When was the last time you had a serious political conversation?
Most people I’ve talked to say it has been more than a year, if not longer. They tend to avoid political topics because the conversation usually degenerates into people talking past one another, if not something worse. This seems particularly true at gatherings of friends and family. How was your last holiday meal?
Avoiding political conversation is a common experience, and that’s okay. I have experienced this myself, but avoiding issues is not sustainable in any relationship.
The easy path is to simply dismiss the people we disagree with. The road less traveled — the better path — is to engage in conversation. In most scenarios, not talking to people in order to avoid disagreement only causes long-term problems. Whether it’s a friend, boss, romantic partner, or whomever, sweeping things under the rug never gets us anywhere. It is much healthier to get disagreements out in the open so we can heal and learn from each other.
The bad news is that we’ve gotten rusty at talking about politics. The good news is that we can get better at it. So, how do we talk about politics in a healthy way? Here are some helpful tips.
Listening well goes a long way in any conversation. Listening well is especially important when we disagree about politics. People can sense when we are genuinely interested in what they have to say. We don’t have to agree with their perspective to listen well, but that is exactly when it is most important.
We can do this by affirming the way people feel about a topic or compliment their ideas. Really trying to understand someone has many dimensions. We can try to learn more specifically about their idea, why they think it would work, and how they think it could be accomplished. Asking them to explain things in a different way in order to understand them better is also a helpful strategy in conversation. The cumulative effect of such efforts will show genuine interest on your part, and will open the door to deeper conversations.
Pro-tip: pay attention to the body language you and your conversation partner use. If they begin on a train of thought that runs counter to your convictions, you are sending subconscious messages with how your body posture reacts. If you cross your arms or legs, or lean back, it sends a signal of defensiveness. Be conscious about remaining open and engaged with your body language, and attend to how the other person is feeling based on what their posture is telling you.
Curiosity moves conversation into deeper waters. You can apply it to one person’s opinion or to a topic that several voices are contributing to. Genuine curiosity is contagious. When we let our guard down by displaying curiosity, it invites others to let their guard down as well.
We can do this by not holding too strongly to our own ideas, as well as inviting our dialogue partner to do the same. You’ll see conversation deepen if you use phrases like, “I’m really curious about what you have to say about this;” or asking, “Have you always thought that way?” or, “What made you change your mind?” Curiosity is a tool to move conversation from the surface level of interpersonal disagreement to diving into the arguments and values behind a belief.
Name your highest values
When we disagree with someone on an issue, it is likely the case that there is an underlying conflict of values. Being consciously aware of our value systems helps us explain the way we feel about a topic. Naming your values to your conversation partner helps them understand you better, and invites them to speak about their values, too.
We can name our value systems to help ease controversial topics. Immigration, for example, is usually a pretty heated political topic. When people disagree about a policy for the southern border, there is almost always a disagreement in the underlying value systems each person holds. One person might place greater value in border security and preventing drug traffic; another person might place greater value in opportunity for immigrants and safety for refugees.
At a fundamental level, these are not incompatible values. We can have responsible immigration policy that both welcomes the stranger in need and preserves the safety we already have. Only when we recognize that these are both legitimate values can we then have intelligent and creative conversations about policy solutions.
Call the common good to mind
Calling the common good to mind in conversation identifies a shared starting point that we can build on. What the common good is in any particular circumstance is difficult to determine. There are no cookie-cutter answers, but the common good looks like human flourishing for everyone involved. When we can agree on this point, we can begin working together to achieve it. We all need to bring our best ideas and efforts to the table to advance the common good.
Offer uncommon solutions
Difficult problems require uncommon solutions. If the problems of our politics were easy to resolve, then we would have already implemented the solutions by now. But this is not the case, so we need creative collaboration. Unfortunately, our politics tends to offer only two solutions to any given problem. The Democrats offer solution X, while the Republicans offer solution Y. We are told that solution X and solution Y are totally opposite and incompatible. The world doesn’t always work in binary ways, though.
We can offer uncommon solutions by identifying solution Z. It doesn’t have to be complicated, fully fleshed out, or well organized, but a new angle turns conversation from pure disagreement between X and Y to a creative conversation about Z and the shared values that underpin it. Choosing between binary options is a human tendency, but creative conversations transcend such a simplistic world view.
Finally, be patient — with yourself and others
We are all human, so we won’t handle every conversation the right way, and we will still often awkwardly disagree with each other. The occasions when people change their mind on the spot are few and far between — we shouldn’t expect this of others, and they shouldn’t expect it of us. We are all growing, learning, and developing our thoughts in the midst of a rapidly changing world. None of these tips will work in every situation, and none of them will be easy, but they are guideposts for conversations. The sooner we start practicing, the better.