Talking about Politics Constructively in 2020

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In 2020, talking about politics brings about a new level of angst and has, for most of us, become both more personal and more challenging than maybe ever in our lifetimes.

With the unofficial end of summer on us and the fall election season underway, it’s becoming more difficult to avoid talking about politics either online or in person — because it’s all over. With most of us socially distant and connecting via a screen rather than in person, hard conversations are even harder. It’s a uniquely difficult communications challenge.

For many of us politics have become deeply personal. It goes directly to our own sense of identity. Debates about politics aren’t just about issues — they are now almost always about character, values, and our understanding of both independence and community. In the United States, we live in deeply polarized country, and indeed the same is true in other countries around the world — so a casual debate can quickly spiral into a full fledged argument, even if both people love each other or set out to be respectful.

In fact, in late 2019, a Pew survey found that nearly half of all Americans have stopped talking about politics with someone as a result of something they said, either in person or online.

But we are in a time when we need to talk more, and listen a lot more. How do you talk about issues with people you fundamentally disagree with?

Here are some tips:

I like to think about this in two buckets: before the conversations and during the conversations.

BEFORE

  • HONEST: Be honest with yourself about your intention. Don’t start by intending to educate or change someone’s mind. Neurological research shows us that changing people’s minds — including our own — is harder than we think, so likely will only lead you to feel more frustrated and the conversation break down faster. These conversations are rarely zero-sum (I win, you lose).
  • RELATIONSHIP: Be clear about what you want for this longer-term relationship beyond this conversation. For most of us, we have conversations with people we have a longer history with — whether relatives or colleagues. This helps you figure out what the end goal of the conversation is. How do you value the relationship with your mother, even if she supports a candidate or issue that you find repugnant? What do you want for the longer-term relationship with your colleague?
  • TIMING: Choose the right moments to have conversations. You can’t force someone into a contentious conversation and expect it to be productive. Rather than demanding it, think about extending and invitation.
  • MINDSET: Notice — and avoid making — snap judgements. Notice and interrupt your own biases, especially based on people’s backgrounds or your own opinions. And be humble. No one likes a know-it-all, and none of us is really an expert on everything. Keeping our biases in check and keeping humble helps us come across as more open and curious, which inherently makes a conversation more productive.

DURING

  • RESPECT: Focusing on coming from a place of respect — beyond just tolerance is important. Respect means: taking turns, listening, asking questions, and allowing people to respond to you and have equal time to share their views. It means not calling names, interrupting and discounting ideas. It DOES mean finding commonalities early on — around values, intent, goals or emotions.
  • STORIES OVER DATA: Facts, figures and data rarely persuade. Personal stories do. When you’re speaking, it helps to explain how issues affect you on a personal level. Relying on our shared humanity rather than shifting into teacher/lecture mode is a far better way to go. These conversations are not courtroom trials.
  • ACCEPTING: Most of us make decisions based on our political views for good reasons. Showing respect means accepting that the other person has views and choices they have made that they believe are right. Most of us are doing the best we can, and truly believe our candidates or issues will make the world better. Assuming this intent helps you focus on the reasoning behind, rather than the personal identity of the person holding the views.
  • STICK WITH IT: When it gets contentious, notice if you tend to avoid, yell, crack a joke, or automatically try to win. Keep talking, keep listening. Keep asking questions. Don’t just crack a joke early on and avoid the conversation. If someone is offensive or abusive, that’s different. But in these hard conversations, it’s working through the differences that gives you both an opportunity to build the relationship together, and gives you a chance to understand better where the person is coming from. Keeping an open mind, even if it’s really hard and it feels offensive to you, stand in the fire of the frustration if there’s a chance you might learn something new or understand a new perspective. Patience and persistence is the name of the game.
  • ENDING: Know when it’s time to step away from the conversation, to step away for a break. And finally, know that the final goal in these conversations is not “agree to disagree” as much as it is to “disagree and keep talking.” Ending the conversation in a way that the relationship is preserved is key.

I’d love to hear what you think, and what’s working for you.

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