How to Talk Politics (Without Screaming)

There’s a great big national election this year! Had you noticed? Did you also notice that when it comes to “talking” politics there seems to be only two kinds of conversations? Either the people talking all completely agree with each other or they completely scream at each other. The “middle ground” of a rational conversation with the end goal of exchanging ideas and learning from each other seems so quaint and colonial.

No Golden Age

Except it’s not. Colonial that is. The firebrands on both sides of the political spectrum that hurl flaming insults at the other have their roots in human nature rather than in any new, recently discovered political poison. Human nature tends to insults, unfair accusations, and outrageous statements. In the seeming colonial golden age of gentlemen and thoughtful, intellectual debates we find the campaign between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The two were personal friends and you might think they would have little in common with today’s nasty political partisanship. You would be mistaken.

The president of Yale University, an Adams supporter, contended that a Jefferson presidency would result in “our wives and daughters being the victims of legal prostitution” and a major newspaper promised that Jefferson as president would mean "murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced." 

Jefferson’s hired hatchet man, James Callender, used the social media of his day (published pamphlets and newspaper columns) to assert that Adams was a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who "behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character." Fairly nasty stuff, that.

Is There Hope?

With current political discourse looking like a cage match and ample evidence that our past wasn’t much different is there any hope for a decent political conversation and is it worth the effort?

Striving for a reasonable and useful political conversation with those we passionately disagree with is not only worth the effort, it is worth every effort.

A democracy, or in the case of the United States, a constitutional republic, only works if people can actually talk to one another. Talk. Not scream. Talk. As in, communicate and learn from one another.

A rational conversation with those with whom you disagree is the beating heart of a democracy, a form of government that Churchill observed was “the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…” Simply put, learning to have useful conversations with people you disagree with is essential to maintaining the Republic and avoiding a descent into anarchy and tyranny. Strong enough reason for you?

As for whether there is any hope, here are three strategies that you can use to have a rational, reasonable, and useful conversation with someone who thinks differently than you about the political issues of the day.

Strategy Number 1: Remember That No Matter Who You Are Talking to You Both Have the Same Goal

Yes, you read that correctly. I don’t care where you are on the political spectrum, if you are talking to a fellow citizen who is anything other than an anarchist at the end of the day you both want the exact same thing from the political process. You both want a political process that results in a leader and a policy that brings the most benefit possible to the country that you live in.  Ultimately all of us, regardless of political party, want to live in a country that protects us from the forces of evil, provides justice when evil appears, and gives us the best opportunity to live our lives the best way we can.

Certainly we will have differences, profound and significant differences, on how to achieve that result, but ultimately we all want the same thing. This is critically important when you are listening to, debating, discussing, or arguing with someone who has different political views than your own. No matter how different your views ultimately you want to end up in the same place. Seeing your “opponent” as a real person, someone who wants something that you can understand and that you want as well, is an essential safeguard that keeps you focused on the issues substance of the argument.

Since the other person ultimately wants what you want as well you will have to focus on the issues. Why does he or she think that the policies and solutions offered by the candidate he or she supports will result in the outcome that both of you wants?

Strategy Number 2: No Matter How Much You Disagree with the Other Person Begin with Making Your Best Effort to Understand Them

You start with a firm understanding that the person you are talking to is a real person who in the end wants what you want. Your first and most important job in the conversation is to discover what the person you are talking to really thinks, believes, and understands. You must do this before you attempt to explain to that person what you understand and why.  

You may already know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the positions advocated by the candidate the person you are talking to supports are completely, totally, and clearly idiotic and you can prove it instantly if she would just listen. Doesn’t matter. Because she won’t listen to anything you have to say until you listen to her! Not only that, but you really don’t know what to tell her that will make sense to her until you clearly understand why she thinks the things her candidate says and supports makes sense and will ultimately be better for the country.

Always seek first to understand and then to be understood. Commit to becoming a question asking master. Ask non-personal, non-threatening, thoughtful questions. Ask why she likes the candidate that she does? What does she like best about the candidate? What does she think is most important about the candidate and the candidate’s positions? How did the candidate win her support? What are the issues she is most concerned about? What does she dislike, if anything, about her candidate? What is her biggest fear if the other candidate gets elected? What is her biggest fear if her candidate gets elected?

To become even more of a question asking master practice going three deep. Ask a question, listen carefully to the answer, then ask a question related to the answer, listen carefully, then ask a third question related to that answer. You will often find that it will be at the second and third level that you will begin to gain some real understanding of what the person you are talking to believes, what informs those beliefs, and where she is really coming from.

Strategy Number Three: Be Clear About Your Objectives and Ask Permission to Pursue Them

Before you have a political conversation with someone you disagree with you should get really clear about what your objective really is. Is your objective to reassure yourself that you are really right about everything? If it is you can probably skip the conversation, that’s a sure recipe for a shouting match.

Is your objective to completely win the other person over to your side? If so you have embarked on a journey with an incredibly low chance of success. You are not likely to meet someone who has sincerely different political beliefs than your own that you will be able to convert to your way of thinking instantly with some slick verbal judo.

I suggest you focus on a better goal. Go into the conversation with a primary and secondary objective. Commit to achieving your primary objective no matter what. Commit to doing your best to achieve your secondary goal, but consider achieving it a bonus.

Your primary goal should be to learn something from the conversation. Your secondary goal should be to help the person you are talking to learn something from you.

If your primary goal is to learn something from the other person then your chances for a successful conversation are almost 100%. It also means that you don’t have the burden of having to convert the other person to your point of view. You just have to listen and learn. Consider yourself a reporter who’s trying to understand the story or a detective who is trying to find all the facts for the case.

If you really think the other person is nuts maybe you can imagine yourself as an explorer discovering another culture and working hard to understand what the people in that culture think and believe.  

Once you think you have learned enough to have a solid understanding of the other person’s ideas and thoughts ask these questions, “How certain are you about your choice of candidate?” “Would you be willing to change your mind?” What would make you change your mind?” Would you be open to hearing a different opinion?”  Listen carefully to the answer to these questions, especially the last one! It’s rare that you will find someone who will admit that he won’t consider another opinion. If he says he is willing to listen now you can voice your opinion with his full permission!

When you do voice your side of things keep in mind that your job isn’t to totally convince, but to teach. Teaching a new idea starts with introducing doubts about the old idea. You aren’t likely to fully win someone over in one sitting, but if what you are saying is true then other people are saying it too. If you can calmly and respectfully put forward your ideas you are more likely to find the other person will listen and understand you. Once those ideas have been heard your listener will notice them when he hears them in other places and from other people. It will be the repetition of the message and it’s validity that has the best chance of winning him over.

If you present your argument rudely, with no respect for your listener, sharing your opinion without his position he will remember that as well and the next time he hears that message he will immediately disagree and tune out. He may even tune out subconsciously, not sure why he disagrees, but sure that he won’t like what he is hearing because the last time he heard that message it was an unpleasant experience.

Instead, be calm. Having listened and understood what your listener thinks speak directly to those issues. Make it relevant. Use what you have learned to make what you think make sense to the person you are in conversation with.  

What is Gained?

When the conversation ends at the worst you will have a better understanding of a fellow citizen and what he or she believes and thinks. At best you may have planted the seeds that will bring that person around to your point of view.

No matter what happens you will have played a critical role in an important exchange of ideas.

Those kinds of conversations are the bulwark against arguing over the same issues with bombs and bullets.

Those conversations are the beating heart of democracy. These conversations are the kinds of conversations that lead to what we all want: The best possible leaders and policies that brings the best benefits possible to our country and all who live here.