Q. With the upcoming presidential election, folks are engaging more frequently in political discussions — at cocktail parties, the ofﬁce water cooler and, of course, at family gatherings. As we know, these talks often occur spontaneously and can become heated. How can we handle these conversations and maintain civility?
TTC. Although we have been told from an early age that politics and religion are “off limits” for polite conversation, that just doesn’t work with a signiﬁcant election looming. Since they are likely to happen now, folks should ask themselves a couple questions. What is the purpose of talking? Is it to have a real discussion? To learn? To ﬁght? To persuade? To understand someone’s perspective? Also, remember, there are two aspects to challenging conversations, the substance of what is said and how it is communicated.
Q. Why is that necessary?
TTC. Often people tend to jump into a discussion to express their opinion rather than to have a discussion. All too often lack accurate information to back up their statements and perspective. They may also feel surprised or blindsided and may react emotionally rather than thoughtfully.
Q. What is the most common cause of political discussions becoming “hot?”
TTC. Conversations about controversial topics may escalate or become “hot” when individual agendas are either different or unclear or when opinions are divergent. If a person’s position is challenged, they will likely defend their opinion.
Often they will say they want to hear an opposing view, but will resist information that contradicts their belief.
Finally, you can say hard things to people if you don’t surprise them and speak only about what you know is true and if you are kind. That is to say, if your intention is constructive.
Q. Are you suggesting that it would be a waste of time to try to change the opinions of others?
TTC. The short answer is “yes” because a person must change their own mind. It would be better to clarify expectations. Is a person truly interested and willing to hear what you have to say? Are you genuinely willing to understand another person’s opinion? If not, better to decide not to engage than to ﬁght or bully someone into accepting your beliefs. Of course, sometimes people just want to ﬁght, to win, and/or to be right. If that’s the case, better to acknowledge it and ﬁnd a way to engage in something constructive rather than risk alienating an important person in your life.
Q. Is it possible to ﬁnd common ground with someone, regardless of whom you’re talking to?
TTC. Yes, it’s likely that common ground does exist about beliefs or, at least, about problems. Even if you disagree about speciﬁcs, whenever possible, this is a good time to connect and acknowledge one another in a civil and interactive manner. As Joni Johnston explains in Psychology Today, it’s good to ﬁnd common ground but don’t use it to show that you’re superior.
Q. If parties want to discuss political issues that are important to them, what are some of the things they should consider that would help to keep the conversation on an even keel.
TTC. If the relationship is important to you and the issue is important, ﬁrst, show respect and listen. Do not intimidate the person. It would be good to clarify expectations such as genuine willingness to engage in a constructive discussion and being open to new information and ideas, and to learning. Think about making an appointment and setting a few ground rules so that individuals feel safe to speak and to differ.
Q. What are some of the ground rules to consider?
TTC. Listening. No interrupting. No one will walk away. No yelling or name-calling. Determine a time frame. Suggest a purpose or outcome; what each would like to have happen as a result of the discussion.
Q. You suggest that a constructive discussion of a difﬁcult subject requires that participants not blindside each other. What does that mean?
TTC. People are never at their best when they are surprised by something unexpected. Ask permission to have the discussion. Agree on the topic to be discussed. Agree on a time and place. Don’t take cheap shots or hit below the belt.
Q. Political conversations can be tricky with anyone, but particularly with family members and close friends, where preserving the relationship is key.
TTC. Individuals must be kind and respectful with one another. Important relationships have history, both positive and negative, that impacts future interactions. Trust and respect provide a safety net for having difﬁcult conversations successfully because the relationship needs to be shielded from the toxicity of negative feelings, judgments and criticism. Each person should give and receive the beneﬁt of the doubt that nothing malicious or disrespectful is intended.
Q. Any ﬁnal thoughts?
TTC. Take care. Think before you speak. Some people are willing, able and eager to engage in substantive political discussions: many are not. Some people will simply express an opinion without intending to have a discussion and be surprised when others disagree. When the differences emerge people often become defensive or argumentative. Consider the relationship and the desired outcome before embarking on a political discussion that may become “hot.” Ask yourself if it is more important to have the relationship or to be right.