book I call such stories “maps,” and the world the stories describe as “the territory.” The third key to unlocking the communication code is: the map is not the territory. Each story captures a different piece of reality; no one story captures all of it. The key to effective communication is to find the best story to use to convey your understanding of the world to the greatest number of people.

In politics we tell each other stories all the time. If you think about it, politics is really nothing more than a set of stories.

The United States of America began as a story that the Founders and the Framers told about a society that could live in harmony around the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This country was held together after the Great Depression and through a war by a story told by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which he called the New Deal.

Ronald Reagan told a very different story—one we are still in—that he called the “free market” story. In Reagan’s story our corporate CEOs should run our society instead of our elected representatives because, as Reagan pointed out (and believed), “The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away.”

Most of the stories we hear in the media today are scary. We are told to be afraid because the world is a bad place and people are untrustworthy. Every goose is a Goosalini—without understanding why.

These scary stories are profitable to our infotainment industry and to the politicians who are typically allied with the barons of the infotainment industry.

There is a different story, however, in which every Goosalini is a proud papa. It is a story of a world that is interconnected and of people who are fundamentally good. This is the traditional American liberal story, which has been told and understood since the first telling of it during the Enlightenment by thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and Thomas Jefferson. It’s the story that reaches directly back to the founding of this country.

My aim with this book is to give you the tools to tell the liberal story—and tell it well. I will show you how the process of communication is coded—actually hardwired into our brains—and help you crack that code to become a brilliant communicator.

First, though, there are a few concepts it’s important to master.

Everybody wants the best outcomes, and their behavior reflects the best tools they have to achieve those outcomes.

Another way of saying this is that people always make what they think are the best choices given the circumstances and the tools they have. All behavior has, at its root, the goal of a positive outcome.

As a practical statement, this means that conservatives and liberals are both working toward the best world possible.

In 2007 I broadcast my radio program live from the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. Three hours a day for four days, I had one conservative after another on my show, debating the issues of the day with me. As I was the only liberal in a hotel filled with more than 4,000 conservatives, most felt pretty comfortable, and we were often able to meet on a human-to-human level.

One particularly poignant moment came after I’d debated health care with a prominent conservative ideologue, who honestly and strongly believed that if there were absolutely no government interference in the “private marketplace of health care” whatsoever—no Food and Drug Administration (FDA); no pure-drug laws; no regulation of hospitals, doctors, or HMOs; no Medicare or Medicaid—all the “imbalances” in the system would be removed and everybody would end up with access to health care. Our debate was spirited, fast paced, and at times loud. Listeners may have even thought he was occasionally angry with me.

When we were finished and the radio network had gone to the news at the top of the hour and the microphones were turned off, he leaned across the table and said to me, in a soft and friendly voice, as if he didn’t want his fellows around to hear: “You know, Thom, you and I want the same things. We both want our children to live in a world at peace. We both want everybody to be healthy and to be cared for when they’re sick. We both want to eliminate hunger and poverty in the world. We both want a clean environment, security in old age, and protections from the unexpected dangers of life.”

He took a breath, straightened up a bit, and added: “We just differ on how best to achieve those goals. I think the free market will make it all happen if we restrict government to its core function of armies and police. You think these social goals can be achieved with the help of government. But we’re both good people who love our families and just want the best. We differ on the means, not the ends.”

He was so right.

Of course, there is the occasional sociopath among us (Dick Cheney comes to mind), but I’d argue that they’re the exception that proves the rule. At our core we’re all essentially interested in the same outcomes.

And we can begin to persuade others of our point of view only when we respect and understand theirs. This establishes the rapport that makes communication possible.


If we’re going to set out to change another person’s behavior by changing their mind about something, we want the outcome of that new behavior to be useful to both them, us, and everything and everybody else involved. In its largest sense, this is a form of ecology check. In the most direct sense, what this means is that we’re trying to achieve what’s referred to in psychology as a “well-formed outcome.” It works. It’s sustainable. It accomplishes a new goal.


One of the essentials to ensuring a well-formed outcome is to be continually expanding—rather than contracting—the sphere and the collection of behaviors of each person with whom we come into contact.

Understanding that all behavior—no matter how dysfunctional or destructive it may seem—has at its core the desire for a positive outcome, you’ll quickly understand why, when we try to take behaviors away from people, we meet resistance.

Instead of trying to stop or delete or prohibit behaviors, it always works better to offer people new and additional, more useful behaviors.

At the smallest level, this means instead of telling children to “stop” doing something in the living room, it’s more effective to help them “start” doing something else in the backyard. People will always be receptive to new options, new tools, and new behaviors. It’s always more effective to say, “Start this,”than to say,“Stop that.”

On a larger scale, this illustrates why our government’s “War on Drugs” is so dysfunctional. Most illegal (and much legal) drug use is a response to despair, apathy, or boredom. And most illegal drug selling is a response to a lack of other economic activities. Most drug dealers are simply entrepreneurs who lack other, more appropriate means to make money. When we understand this, we realize that providing small-scale entrepreneurial opportunities within a legal context would be far more effective than prison at stopping the illegal drug trade. We saw this writ large during Prohibition (1920–1933) and its immediate aftermath, although most people alive don’t remember that time.

On the largest scale, this is often the story of immigrants. When Irish Catholic immigrants came to America in droves in the early 1800s, escaping the potato famine and British oppression, they were viewed by the WASPs already living here as a new “criminal class.” Entire books were written about the inherent criminality of the Irish genetics and culture. But the simple fact was that their large numbers drove up the supply of labor, which drove down the price of labor, producing more people than jobs and more poorly paying jobs than well-paying ones. The result was widespread poverty, which lead to widespread crime.

By the 1880s the Irish Catholics, particularly in areas like Boston and Philadelphia, were into their second and third generations. They were Americans. Their numbers were stabilizing, their wages were rising, and suddenly they weren’t the criminal class anymore. That role went to the new immigrants of the 1880s from Italy—which produced another generation of speculative writings about the Sicilian gene and the native criminality of Italians and their “mafia culture”

In each case, when people are given more opportunities—more tools—they take them and grow to the next level. When they find tools taken away from them (economic and cultural oppression), they sink into despair and crime.


Our biological and psychological/emotional similarities (we’re all just human here) mean we’re all working toward the same general goals, just using different tool sets and techniques. When things don’t work out—personally, politically, or in any other fashion—people who believe they have no other tools, techniques, or options available to them will interpret that outcome as “failure.” In fact, there are no failures; there’s only feedback. There are no mistakes; there are only outcomes.

Every “failure” can be the germ of a great success. Henry Ford went bankrupt seven times before becoming successful. Thomas Edison tried thousands of filaments before he made a light bulb work. Charles Colson went to prison, and the experience transformed his life in a way that he today believes was both necessary and positive. When we re-understand the results of our actions as “feedback” and “outcomes,” new spectrums of options for learning open up to us.

A teacher of mine once told the story of two men who were walking down a rural dirt road. There was a small crack in the road, where a recent rain had cut a 2-inch-wide gulley from one side of the road to the other, and both men, being deep in conversation, tripped on it and fell on their faces.

The man on the right reached over to the side of the road to grab a stick and began beating his own head and shoulders with it.“What an idiot I’ve been!”he shouted at himself as he repeatedly struck his own head. Meanwhile, the man on the left stood up, saw the crack in the road, made a mental note to look for others in the future, dusted himself off, and recommenced his journey.

The man on the right experienced a mistake in not noticing the crack in the road and a subsequent failure to maintain his balance. The man on the left experienced the outcome of tripping and falling and took the feedback of that experience as an opportunity to learn how to better walk down unpredictable rural dirt roads.

This ties into the concept of more tools and options rather than fewer, and it clarifies the need for well-formed outcomes. The man on the left gained a tool and had the desirable outcome of continuing to walk but with a new and more useful level of knowledge about walking. The man on the right had the poorly formed outcome of self-flagellation and a slowing in his reaching his goal where the road eventually led.


Communication is value-neutral. It is neither good nor evil. It can be used for either, but, like a screwdriver or a scalpel, is only a tool.

Nonetheless, some people are fearful of open discussions of communication and its code.

Some want to believe that humans are not in any way Pavlov-ian stimulus/response machines, and thus the idea of enhancing the effectiveness of communication for the purpose of persuasion is all nonsense. They’ll often say this, ironically enough, in book reviews published in newspapers or on Web sites funded—including the reviewer’s paycheck—by a multi-hundred-billion-dollar industry devoted to (and effective at) producing a specific response (“buy!”) to a specific stimulus. The simple reality is that if we didn’t react to these tools, the advertising and marketing industry—and, for that matter, the psychotherapy industry—would cease to exist within a year for lack of satisfied customers.

Others fear that teaching people how to be better communicators—particularly in the context of political persuasion—is teaching people how to “manipulate” others. They are right in the technical sense and wrong in the value sense.

For lack of a better word (and we do lack the vocabulary, outside of the very specific vernacular of psychotherapy), we all “manipulate” all the time. It’s how we accomplish everything. If you’re hungry, you can manipulate an entire multi-billion-dollar industry by offering a few dollars to a clerk in a fast-food restaurant. The result of that manipulation is that you get fed. You manipulated your partner into being your partner, your friends into being your friends, and your pet onto your lap. The only people who don’t manipulate are those who are dead.

Manipulate has a negative connotation because one of our most pervasive cultural myths—a victim myth combined with a not-my-responsibility myth—is the belief that we are all totally free agents who act with totally free will yet at the same time our words and actions are only rarely responsible for specific reactions in others. It’s such a nice, convenient, comfortable myth set. But the reality is that every stimulus of the world around us—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant—produces a response.

Those who understand this are competent at producing predictable responses. Those who don’t are often lost in life and don’t know why.

Moving manipulation out of the “practical frame” and into the “value frame” it is true that the tools of competent communication can be used to persuade people in ways that are not in their interest or in the interest of society or the world. Some will suggest that, because of this danger, this book should not exist.

But I can tell you from personal experience that there is little in this book that the senior marketing officials and the most powerful lobbyists for the world’s largest corporations don’t already know. Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich (among others) set out, in the 1980s and 1990s, to share much of this information with conservative politicians, and they have used it masterfully since that time (as you’ll see in this book).

Psychologically and politically, these are core concepts, whether we’re talking about children, adults, politicians, entire groups of people, or even geese.

So it is with respect and hope for a better world that I now hand you these tools, trusting that in your hands they will be used for good. The Earth and all life on it need you to be a more competent communicator now at this critical time in our nation’s history.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Talking the Talk

Part I: Telling Your Story
Chapter 1 Cracking the Worldview Code
Chapter 2 Cracking the Story Code

Part II: Feeling Comes First
Chapter 3 Cracking the Sensory Code
Chapter 4 The Body’s Secret Language
Chapter 5 How Feelings Are Anchored
Chapter 6 The “Negative” Code

Part III: The Meaning of a Communication Is the Response You Get
Chapter 7 The Code of the Core Story
Chapter 8 Mastering the Learning Trance
Chapter 9 Future Pacing
Chapter 10 Framing

Part IV The Map Is Not the Territory

Chapter 11 Learning the Legend
Chapter 12 The Motivation Code
Chapter 13 Chunking the Code
Chapter 14 The Identity Code
Conclusion: Reclaiming the Liberal Story
About the Author

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