Mediate BC Blog

How to Talk Politics and Still Like Each Other

Posted by Lori.Charvat

Talking politics is a tough game. And, when we engage with people who subscribe to a different set of values and beliefs, the game can become really hot, really fast. It seems too, that in recent years these political conversations have resulted in greater polarization between us and them, the left and the right, the liberals and the conservatives. As a self-identified liberal, I have rolled my eyes, cursed, and gasped with horror at the things “those people” say and do.  When “those people” are also people that I care about, I have had to work really hard at finding a way through this mess of competing beliefs to preserve relationships.

In the workshops I teach on conflict resolution, I remind people of their primary choice: to engage or not to engage in a difficult conversation. We might ask ourselves: Do I want to discuss this issue with you right now?  What might we gain from this conversation? What is at stake?

I am not a conflict avoider. However, I will sometimes, choose not to tackle certain topics with certain people... in certain circumstances. Talking politics is one of those topics that I enter with caution. I quickly make my calculations: if the risks outweigh the benefits of engaging, I step away from the ring. Context is a critical factor.

In-person and on-line circumstances create different conditions and change the equation.

In 2017, I exited Facebook as I found myself mired, even as a bystander, in the vitriol and despair in the aftermath of the 2016 US elections.  Participating, even occasionally, in the on-line discussions only seemed to stir up the rage and the disappointment and remind me of my relative lack of agency to do much of anything other than to vote (which I do – in both the US and Canada). Social media is not a platform for meaningful dialogue anyway. There is little to gain from an on-line bun fight.

In-person conversations are quite different. To decide – whether to dive in or step aside from a hot topic – has to be done in a split second. Consider the dinner party scenario or a family weekend gathering, and Uncle Joe raises the issue of immigration or climate change or (please, no) abortion. Admittedly, I rely on my Spidey senses to take a quick temperature of a situation and the likelihood of constructive dialogue. If it feels unwise to engage, I might have a sudden urge to ensure that I unplugged the toaster oven or check my vibrating smartphone (that was smart enough to ring just in the nick of time). Choosing not to engage is a valid choice; use it wisely.

If I choose to engage, and I have got my best self in the driver’s seat of Me, I enter the conversation with curiosity.  I might have to take my Lefty-Liberal team jersey off for a moment. What can I learn here?  How can I improve my understanding of this issue by listening to the “other side” of things? How can I challenge my own bias on this issue? I have to listen to understand, not to rebut their ideas. I just might have to set aside being “right” or winning.

Social psychologists, like Jonathon Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, and Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, explain that we humans operate at both a rational, thoughtful level and at a reactive, intuitive level. When talking politics or other topics that trigger our deep-rooted morals and values, our natural response is not to be rational. Trying to reason your way to victory by challenging a deeply held belief that someone else holds is likely to end in impasse.  So, unless you set your sights on listening to understand their ideas or perhaps broadening your own perspective on a topic, you’d be better off cutting your losses and checking the toaster oven.

At my workshops, I always set out agreements to guide our discussion and learning.  I call these Learning Agreements. One of my favourite agreements is “be responsible for the quality of this conversation”.  If we choose to talk politics with friends, family and co-workers, being responsible for the quality of the interaction can be a game changer.  To be responsible requires us to enter the dialogue with respect for others and their beliefs, and a willingness to learn. We may never agree, but we can gain a broader perspective on an issue. And, by working through a difficult conversation, we just might build a richer relationship with the dude wearing the “other” team jersey.

About the Author

Lori Charvat is a leadership and organizational development consultant, who works with individuals and teams to move through the mess of conflict and change. She is also a mediator and facilitator, with a focus on workplace conflict management, and serves as the current Chair of Mediate BC.

 

 

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