Our intense political differences of the past several years have had an effect far beyond the poll booths. Friendships have been eroded over this, families grown distant or split apart, partners lost touch or become hostile, and conversations deteriorated into shouting matches. Politics has become a toxic subject. How can we manage to keep things on an even keel when talking to or otherwise communicating with a member of the opposite political camp? Tens of millions of Americans, including people we know and care about, voted for the other party, so this is something we need to be able to do.
The partisan media are partly responsible for some of this havoc. They take advantage of a quirk of our makeup—namely, that our brains cannot easily desensitize anger. Media reports (intentionally) rile people up, people get angry, and then have nowhere to go with it and are unable to get rid of it. They are stuck with this emotion, which is like a brain worm, something you can’t get out of your mind. So they turn to their family or friends to discharge it. Then the family or friends feel the need to get back at them, and so they dump on the person who dumped on them. The media likes this anger because it brings readers and viewers back for more.
Eventually the situation grows exponentially, and leads to warring factions and social unrest.
What can we do to help keep this unhappy situation from escalating?
AVOID THE SUBJECT
The obvious first step, which most of us practice to some degree, is to avoid the subject of politics, if at all possible. This is especially important if you don’t know the other person and their hot buttons, which may not be obvious. Keeping politics off the conversational agenda is one of the best-known golden rules of polite society, and it is at least a platinum guideline now. Stick with the subjects that are safe and neutral, or that you do share enthusiasm for and interest in, such as pets, gardening, cars, movies, woodworking, or whatever. One of my clients told me that when she and her ex-husband would travel to Tahiti, the French would always want to talk politics. She had a no-political-discussions rule and would have to kick him under the table to shut him up.
If the other person seems to be determined to venture into the minefield, say something along the lines of – “I respect you and your opinions, and I know that my own are strong ones too. I don’t want anything to harm our relationship, so let’s not talk about that.”
LET THEM TALK
If they insist on launching into their political feelings, just let them talk. They have probably been made angry by their political sources and feel the need to vent. So just listen patiently, and do really listen to what they are saying, acknowledge in some way that you heard what they said, don’t just skip over it in hopes of moving on to some point of your own. While they are talking, try to find the empathic moment, some common ground, something you can agree on.
If you must touch on the subject of politics yourself, try to stay in a neutral tone, and especially don’t pick up the judgmental trumpet.
TALK FROM THE TOP DOWN
If you are dealing with a person of the opposite persuasion, it’s a good idea to talk from the top down. Start out with thoughts and subjects you both can agree on, some fundamental values where both sides can find common ground, and try to stick with those. You both want to make the world better for our children, to make this a better country, etc. You are both trying to achieve the same ends – just perhaps, by different means.
Back off and change the subject when you reach the point where political hot points are beginning to surface.
TRY TO SAY SOMETHING POSITIVE ABOUT THE OTHER PARTY
If you feel impelled to reply to something the other person has said about politics, start with something positive about the other party and move on to your point from there, “Yes…Biden’s quest for unity is admirable, but is it going to work?”
You can also acknowledge the unfairness of the other person’s comment or comments with calmly expressed and well-researched facts of your own.
DON’T GET ANGRY
Whatever you do, don’t get angry yourself. When we get angry we lose control, and we tend to look and do our worst. Getting angry also signals to the other person that we have no good ammunition left and we are out of good factual bullets so we are reduced to sheer emotion. Studies have shown that, when asked, people are less able to see the other person’s point of view when angry. And when we get angry the person on the other side of the conversation is probably going to get angry, too. Anger shrinks our perspective.
If you seem to be headed for a shouting match, one technique is to bring the discussion back to yourself. Say “I think” or “I feel”—that whatever you are saying is just your personal perception, your own opinion. “It may be unjustified, but this is my own personal impression. These are my own feelings, not the results of some big study.”
If the other person is flat wrong and there is proof that they are wrong, it is okay to point to reality. If it is an issue on which the evidence is unmistakable, it may even be important to do so. But do try to make it clear that you are not attacking the person; you are attacking a false belief that is harmful to people and to our country.
The preponderance of the evidence does and should rule. So although we can’t usually convert people on the other side, we can shoot some ammunition at their castle walls and chip away a little of their certainty. We need to speak the truth pretty forcefully.
When you are expressing your disagreement, try to frame it along these lines: “I respect your concern about [whatever], and your own position on it, but the truth is [whatever].”
Some authoritarian personalities seem to believe that, if they shout louder, they have won the argument. When dealing with an aggressive person, if you come across as too soft they will think you are a wuss as well as disagree with you. But if you get more aggressive than them, this could lead to a volcanic eruption. The best approach is to try to match their level of aggression. They will be mindful of this and gain some respect for you. You aren’t trying to change their mind, just gain their respect.
The only real way to get rid of anger is to get even. So if you do find yourself angry when all is said and done, try to find a more constructive thing to do with it, such as donate to your party or write a letter to the paper or to a political figure.
FORGET TRYING TO CONVERT THEM
This is a really important one – forget thinking that you are going to convert the other person or move them to your side of the fence. Get this off the table as an idea. People are hooked into their points of view by many things we may not be aware of: their family, friends, where they work, their finances, their religion, and more. We hold tight to our points of view; they are tied to our identity. As psychologist Leon Festinger noted, “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
The only way most people are likely to change their minds is if their key sources or their key leaders suddenly make an about face on something.
LOOK AT THE FACTS TOGETHER
The above notwithstanding, if you disagree with someone, they may occasionally be willing to investigate the facts of some part of the subject with you. You can look up the facts of the matter together on a cell phone or computer (on sources you both agree upon), and it may end the argument. We have done this and seen it actually work.
One of Dr. Silvestri’s clients has been successful with this, too. Her daughter told her that Nancy Pelosi had spent $5,000 apiece for pens to give out as souvenirs of legislation signing to family and friends. This seemed so outrageous she looked into it and found that they were Cross pens, about $15 each, probably less in bulk. And that this was often done when legislation was signed. She sent her daughter the link to this information, and she backed down.
You can also seek out something where there is no doubt the other side has been proven wrong. “So let’s look up whether the tax cut for corporations caused so much growth the deficit didn’t go up.”
Do some research … expose the lies; tell people to beware of the propaganda techniques of “the big lie”—something so outrageous it must be true; and also of the technique of accusing the other side of what you yourself are doing.
IN THE WORKPLACE
What about this issue and the workplace? Politics is not a good topic here, period. Strong differences of opinion here can damage working relationships and turn off customers and clients.
WITH THE FAMILY
There have been studies done looking into whether having family members on the other side causes one to get along better with members of the other side. The answer is a resounding NO—it makes the two sides even more hostile.
To prevent unpleasant exchanges at the holiday table and elsewhere, get together and declare this topic off limits, so it does not do to your family what it has done to so many—split and polarized them.
You could also say something like, “We love you all and don’t want to spoil Thanksgiving dinner, so let’s give this a rest and talk about happy things we share. But this is important stuff and our disagreements indicate a need to search for the truth. Let’s agree to talk about it some other time [and maybe set a date and time] when we are all sober and respectful of each other and willing to listen to views we don’t agree with. That is how democracy is supposed to work. Debate, look for the best solution. Compromise if necessary. Think of the good of the country instead of just our own search for satisfaction.”
ON THE SOCIAL MEDIA
Since the media make many people’s point of view unmistakable, this can feed the flames.
The anonymity possible here really aggravates things. People do dumb things on social media, because there is no filter. Worse—there are algorithms purposefully designed to amp up disagreements because that gets people to click more and that makes money for Mark Zuckerberg. People expressing their opinion here are not facing another person, looking them in the eye and seeing their body language and other nuances, so things can easily be misunderstood and misconstrued. For this reason the social media are a poor medium of communication. Never post anything on social media you would not want to see on national TV. Give your sources when you make claims. Be careful to tell the truth yourself, as well as to point out lies and misinformation.
TRY TAKING (OR AT LEAST LOOKING AT) THE OTHER SIDE
Lawyers try to do this when preparing for a case, and psychologists do it with their clients as well. Anything of any consequence has two sides.
Stay open to learning yourself. Sometimes the other side has some good point or points you weren’t aware of. As the sages said thousands of years ago, the goal is not to be right, but to find the truth. You want to try and move to that level of awareness. List the pros and cons of something yourself and see if you can get to the truth. Dr. Milkman originally thought that forgiving young people’s college debts was a great idea. Then he listened to a person who pointed out that most of the people with big debts are going to become doctors or lawyers and the like and will eventually have the means to pay their schooling off, so it will not really be a big deal to them. So he changed his mind on this. Don’t think in black and white yourself. Even if you are a diehard advocate of busing, be willing to acknowledge that in some situations busing may not have benefitted the children involved.
One thing that often helps here is to ask the other person what he or she likes about their candidate or what they don’t like about the other one. This works especially well with young people and really gets them thinking past their prejudices. Of course, one must know the candidates well and what they stand for.
I even know a couple who take a radical approach to seeing the other side. It goes something like this, “I’m willing to talk about this, but only if we each take up the opposite side/point of view, if we reverse our positions. But only neutral sources can be used in preparing for this.” If you can get someone to go along with this, it might be interesting to see what happens.
WHAT TO REMEMBER