The Guidelines for a Rational Political Discussion with Friends and Family
Via Lifehacker.com and BY THORIN KLOSOWSKI, APR 24, 2012 6:00 AM
Election season is drawing near and with that comes the dreaded political conversations with family and with friends. These debates don't have to all bad news and provided you and the person you're talking with are willing to come to an understanding on a few simple rules you can have a healthy, educational discussion.
We've all heard that it's usually best to avoid talking politics at the dinner table with family you don't agree with or with friends who you don't want to accidentally burn bridges with. However, sometimes it's an unavoidable conversation, especially during election season. On top of that, it's a healthy way to learn about the other sides of the conversation and expand your own understanding of the news and issues, so with that, let's look at a few of the guidelines that are good to follow to keep those political conversations from turning into screaming matches.
Know Your Facts (and What You Don't Know)
Keeping up with politics is a full-time job and it's likely you don't know everything about a given topic or candidate unless you've spent hours researching it. On the surface, this means you should be open-minded about possible variations on the truth in any given situation, but it also means you need to recognize your own failings when it comes to understanding the truth.
Your facts are likely a little biased, but provided you have a little research to back up your ideas the conversation should get off to a good start. For instance, claiming President Obama is a space alien is probably a bad place to start a conversation with a Democrat, but saying that you don't believe in his health care ideas because of reasons A, B, and C, shows that you have an understanding of the topic and you're willing to engage in a discussion based on facts.
Just remember, you're not always right and you subconsciously ignore facts after you've read an opposing view. Keep in mind that what you're reading may contain errors and your views may shift over the course of a conversation.
On that same token, stick to those facts and don't stray off topic. We've noted before that straying off topic is easy when emotions are running high, but nothing ruins a good debate like someone letting the conversation run off into a conspiracy theory. It's inevitable you'll be interjecting your own spin and that will get things off topic, but make sure you're not making anything up. If you don't know the answer to a question or you don't have a good, direct point to reply to an argument, let it go. Photo by Garry Knight.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes and Get to Know Your Opponent's Views
Confirmation bias can be a serious problem with how you get your news. The thought is that you seek out information that you agree with and ignore what you don't. This can be a huge problem in political discussions because you're only getting one side of the story and when you try to turn that into a discussion with a friend or family member you can't see the other point of view. Author David McRaney sums this up nicely:
During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Valdis Krebs at orgnet.com analyzed purchasing trends on Amazon.
People who already supported Obama were the same people buying books which painted him in a positive light. People who already disliked Obama were the ones buying books painting him in a negative light.
Just like with pundits, people weren't buying books for the information, they were buying them for the confirmation.
It might feel a bit gut-wrenching to hit up the news sites of your opposing viewpoint, but it's absolutely necessary if you want to really understand where the other side gets their ideas from. You don't have to work it into your daily news schedule, but be sure to check out articles about the big topics that are important to you. This will help you have a rational conversation with your friends and family because you will actually have a good idea of the roots behind what they're saying to you. Photo by Zane Aveton.
Don't Regurgitate Other's Views. Put Your Own Spin On It
This is a tip I picked up a long time ago when I was young freshman political science student in college. In a Talk Radio and Politics class, my professor pointed out that when you label your source, especially if that source is a pundit, say, Rush Limbaugh, Bill Maher, or Jon Stewart, you immediately aggravate the person you're talking with and the discussion becomes more about the general views and opinions of a writer or host than your own.
The point here is twofold: first, don't say, "Rush Limbaugh says," and second, take the time to formulate your own opinion and express that opinion with "I think" statements. Whoever you're talking with will be more sympathetic with your personal viewpoints than a regurgitation of a viewpoint you heard—even if you agree with it. On that same note, the language you use is important. As the BBC points out you want to shy away from absolutes, including "never," "always," "should," or "shouldn't."
Regardless of who you're talking to it's likely you have at least a little common ground about beliefs, or if nothing else, problems. When you find that common ground in the discussion, latch onto it and talk about it as long as possible. Even if you disagree on specifics, this is a great time to boost each others egos to ensure the rest of the conversation goes in a civil manner. Just be careful how you apply this common ground and don't make it all about yourself.
As Joni Johnston explains in Psychology Today, it's good to find the common ground, but don't use it show that you're superior. For example, if you're complaining about health care, you shouldn't use, "Well, I lived without health for two years and paid those bills off without a problem," in your argument. That's a terrific experience to back up your point, but it's probably just going to send the other person into a fury. Photo by Edward Webb.
Concede When You're Wrong
We've talked before about the importance of knowing when you're wrong and those same tips apply here. If you're starting to see the other side or you had some of your facts about a topic wrong, it's okay to concede and consider that other point of view for a little while. This is especially true if new information came to light during the conversation that shakes your whole belief system. You don't always have to admit that your view is wrong, but you might have to at least admit that the other person is right.
A political conversation can get heated very quickly, but remember that these are your friends and loved ones you're talking with so keep your head cool. This is as simple as stopping yourself and taking a big deep breath. When you're in an argument you can go into an alarmed state. This means you can't listen properly and you enter the fight-or-flight stage which is never good for a healthy debate. Neuropsychologist Dr. Marsha Lewis describes the process in an article in Psychology Today and suggests the simplest fix is to just step away mentally and breathe:
So, being able to get unhooked from the moment in the argument, to remember who you are (not a gazelle being chased by a lion, for example, nor a wounded rabid dog who's been cornered). Take a breath. Feel some compassion for yourself, smiling inwardly. Take another breath, and with compassion for the scared person standing across from you, smile outwardly.
A deep breath and a smile can turn down the volume on an argument pretty quickly. If it doesn't work and you can't bring it back to a reasonable level, it might be time to concede and walk away from it. Photo by Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock.
The above guidelines should help conversations from getting out of hand. You will have to disagree on certain topics and you certainly won't always have totally rational conversations. At the very least you'll be able to learn more about your friends and family's point of view and get a better understanding of their views. Remember, these conversations aren't about winning a debate, they're about learning about your political beliefs and the political beliefs of your friends. Have you ever dug into a deep political conversation with someone of an opposing view and walked out alive? Share your tips in the comments.