Navigating the Minefield of Political Conversations
One of the big existential challenges today is how to articulate your political beliefs with passion in a way that allows for respectful conversation with others who believe differently.
Every time we say something, or post something, we are making a decision about what we want to be a force for in the world. We may believe we are being a force for righteousness, but it’s possible that mindset can also have the unintended consequences of feeling bullying or close-minded to some people. If we want to be a force for never stirring the pot, an unintended consequence may be that some people might think you don’t have strong beliefs or intentionally hide them, which can diminish trust. It’s complicated! And, leaders are levers. If you are in a leadership role (within your Forum, an organization, your family, or your community), everything you say or do carries an X-multiplier factor. Consider carefully those values and principles for which you want to a force, and then work to develop habits that are congruent with those best desires from your higher self.
Are there friends who have radically different political beliefs from you (which is not the same as radical beliefs!) whom you avoid or are even no longer in contact with? Has the passion of your partner for a candidate you find repellant driven a wedge in your relationship? Do you have two different tables at Thanksgiving gatherings, to keep the peace? Do you find yourself labeling people who believe differently from you, throwing them all in the same bucket?
You are not alone. The polarization going on at so many levels right now is creating separation, when what we want most as human beings is connection. While we love models because they make things simpler for us to understand, things are not so black and white. The “you’re with me or against me” mindset is too simplistic: we humans are more nuanced than that. I might be with you on A, B, C and different from you on X, Y and Z – so which box will you put me in? Either way, you will be partially mistaken, which is likely to cause resentment on my part.
Polarization is not just about having very different views. It’s about insulting those who believe differently, and even lying or being violent about it. The only way this will change is with strong leadership; leadership that speaks with civility, models respect and calls out those people who insist on speaking evil about (or doing evil toward) fellow citizens who believe differently. Integrity is what you do when no one’s watching, so it’s also how you behave when you’re with like-minded people. Make a habit of speaking your views with passion, while being respectful. Let’s create a tipping point, back toward understanding we are all neighbors and that different political perspectives are just that – not good and evil people. We’re better than that.
Why is politics such a charged subject? Well, political elections decide who will lead and represent us, and the policies associated with those representatives create frameworks that affect our daily lives and long-term prospects. This includes how much we pay in taxes, what those precious tax dollars will go to pay for, whether we are at peace or at war, our safety, our health, our education and so much more. Of course, political conversations ignite passion, hope and fear! Our very lives are at stake. And just as some people will get crazy about rooting for their favorite athlete or sports team, when the stakes are actually high (our lives!) people can get pretty fired up about their candidates.
And not unlike sports, the trash talk can amp up. But though I’m a Boston Red Sox fan, I don’t refuse to have conversations with (sadly misguided) friends who are New York Yankees fans. I understand the stakes are not the same as in politics, but some of the same die-hard entrenchment is similar. Why then, are so many people unable to have civil discourse around politics?
Most importantly, people are not their belief systems. I can like you, care about you, even love you, while feeling that your political beliefs and representatives of those beliefs are terrible for our society, perhaps even as strong as evil. But I know you’re not evil; you’re my friend and there are so many good qualities I value in you. So, we have to be able to hold a paradox; two opposing things can both be true. I see this as a marker of maturity in people. If we want to stay in relationship with people at home, at work or in our community, we have to be able to accept that we can love them and dislike their political beliefs, simultaneously. I have a friend who says, “you’d be perfect, if you weren’t a _____ (insert political party here)!” I could choose to be offended by that statement, or I can choose to appreciate the accolades of near-perfection. 😉
Here are some questions for your consideration:
- Is it good, or even possible, to talk politics with people, if we’re at polar ends of the spectrum?
- How persuadable are any of us?
- What is our role, as leaders, in facilitating dialogue and civility?
- What about when you want to take a stand? How do you stay true to yourself and true to your stakeholders?
- If you are silent, do others believe you agree? Judge? Don’t care? Are ignoring them?
- How do Forum skills come into play? Is your Forum adept with protocol (LAQS – Listen, Accept, Question, Share)?
- How do you handle someone declaring beliefs or opinions to be facts?
- How do you deal with someone denying facts? (such as something captured on video)
- When pressured to take a stance, what do you do? There is usually a risk of alienating some stakeholders.
- If you vanilla-ize (stay strictly neutral), what happens to trust?
- How do you invite dialogue, if the other person has zero interest? Can it happen?
It’s human nature to gravitate toward people who agree with us. It’s so excellent to be right and validated! A mutual admiration society of sorts. Joking aside, hanging with those whose values and beliefs about how to actualize those values in society does allow us to build upon ideas in a collaborative way. However, we are less likely to see our blind spots when with our peeps in the proverbial echo chamber. For that, we’re going to have to engage with….Those From The Other Side.
Before you do, ask yourself these questions from Crucial Conversations’ “Start With Heart” model:
- What do I want for myself?
- What do I want for the other person? (distinction – what do you want for the other person, such as to feel valued, vs. what do I want the other person to do, such as change their mind).
- What do I want for the relationship?
- How would I behave, if that’s what I really want?
When presented with the opportunity (or pushed into the boxing ring) to have a conversation about politics with someone whose beliefs are quite different from our own, we have three choices:
- Avoid (I thought about saying, “abort!” but that brings up political connotations of its own). How I’ve seen this showing up, in actual conversations: change the subject, leave the room or situation, demur on grounds of keeping things copasetic, or “I don’t want to damage our friendship.” This is rampant right now. A few things to consider – is it a real peace, or a polite veneer? Do we have a real friendship, if we can’t discuss our values and beliefs in a calm and respectful way? If there’s really no way to have civil dialogue, this may be your only choice, but it does create distance and the proverbial “elephant in the room”. It’s also potentially a missed opportunity to know the other person better and to deepen the relationship, especially in a Forum situation. And – if it feels like an abusive, one-way diatribe by the other person, avoidance may be your best choice.
- Declare neutrality. “I’m apolitical.” I don’t believe you. While you may feel that all politicians are corrupt and that no party really serves the people, I don’t believe that you don’t care a bit about how our government is run, how your tax dollars are spent, the state of our economy and healthcare, or whether we’re at war or peace. A more authentic response might be, “I choose to keep my political beliefs private” or “I get so frustrated that I don’t pay that much attention to what’s going on, so choose not to engage in conversation.” There may be times when it is absolutely appropriate to declare neutrality, such as when facilitating a discussion, hosting a social event, or acting in a professional capacity. Just be cognizant that if your social media presence is different, you may be perceived as inauthentic or even manipulative (meaning, afraid to share your beliefs because of potentially losing a sale, client or engagement).
- Engage! This path is of course fraught with the risk of the conversation getting explosive, vs. the paths of walking on eggs, in #’s 1 and 2 above. It is also the only path which can actually connect us, though. Just as talking through any kind of conflict can blow things up or bring people closer together, the same is true with political conversations. And, it can be very tricky and touchy, especially given the charged atmosphere in the US at this point in time.
How do you reconcile authenticity and safety? I’d like to offer some concepts and tools that I think are helpful in choosing the right path given different contexts, and then for how to navigate each path successfully.
Develop and Practice Your Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
A lens that will serve you well as you encounter the slings and arrows of outrageous political assertions, is the four quadrants of Emotional Intelligence*. These are:
- Social awareness
- Relationship management
I find it really useful when engaging in conversations about politics to notice what’s happening in each of the four quadrants and to quickly assess how I can contribute in a positive way to the conversation from there.
Here are some examples:
- I get angry and resentful when people put everyone into simplistic buckets, like “the media”, “Republicans” or “liberals”.
- When I’m irritated, I tend to get sarcastic if I feel comfortable or in a power position and check out mentally when I’m not, usually with a blithe smile on my face.
- I behave differently with people I know share common political beliefs with me than I do with those who I think or know support candidates whom I think are awful.
- My first thought is not always my best thought. I can make assumptions and react in a way that’s different from how I really feel, once I’ve calmed down.
- Rather than take the bait when it’s offered, I endeavor to “stay in my own lane”, with statements like, “I find there’s a really broad spectrum of journalistic integrity in the media and that it’s helpful to be specific about which outlets to which you’re referring”.
- Cues that tell me I’m irritated include furrowing my brow, twisting the left corner of my mouth and an impatience that I feel in the bottom of my neck. I take these as warning signs to re-center myself, so that I can respond vs. react.
- I resist the temptation to “pile on” when my political peeps are venting and to behave as if dear friends who believe differently were in the room. I would want them to feel safe. When I cannot believe/understand why my friends would support candidates I find awful, I invoke my curiosity to ask them what beliefs and underlying values attract them to those candidates. I’m careful with my words, tone and body language, to move toward sincerity and curiosity and to avoid incredulity and disdain.
- I hit the “Pause” button before I respond to something that provokes an emotional response in me. I take a breath, ask clarifying questions, excuse myself to use the restroom, or wait a few minutes (or an hour, week, month or never) before responding.
- I look for signs that safety in a conversation or gathering is being compromised, as evidenced by Silence (Avoiding, Withdrawing or Masking) or Violence (Labeling, Attacking, or Controlling)**.
- I pay attention to body language, to notice when someone is feeling uncomfortable (shifting around, looking down or away, talking louder, faster or not at all).
- I monitor group dynamics so that I notice if the group is moving into an “us and them” mentality.
- If I think safety is feeling compromised, I check in with the person or the group as a whole. I suggest Rules of Engagement (discussed in more detail later in this article), which can include not discussing politics, setting a time limit (or a time-out!), being respectful, sticking to values and policy ideas, etc. I encourage balanced participation.
- When things are heating up, I pull out of the “content” and check in on “process.” For example: “I feel like you’re not wanting to be in conversation about this; is that accurate? I really am interested in what you think and in understanding why”, or “gee, I feel like you’re lecturing me, which doesn’t feel good and I know is probably not your intent. Are you curious at all about why I think the way I do?”
- When things start moving into an “us and them” mentality, I ask questions that can bring us to common ground, or that remind us of what we like and respect about each other. Examples: “It makes me feel hopeful that someone I like and respect as much I do you, thinks Candidate X is a great choice. I’m interested to hear your reasoning,” or “I’m glad we both feel so passionate about having a government that moves us in the right direction. We may disagree about the best leaders and policies to get us there, but hopefully that shines a light on blind spots”, or “it feels like we’re not really listening to each other at this point. Let’s take a break and circle back later, if we both want to do that.”
- Laughter is the most contagious emotion for the limbic system in our brains. Humor can be useful to reconnect us when we’re feeling disconnected with someone. Be discerning about it, though: humor that’s fun or self-deprecating is safe; sarcasm, no matter how elegantly witty, is not safe in these situations and will create more distance and even animosity.
Rules of engagement
- Stick with “I” vs. “you” and avoid blanket stereotypes. Stay in your lane.
- What is our purpose in the conversation? Let’s stick with that, unless we both/all agree to a detour.
- We’re going to talk about leadership and policy, not parties and candidates.
- Choose the appropriate time, place, and duration for the discussion.
- Have a “safe word”; have ways to exit the conversation if it gets ugly.
- Separate the person from their beliefs.
- Separate beliefs from facts.
- Remember and reiterate the common ground. Be curious about the “why” – what are the underlying values and hoped-for outcomes?
Consistency is a Habit
It’s not uncommon for people to have more than one set of manners, when it comes to politics these days. Here are some examples:
- When I’m with like-minded people and can relax, speak with few filters, get snarky and not worry about offending others.
- When I’m with people I care about who I know have views different from mine and I want to be super respectful, whether engaging in dialogue or agreeing to avoid the subject altogether.
- When I’m with people I don’t know and may never see again (such as on Social Media) and I can do a “hit and run” without consequences (which may be an illusion).
- When I’ve had a few drinks and Emotional Intelligence is a vague memory….
The easiest way to create the habit of navigating political conversations with aplomb is to make it a habit to be consistent in how you show up and how you speak. You always have the choice of the 3 Paths. If you have to constantly assess who’s in the room and how respectful you need to be, the chances of messing that up go up quite a bit. This does not mean you can’t express your point of view, and with passion! It does mean that you’ll want to be mindful about how you do that (content, tone, body language, time and place). Cultivating this habit offers the attendant benefits of:
- People will trust you more, when you are consistent.
- Especially as a leader, you’re setting an example for the kind of dialogue you want to see in the world. While a large percentage of the population says they want more civility, what they say and how they say it often belies that.
- Your odds of having to do damage control decrease significantly (see #3 and 4 above, especially).
How do you create the habit? See #2, above. It’s hard to go wrong with that path. Even when you’re sure you’re with like-minded peeps, avoid the snark and the downward spiral of vitriol. That can become a habit, too. What do you want to be a force for in the world?
In any conversation, it’s useful to have Self-Awareness about your drivers, such as “I want to be right, to persuade, to vent, to take a stand, to be courageous, to think out loud, to understand or to be understood, to learn, to be kind, to build relationship, to deepen relationship, to be an outstanding and fair leader, to set a good example, to practice conflict, to avoid conflict, to be apolitical, to be diplomatic”, etc.
Like a knife or other tools, Social Media can be a force for Good or Evil, and a whole range in-between. Remember that it can be forever; something you might say in the heat of the moment might not only be remembered but copied and saved. What do you want your personal brand to be? Firebrand for the cause? Wise, visionary, fair leader? Apolitical? Be consistent and understand that there will be consequences with any of those choices, both positive and negative. This is where your values come in. You’ll want to assess what is most important to you, and the risk/reward relationship of potential consequences. And while you may think of yourself in different roles (personal, professional, advocate), those who see what you post may not see those distinctions.
A quote I’m fond of is, “those who matter won’t mind, and those who mind won’t matter.” That can be true when taking a stand and provide a shot of courage for doing so. It’s about similar values. But taking a stand can still be done in a diplomatic way.
There is a continuum of how to view people with beliefs different from ours. The bottom is clearly the most inflammatory and polarizing. Be careful with not just your words, but inference. Clarify carefully when people ask what you mean. Assessing where you and the person or people with whom you’re in conversation with are on the continuum can help you decide which of the three paths to take.
- Agree on many beliefs/values, but disagree how to best actualize them
- Different beliefs, some common ground, differ on policy ideas
- Little common ground
- One-issue voters
- You are wrong
- You are dumb
- You are willfully ignorant
- You’re an idiot
- You are a bad person
- You are amoral or immoral
- You are evil (even by association)
- You are betraying our XXX (gender, race, country, party, etc.)
Do’s and Don’ts
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts that apply to both Social Media and live conversations:
- Talk about what you’re for, and why.
- Avoid trash talk. Even when you’re sure you’re right, is it helpful?
- Check your facts. Don’t hit the “share” button without doing that. Spreading mis/dis-information is harmful. Do make that request of others when you spot disinformation.
- Be clear about what is your opinion and what is fact. Use phrases such as, “the way I see it”, “my belief is”, “it’s my understanding that…” Facts can be proven, such as quoting from someone on a video that is public.
- Don’t paint with a broad brush. Things are rarely black and white. It only takes a few extra words to make this work: “I get frustrated when some Democrats….”, vs. “conservatives ALWAYS….” When you label people, or put them into buckets, you dehumanize them.
- Don’t assume you know what someone thinks. Few things can raise ire as quickly. Especially if you see someone as liberal or conservative, it’s insulting to presume that they automatically buy into every bit of that party’s platform or every candidate or representative of that party.
- Do ask clarifying questions, with genuine interest and curiosity. “That’s so interesting! I’d like to understand your point of view; would you share more about that with me?”
- Do be respectful of the person, even if you vehemently disagree with one of their points of view. If a stance is so anathema to you that you want to end the relationship, be clear about that, be clear about whether it’s really possible (partner, family, work colleague, forum mate) and be clear that you’re contributing to polarization when you make that choice. There may be times when you decide it’s appropriate. But just as a Forum mate (or family member) may make a choice that is morally unacceptable to you, such as infidelity, does that make the person unacceptable to be in relationship with you any longer?
- Do be a good winner. Don’t gloat.
- Try to be a gracious loser, too. It’s fine to express your disappointment but if you insult those who voted for the winner, you’re adding to the polarization.
- Resist the urge to send articles from deeply biased (extreme ends of the left or right) media outlets to your friends, to prove your point. You’ll lose credibility, not gain it.
- Don’t assume that you know someone’s political leanings. In the spirit of camaraderie, you may be prattling on about your preferred candidate’s strategy or complaining about his opponent being wretched, with a friend who of course thinks like you, because she’s smart! If your assumption is mistaken, you’ve just shut down safety in not only the conversation, but maybe the friendship. Because you’ve just told her how wrong she is.
- Especially in group gatherings, do try to help set rules of engagement. If you have a forum or dinner party where 8 of 9 people share similar political beliefs, then run a little interference for the outlier by asking the group about the 3 paths and what’s on the table for discussion and how to keep it safe and civil.
- Do call out false equivalencies. Someone believing in stronger immigration policies is not automatically anti-immigrant or racist. Someone who thinks a stronger safety net is important is not automatically for higher taxes. False equivalencies can be taken to the point of ridiculousness and can be like pouring gasoline on a fire when it comes to polarization. Here is an example that just hit my email box as I was writing this, from a US Senate candidate: “These radicals in the media have been out to get me since the start because I support ________(person), and because I love America.” The false equivalency is that the media therefore hates America. These kinds of statements have become too common and are designed to stoke anger. Call them out.
- If you choose to enter a political conversation, let go of “winning” the conversation or trying to persuade someone to change their mind. It is not a battle that is won or lost, but rather an exchange of ideas where both parties feel heard and respected.
- Don’t fake it. If you’re not up to speed on an issue, simply acknowledge it and either ask some questions or move on.
How do you handle….
While there may be many ways to handle these situations, here’s my recommendations:
- Discerning vs judging. Care deeply about understanding the other person. Ask questions in a respectful way that go deeper. Listen for stories and values. Know that there are reasons that are deeply important to this person for supporting the political positions or candidate .
- Others won’t engage in conversation, despite your invitation for civil discourse to learn and understand. Well, you can’t make someone talk. Shake it off, try re-offering the invitation a different way (“I respect you so much, it would really help me understand this perspective if you would share with me”) or at a different time. If the answer is repeatedly that “politics is off-limits for conversation” then you’ll need to respect that if you want to keep the relationship in good repair. You can still offer a brief thought or two of your own about your values, from time to time (meaning one or two sentences), in the interest of authenticity. Keep it positive.
- People refusing to see anything positive in a candidate or party (black and white, right and wrong). “Are all blondes ditzy, really? All of them?” If in the US, “do you really think that half of us in the country are completely, utterly wrong, in every position?” Have a few examples of what you view as positive positions and accomplishments and challenge the assumption.
- “I’m apolitical.” “You really don’t care at all if we’re at war or peace, what happens to Social Security, how your tax dollars are spent, or what direction our health care is going? Why not?”
- “They’re all horrible, those politicians.” “You may be right, that many are. But all of them? Not one single person who has run for office is decent and interested in serving the public good? Are there any you admire? Here are a few that I do….” We also need to stop “savaging” our candidates and those serving in public positions. The practice of focusing on every mistake ever made is not a test any of us would pass. If we want better people to serve, we need to treat those who serve better.
- “I don’t want to damage our relationship.” “Great! Me, either. I’d like to deepen our relationship. That’s why I want to understand you better. How about if we set some Rules for Engagement for a 15-minute discussion where we agree to be totally respectful and talk about what we’re for, and see how it goes?”
- “I assume I know what you think – so I am not curious.” “That’s so fascinating! I’d love it if you’d actually ask me, and then maybe it would be fun to compare that with your assumptions. I bet there may be some surprises.”
- “I know what I believe. So, listening to what you believe is a waste of time, annoying, maddening, or irrelevant”. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m interested in listening to you and would love to have that be a two-way street, for the sake of our relationship and both of us continuing to learn by broadening our perspectives. We don’t have to agree and let’s not try to persuade each other. Let’s just learn.”
- Why do corporations take a stance on political things? How do you balance values vs. alienating some stakeholders? You’ll need to decide what you value most, which can include your personal or company values, revenue/profits, some stakeholders more than others, keeping the peace, or trying not to alienate anyone.
- “Why does our company NOT take a stance?” Many companies have chosen to make public statements on the issue of racism. Again, you’ll need to weigh what’s most important to you here. You won’t please everyone, so just be able to articulate your thinking when asked.
- “Talking is not going to change anything.” It may not. And it may – talking has changed monumental things in the world. Dialogue is how we think beyond ourselves.
- “I don’t want to be judged (even if I’m judging you).” “I’m going to do my best not to do that, and please call me out if you feel I step into that judging place. Can I do the same with you? I think that would be great practice for both of us, so we can get better at this in conversations with other people, too.”
- “I want to keep it safe”. (But is it, really?) “ I do, too. For me, I feel safe when I understand why someone makes the choices they do. And I feel safe when I feel I can state what’s important to me, and why, and still be accepted. Can we try?”
- False equivalencies. “I think the issue is more complex and nuanced than that. I feel shut down and a little frustrated when you make blanket statements like that. Are you willing to listen to why?”
There’s no doubt that navigating political conversations is challenging. I hope the ideas and tools presented in this article will help you to enter those conversations more confidently, to have dialogue that helps you learn, and to be able to opt out tactfully when respectful discussion does not seem possible. Keep trying! Practice. Stay open. Try to stay centered. Retreat for a bit when you feel yourself getting combative. Don’t lose your passion; harness it in a way that models how to articulate your values and beliefs in a positive way. Be a force for skillful, curious, civil conversation in a bull-in-the-china-shop world. If enough of us do this, especially leaders, we can be a force for better relationships, which are the lifeblood for a better society. That’s worth the discomfort of the minefields. I hope you’ll join me in that effort.
* from Primal Leadership, by Goleman, et al
**from Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, et al
Recommended articles, videos, books, quizzes for more ideas and tools
Scout vs. Warrior Mindset: Julia Galef
Political Bias quiz
NPR – Keeping it Civil
Sally Kohn – Emotional Correctness
Moral reframing – Rob Willer
Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable – Luvvie Ajayi
Quiz on reading body language
Leadership & Self-Deception, by The Arbinger Institute
The Anatomy of Peace, by The Arbinger Institute
Primal Leadership, by Goleman, et al
Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, et al
Persuadable, by Al Pittampalli
Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein