15 Tips to Have Healthy Conversations about Politics
I grew up in Argentina, where politics was discussed at home during meals on a regular basis. However, I was not allowed to talk about politics with anybody else. “If others know what our political ideas are, we could get killed,” my mother told me when I was young. The idea that we could die for sharing our political views had a great impact on me. After decades of military government, democracy came to Argentina when I was 12. I naïvely thought that the freedom to choose our own government, included the freedom to express our ideas about these choices with others. This was not so. The country was sorely divided. My family was no different. Now, it was no longer safe to talk about politics, not even in my home.
Like many teenagers, I felt immaturely courageous and let my ideas flow out of my mouth without constraint in high school. As a result, I was called all sorts of names, I got ridiculed and even lost friends. That did not stop me until one day I went to school and some horrible graffiti was painted on the wall with my name on it.
“You can talk about anything except for politics” was the last thing my parents said to me as my long-distance bus pulled away from the platform when I left home for university.
I did not talk about politics during my university years. I did not talk about politics for another decade. And when I started again, in the United States, the conversation ended in tension, argument and the feeling of separateness.
The truth is, like most people, I did not know how to talk about politics without getting angry or righteous.
It wasn’t until I started doing deep inquiry work around how I communicated that I realized I had a hidden agenda when I shared my political ideas. No wonder these conversations ended sourly!
In 2008, I decided to explore how to talk about politics in a way that fostered connection instead of schism. I started an email thread with some friends I knew had different political ideas. I called it “Friendly Conversations.” That title set the tone. In these emails, I shared with my friends that I wanted to learn to talk about politics and in a connecting way. I then asked them about their views in relationship to their values.
The Friendly Conversations email thread lasted for several months, all the way until the election. As we asked honest questions with the intention of finding out the values behind someone’s opinion, we were able to develop rich and intelligent discussions about our perspectives. Not only that, we were able to see that some of our opinions did not resonate with our values.
Fast-forward to 2016 when several of my communication coaching sessions with clients bring to light the pain, frustration and fear they experience when discussing politics with their loved ones. I know they are not the only ones. So I want share some tools to talk about politics in ways that lead to openness and connection instead of closeness and separation.
First of all, we need to acknowledge the truth: our opinions are not facts. What we think about a particular party or candidate or policy is our own interpretation and however accurate it might be, it’s partial, biased and does not necessarily reflect the complete picture of that party or candidate or policy.
Secondly, if we have a political conversation with a hidden agenda we are not actually having a conversation. Some pieces of a hidden agenda are: to convince someone their interpretation is wrong and ours is right; to belittle someone’s understanding; or to be seen as the owner of truth.
When you want to show you are right and the other person is wrong you are having a competition. In a competition there are winners and losers and with this come feelings of jealousy and resentment, disappointment and arrogance. If these are the feelings you are trying to cultivate in yourself or others, then create a competition. If you are looking for something else, you will need to let go of this agenda.
Thirdly, if your conversation about politics comes only from your head and talks to the head of the other person, know that you will most likely leave your humanity aside and neglect to see the humanity in the other.
Now, if you've made it this far, you are interested in having healthy and human conversations about politics. From my experience, it is possible to talk to others about politics even if their ideas differ greatly from ours.
I want to recognize that you value connection, so keep yourself anchored in it as you read these suggestions. I also want to acknowledge that talking about politics in a healthy and connecting way is hard because it requires us to be completely present with ourselves and the other. It also means being willing to leave a conversation without having persuaded anyone of anything.
Unfortunately, we don’t have models to look up to these days, not even in the presidential candidates. Yet, you can become a model for others and bring some healing to the families, circles and communities that are in great need of connection, humanity and intelligent communication exchanges.
1. Check your intention. Why do you want to talk about politics? Are you interested in the other’s perspective? Are you seeking validation for your views? Do you want companionship because you are concerned about the country’s situation with the current political environment?
2. Express your intention out loud. Before you engage in a particular topic, share what you want to get out of it. It could be as simply as “I’m concerned about the elections and want to know if you share the same concerns.”
3. Focus on your similarities not on your differences. You may vote for different candidates or vote differently on ballot measures. Yet, if you go beyond the surface, you might find out that you and the other share the same values; you simply have different ideas about how to fulfill those values. When you find out what values you have in common, you can then talk about which pathways can fulfill these values in the most effective ways.
4. Ask questions with openness and curiosity. If you are against the death penalty and someone is voting for it, you can ask questions such as “what is important for you that leads you to vote this way?” Find what matters to the other person. You may find that from identifying their values, you may have a useful discussion about how those values could be met in society. This in turn can create openness to different ways of looking at things.
5. Reflect on what you are hearing before you validate or contradict the other. Let the other know you hear them without judgment. Reflecting what we hear allows us to accompany the other in their experience instead of leaving them by being in our head and thinking about how we are going to respond.
6. If you want to contradict, give a warning or ask if the other is willing to hear you. You might say something like “I see it in another way. Are you interested in hearing about it?”
7. Avoid interrupting with a “but.” If you don’t have more space or patience to hear the other it’s more connecting to say “I’m maxed out for the moment and need a break from this topic,” than preventing the other person to express themselves freely.
8. Take a breath into your heart when you notice you are closing down. If what you are hearing from the other feels so scary or upsetting that you start to shut down, stop it by allowing breath and energy to flow into your heart. Breathing into your heart keeps the possibility of connection viable with another.
9. Share your feelings and values more than your opinions or agreements or disagreements. Our opinions come most frequently from our head and not from our hearts. If we want to find connection with another we need to share the words of the heart: how we feel and what matters to us.
10.Validate the other’s feelings and values and avoid denying them. If the other lets you know their feelings of discontent, worry or anger, acknowledge their experience. Denying how they feel in their heart creates shutting down, separateness and lack of trust.
11. Avoid the temptation of name calling. Labeling other human beings objectifies them and creates distance from them. Name calling also leads to feelings of righteousness, arrogance, defensiveness and accusation. Remember you want to have a healthy conversation with the other, not to put them on trial.
12. Remember you both share something no-one can take away from you: your humanity. All human beings are in their essence pure, loving and compassionate. If you find it hard to see their humanity picture them as a newborn baby or a child.
13. When expressing your opinion, don’t couch it as fact. Acknowledge it’s your perspective. This will allow you to not take yourself so seriously.
14. When hearing others’ opinions, recognize it as one person’s interpretation of something. This will help you remember not to take it personally. The other person has enough trust in you to share their own limited interpretation of something. You might even say “I hear your interpretation about this” to remind you both this is not complete truth.
15. Get comfortable with ambiguity. When having these conversations, there may not be a resolution. Let it be okay without a particular outcome. The fact that you are having a healthy conversation about politics is already helping you both to be mature human beings, so enjoy your mature humanity as the main outcome even if no other action comes as a result.
I’d love to hear what you’ve tried and how it went for you. I know this is not easy because we don’t yet have a habit of having healthy conversations about difficult topics. However, I do know that if you have heart and the intention to connect with another person, you have the capacity to learn to speak your truth with clarity, power and compassion.