You have probably heard of the old adage that you should never talk about politics or religion in public. You might have a rule that when you are with the in-laws, extended families, or at work, these topics are strictly off limits.
At our wedding, my husband and I, who belong to different political parties, made a sign saying “keep the bride and groom at ease, no talking politics please!”
This was particularly ironic given that we were political science majors headed to DC to start our government careers. At the time, we were filled with fear that our family and friends would brawl over their individual political positions, strictly adhering to their party lines.
But we love politics, and it is sad that we completely removed a part of our selves from our wedding strictly because of fear. Today, we believe more than ever that those from the Republican Party and the Democratic Party can have constructive conversations.
This is true even as our country has become increasingly polarized. As the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, and the full House moves to do so also, Democrats and Republicans are likely more divided than they have been in a long time. Having a “bipartisan” solution to almost any issue seems impossible.
Because of this, you might be thinking about how to avoid politics all together this holiday season. Instead of prohibiting political chatter at our wedding, however, we wish we would have made a sign that outlined the rules of engagement for talking about politics. Here is what we would have included, which may help you as you enter into the holiday season.
1. Ask Before Engaging
Most conversations about the merits of the impeachment vote, why Mitch McConnell is the best leader, or how Elizabeth Warren is the best suited to be the next President start organically.
However, some people don’t want to talk about politics. They might not feel prepared enough, might be too tired, or just might not enjoy the topic. Other people may bring up a political topic but may only want to vent and not have an in-depth, actual conversation.
A simple “I’d love to continue having this chat with an open mind, is that something you’re interested in as well?” could help set the stage where both sides are willing to have a productive conversation.
Similarly, you might want to share some rules of engagement before the conversation begins. None of the below rules will work unless all parties within the conversation are on the same page. You can set guidelines ahead of your chat, or perhaps send this blog post over to your family members before next week.
2. Don’t Enter the Conversation with Judgement
In Malcolm Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, he argues that we are incredibly bad at judging people. While we believe our instincts are spot on, this is often not the case.
With our family members, we may feel that our judgments are completely accurate because we know so much about them. We would not anyone to judge us with limited information, even our family members, and we should try not to do the same.
Going into a conversation with preconceived notions about why someone is wrong, why they think the way they do, or even what it is that they believe, is unfair. Before you start a conversation, take a moment to try to remove any predetermined judgements.
3. Don’t Try to Change Minds
Studies show that facts don’t change people’s minds. If you go into a conversation ready to throw everything you can at the person with an attempt to change their view, you will fail.
Not only that, but you will probably aggravate the person, preemptively halting any further conversation or leading to a fight.
4. Instead, Listen
Listen to the other person’s point of view. Think about everything they are saying with an open mind. Try to remember that everyone has word choices that may mean something different to them than it does to you.
Ask sincere follow-up questions to their comments without any tone of shame or disagreement. When they respond, listen to their answers carefully.
5. Remember Intention
As you listen to the other person’s point of view and ask them questions, try to understand their intent. Mark Holman, a partner at Ridge Policy Group, often reminds us that almost all people’s intentions and issues are good, they just approach things with different solutions.
6. Recognize Emotion
Behind most people’s intentions and beliefs is emotion. In a 2009 study, Malhotra, Healy, and Mo found that “voters decisions and attitudes are shown to depend considerably on events that affect their personal level of happiness even when those events are entirely disconnected from government activity.”
I’d argue that it is okay to have emotion fuel your beliefs, as long as you can take a step back and recognize that your thought process is emotional, not logical. Try to at least understand the logical perspective of something, even if you ultimately default to following your emotion.
Try to be patient with others as well. Understand that their real concern is about why their health care costs have gone up or why they can’t get any workers at their company, even if you believe that their worries are misplaced.
6. Find Places You Agree
As you listen and understand other’s emotions and intentions, you’ll likely find more places that you agree. For example, my husband and I have vastly different views on Affirmative Action. However, these viewpoints are fueled by the fact that we both believe that everyone should have equal opportunity to education.
With this as our starting point, we can talk about new solutions. Even if we don’t ultimately reach an agreement, we do have a platform for future conversations.
7. Be Humble
Finally, recognize that you could be wrong. Be humble to the fact that you don’t have access to all information or can’t stand in every person’s shoes.
In the end, these rules are hard to follow. You might be thinking that they all sound great but wonder why it matters. We can’t change people’s minds, so it may seem futile to have these conversations.
But talking about politics with one another, even if we disagree, does make a difference.
In the fall of 2019, the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago brought together a diverse set of 526 registered voters for a weekend to debate politics. In a New York Times summary of the event, they said “NORC surveyed the group before the conference, and again on the same questions at the end; the results were compared with a similar panel of voters who did not get an intense dose of deliberative democracy in the interim…”
“Voters at the event on both the left and the right appeared to edge toward the center. Democratic support receded for a $15 federal minimum wage and for “Medicare for all”; Republican support grew for rejoining the Paris climate agreement and for protecting from deportation immigrants brought to the United States as children.”
While the results did show some moderation, most people did not change their minds overall. However, they did note that they understood other people’s perspectives more and found places where they agreed.
Of the NORC event, Susan Bosco, one of the participants, told the New York Times, “I don’t think the purpose of this conference was to change people’s minds. I think the purpose of this conference was to get people to accept each other’s points of view in a civil manner.”
Similarly, my point is not to get you to change your mind about the things that matter most to you. While I do expect that your views may moderate somewhat the more conversation with differing opinions you have, I recognize that will not always be the case.
I don’t want to change my mind most of the time either. But I do believe that a variety of opinions help enrich our conversations and allow opportunities for better solutions. You can’t find these better solutions without talking about our differences.
I’m lucky to work for Governor Tom Ridge, who embodies the spirit of bipartisanship and civility that resonates throughout our work at the Ridge Policy Group. In an interview with the Philadelphia Magazine, Governor Ridge said “If we have this politics of division and demonization, it doesn’t seem to me that there’s any way forward for a democracy under those conditions, and so because I love my country, I’m advocating that we restore civility to our discourse and treat our opponents with respect.”
This holiday season, I too wish that you be unafraid to talk about politics, something so important to our daily lives, but that you talk about it with civility. I’m not so naive to think that one week of conversations around the dinner table will change the future of our country.
However, I do think everyone taking individual action to understand the other side will lead to better, more productive discourse.
Ultimately, I hope that these conversations can slowly permeate a culture that reaches the highest level of our government. Call me an optimist, but I think this holiday season could make a difference, no matter how small. I hope you’ll join me in trying.