How to Talk About Politics, Productively

For many of us, 2020 has created a mixture of emotions like no other. Every event, political or not, has been tainted by the pandemic and the election. There’s an atmosphere of tension that can be overwhelming. But even before this year, it felt like we were already dealing with what seemed to be a deteriorating ability to have civil, respectful and constructive conversations about politics. Online echo chambers, decreasing trust in the media and divisive political trends have all contributed to this. However, I see at least one good thing that came out of this year.

Many of us were stuck inside our homes with more family members than usual when the protests and social justice movements began. We found ourselves in situations where we could no longer hang up the phone if a conversation got too heated, or otherwise avoid talking to people who we really disagree with but also fear damaging our relationships with. For me, I finally sat down and learned to have difficult, complicated conversations with both of my parents. In the past, I have had one-off conversations about faith or justice or culture, but never with the same consistency, intentionality or effectiveness. With everything happening in the world, and with all of us stuck inside, we learned to understand each other better.

The most important lesson I learned was to hit pause on my desire to convince or “educate” my family, and instead focus on learning the stories behind their beliefs. I always understood that they had their reasons, but I hadn’t taken the time to fully understand those reasons. This summer, when I sat down with my mom to complain about some of the issues I saw with religion in our society, she expressed to me her deep gratitude for the welcome she received from a local church after arriving to the U.S. with no other support or guidance. When I began ranting to my dad about structural inequality and corruption in American institutions, I heard about his personal experience working within the structures of an authoritarian regime and how that memory gives him pause before panicking about the apparent failings of our society. Hearing stories can provide insight and context to help you understand someone else’s positions.

So ask questions. Be curious. Seek to understand why someone believes the things they do (never assume you already know). What do they want? What are they afraid of? What experiences led them there? Throughout the conversation, repeat their words back to them to clarify that you heard correctly. If you’re struggling to get it, consider asking different questions. Sometimes what we see as faulty logic is simply the result of a misunderstanding. Hopefully, this process will lay the foundation for mutual understanding and respect.

Another strategy is to “zoom out” to find the values you share. Podcast host and author, Beth Silvers, suggests that, for example, if a conversation begins with a tweet from Trump about the border wall, you can broaden the discussion to something less immediately divisive. Zoom out to immigration in general. Silvers explains, “I’ll say things like, ‘Who should get to come to America? And where should we get to go—if I wanted to move to Canada, what should that process look like?… Let’s have a broader discussion so we’re not talking about an individual.’” By shifting the focus to a larger issue, you can identify what values and goals you share and then begin to consider what the best policies are to achieve those shared goals. It might be beneficial to research a topic together—to look through records of how certain policies played out and what politicians are currently planning. However, this does require all parties involved to be willing to be potentially proven wrong. That might mean you have to be the one to offer the olive branch.

“I remind myself to take a deep breath... If I want to be seen or heard, I also have to see and hear others. This is how true dialogue begins,” states family therapist Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali. It can be tempting to let our frustrations get the best of us – to feel like, if they are not respecting us, then they don’t deserve our respect. But recognize the power you hold. You can set the tone for the conversation. You can set a precedent of empathy and willingness to listen that can shape not only the conversation, but also your relationship. Silvers’s co-author and co-host, Sarah Holland, asserts, “…it’s not necessary for someone to give grace to receive it. It’s not necessary for the other person to be totally openhearted and patient and willing, especially with family members, for [you] to be openhearted and patient and willing to give all the curiosity and grace in the world.” Furthermore, your actions might surprise a family member and encourage them to mirror that behavior in the future. We all want to feel understood. So when someone shows up and communicates a desire to understand, it leaves an impact. Your behavior can improve your relationship with that person and even influence the way they approach conversations with others.

One simple way you can establish the right tone is to use “I” statements; this is a situation in which it actually is a good idea to focus on yourself. Rather than presenting your beliefs as absolute truths or unquestionable facts, express why you hold them to be true and how you got there. I learned this lesson the hard way. In the middle of an emotional argument with one of my friends, she explained to me, “It’s frustrating when you talk about things like you are undoubtedly right. It makes me feel disrespected. If you would just say, ‘I think…’ at the beginning of the sentence, then I could explain what I think, and we could talk about it.” This was truly a lightbulb moment for me. I had never realized how much of a difference such a small change could make. Using phrases like, “I see it this way,” or “From my perspective,” allows you to express your views without coming off as domineering. Personal narratives communicate that you are voicing your opinion because you are passionate about it, not because you want to prove the other person wrong. Also, by opening up, you invite the other person to do the same.

The last piece of advice I would offer is, don’t expect to change someone’s mind in one conversation. Perhaps don’t expect to change their mind at all. Make the goal of the conversation a greater understanding rather than persuasion or victory. Therapist Jesse Kahn acknowledges, “You may not radically change or impact anyone in a single conversation, so are you okay with just laying the groundwork? Are you okay with having multiple conversations? Can you provide some insight or resources that helped you grow as your politics were changing, and allow your family the time to explore them as you did?”

The key to having civil political discourse is to set your goal as having civil political discourse. Not to persuade. Not to transform. Not to “save” or even to “educate” – at least not in a condescending way. The goal should be to listen. To build trust and respect. To lay a foundation that allows complex, sometimes emotional, always difficult conversations to happen. We’re moving into a season that could potentially be even more tense and emotional. But you can still equip yourself to have conversations that are patient, honest and productive.