How to Talk Politics Without Friction

I’m despairing the loss of civility in politics. Nine weeks after the U.S. elections the nastiness continues to grow, fueled by politicians in Washington and posts on social media.

Is it possible to make political discussions more civil? Can we use our political conversations and posts to help us learn and grow, or at least start by pretending that despite what we might think, we’re not always right, don’t know it all and anyone who disagrees with us might not be a moron?
Let’s give it a try, shall we?

I just read a delightful article published in IDEAS.TED.COM by Celeste Headlee who hosts a daily talk show, On Second Thought, on Georgia Public Broadcasting. Ms. Headlee provided smart ways to discuss politics without getting into a fight.

What she said conjured up memories of a time in my life when I was, shall we say, a political operative. Disclosure: I was a political science/journalism major in college and served as the political editor of the student newspaper. Between my junior and senior years, I helped run a congressional campaign in western Kansas and attended a national political convention on a Reader’s Digest stipend. After graduation, I served for six years as press secretary to the Kansas governor. By my mid-twenties I had learned how to talk “political”. For the most part, I also had learned when to keep my mouth shut.

It was Ms. Headlee’s instructions that got my attention because they represent exactly what I saw from political people whose jobs were to win elections—as mine was—that kept them out of angry, nasty, friend-losing shouting matches.

So, for those of you who may find yourselves debating the merits of Red versus Blue policies at some point, here are some tips that make a lot of sense to me because I’ve seen them work first hand.

I turn now, to Ms. Headlee.

Don’t try to educate anyone.
Don’t start a conversation intending to prove someone is wrong or to change their mind. Neurological research shows that it’s really hard to change our own minds, let alone someone else’s. If that’s your goal, you will be disappointed and you’ll probably annoy the person you’re speaking to.

Don’t pre-judge.
Listen to people with an open mind. If someone likes a candidate that you hate, that doesn’t mean you should discount everything they say or that you won’t find common ground. Amaryllis Fox, a former Clandestine Service Officer with the CIA, talked recently about how she was able to talk with extremists whose actions she deplored. She said, “Everybody believes they are the good guy. The only real way to disarm your enemy is to listen to them. If you hear them out, if you’re brave enough to really listen to their story, you can see that more often than not, you might have made some of the same choices if you’d lived their life instead of yours.” I don’t believe she’s saying you have to approve of their decisions or philosophy. I think she’s talking about empathy, having the ability to understand why someone believes what they do. The purpose of listening is not to endorse, but to understand.

Show respect.
Respect is more important than tolerance. To respect another person is to refrain from calling them names, discounting their ideas or using frequent interruptions to talk over them or perplex them. It also means taking turns, so that you allow them to respond to your questions and share an equal time to express their point of view. The vast majority of people you know believe they are doing the best they can. They truly believe that their candidate or their policies will make the world a better place.

Stick it out.
When a conversation becomes awkward or difficult, work through it. It can be tempting, as soon as someone expresses a strong opinion on abortion or immigrants or civil rights, to test the waters with a comment or two. If you find the water too hot, you yank that toe out and run from the room. But the most important conversations are those that people are the most passionate about. They are messy and frustrating and even uncomfortable, but they’re also often worth it. And they are necessary if we are to find common ground and begin to solve some of the serious problems facing our global society.

Key Takeaways: It’s unlikely that you’ll change anyone’s point of view on politics, so don’t bother trying. Listening might provide insight about why you’re not as smart as you think you are. Most people have good intentions. Know when to keep your mouth shut.

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