This seems like a uniquely divided time in our country. It seems like a time when discussing politics without hate, or even discussing politics at all, is impossible. Half of Americans feel uncomfortable discussing politics with someone with whom they disagree. 50% of Americans say that all or most of their friends share their same political views. A majority of Americans say they have very few or no friends of the opposing political party.
I feel uniquely qualified to talk about this issue because I have friends and family of all kinds (Dem, Repub, Libertarian, Progressive, Socialist, pro-Trump, anti-Trump, resigned, etc.). Having odd political views, not taking my identity from my political views, and having a curious mind certainly helps my friendship diversity! I live just outside the nation’s capital, and I love talking about politics with all of my friends. Talking about politics has always been enlightening and it only strengthens, rather than divides our bonds. Here are 13 key steps to discussing politics without hate.
A Note About Me – How I Discuss Politics Without Hate
I’m offering these tips irrespective of any type of political persuasion or type of person. But I expect pushback at talking to people who are perceived to be less smart, more racist, more [insert evil adjective] than oneself.
The average Trump voter I know is a nonwhite immigrant, who speaks at least 3 languages, is upper middle class, is graduate-school educated and well-traveled, and gets their news from the mainstream media. It makes sense as I grew up and live in the wealthiest, most educated area in the country. They are not representative of Trump voters, but they are representative of people in the area. Even more than that, I think academic intelligence is overrated. We have something to learn from everyone’s experiences and reasoning.
1. To Talk Politics Without Hate, Only Talk With People You Love/Love the People With Whom You Talk
If people followed this bullet point alone, politics without hate would be commonplace. Instead, most people pick battles with people they don’t know, don’t care about, or actively despise.
I love my friends and family more than I care about their views on politics. Your relationships are so much more important to your health and happiness than politics, so keep your priorities in order.
If you want to talk to someone and you don’t already love them, then comedian Whitney Cummings has a tip – she has a white tattoo on her arm that says “I love you.” It reminds her to love every person she sees. When you are exuding love, it’s hard for the other person not to feel that. It’s disarming.
Of course, the love has to go both ways. The person you talk to has to want to hear from you. Also, if someone starts talking to you and he/she is out for hate and/or he/she doesn’t love you, then feel free to stop the conversation.
2. Assume the Best
Part and parcel of loving your discussion partner is assuming the best from them. If you come in assuming the other person is stupid or mean, then they may live up to your expectations.
The way you see people is the way you treat them, and the way you treat them is what they become.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
For instance, you would react differently if someone treated you like you were a murder suspect as opposed to if they treated you like Jeff Bezos . If you’re condescending, expect defensiveness. If you attack, expect them to attack back. But if you exude love and curiosity, expect reciprocation.
3. Consider (and Re-Consider) Your Goals
Before you start a discussion, think about your goals. If your aim is to shame or humiliate, that is antithetical to the discussion politics without hate. Don’t think this article is akin to “how to start a gunfight without getting shot.” If you raise your gun, then someone else will raise theirs. The best way to stop hate from coming into the conversation is not to bring it.
Your goal can be simply having a civil discussion, learning about the experiences that helped form your discussion partner’s political views, or letting the other person know your views.
If you’re into changing minds that’s fine, but it’s difficult and requires a fair amount of planning and empathy. Our decisions are usually made with emotions not reason. Further, you have to consider incremental changes (someone’s not going to switch from one extreme to the next in a day, but they might consider moving down the spectrum). You have to make sure there are no obstacles impairing the other person from changing (such as, your contempt for them).
As a lawyer, one realizes that if the other party isn’t convinced, it’s not the other party’s fault. It gets you nowhere to think “that jury is stupid.” It’s up to you to make a compelling case. You have to understand the other party, not the other way around.
4. Stick to Your Boundaries
It helps to set up a boundary in your own mind. For instance, plan to have a civil conversation for 20 minutes. You don’t have to press until you reach your goal.
When you’re exhausted, irritated, or just wants to, stop. The same goes for your discussion partner. You don’t have to keep the conversation going until you reach your goals. You can bail at anytime and you can end on a high note.
I saw this movie where a woman got increasingly uncomfortable in creepy conversations, and I was yelling at the screen, leave! You are not required to be in conversations that you don’t want to be. Other people are also not required to engage in conversations with you either.
5. Take a Bird’s Eye View
If we are being honest, every political issue is complicated. Oddly, though, the way people generally talk about issues, they are sold on only one correct way to think about an issue. It’s as if a country with 400 million people of diverse backgrounds, there’s only one right way to think about anything.
Also take a bird’s eye view when it comes to issues that don’t really matter. Some conspiracy theories are interesting and don’t really affect our lives. Maybe someone believes in aliens, ghosts, the assassination of JFK- none of us know the right answer and it shouldn’t be a barometer for that person’s intelligence. If you’re honest, there are a lot of stupid things you used to believe and were proved wrong about. (Or if you haven’t, either you’re not being honest or you never learn anything new).
On the other hand, it might be a good entree though to see someone’s thinking about an issue you don’t care that much about. There’s no need to skewer someone for sport but if it gets you talking without judgment, then feel free to practice discussion without getting feelings heated. But don’t think you have to stay away from the topics you are most passionate about. It’s very important to discuss those issues as well in due time.
6. Acknowledge that Your View has Losers
My friend sent me a meme saying that once a political choice starts hurting people, it’s a moral choice. Actually, every political choice is a moral one. There are winners and losers to every choice. And you are allowed to award some people as winners and some as losers in your mind.
But to believe that your choice has no losers is not to understand your opinion. Maybe you don’t care about the losers in your plan, but that doesn’t mean nothing is lost or that no one is losing. To hear people talk about their views, it’s like money comes from the sky, their solutions would bring prosperity to every person in the world, and that their poop doesn’t smell.
If you think your plan has no losers, then you probably haven’t thought about your plan long enough. If you don’t understand your plan well enough, then you may have a lot to learn from your discussion partner.
7. Realize that Not Everyone Has Your Morals (And That’s Ok!)
As a follow-up to the previous point, people have different values. If someone ranks one view over another, it’s not evil or uneducated – it’s just different. Everyone has their own unique ranking of what’s important and that’s usually ok.
I think we can all agree that no one should go hungry. But if someone’s main issue is domestic abuse and not hunger – there’s nothing wrong with that. And if someone thinks hunger should be a private charity issue and not a government one, or if someone thinks good jobs is the answer and not charity, that’s a question of solution, not a question of compassion. If you can’t understand this, then it’s going to be very difficult to have a discussion about politics without hate.
An Example of a Complicated Issue
On Twitter, I generally see one viewpoint – for example, that anyone who considers opening schools is Hitler. But let’s see if there could be any reason why elementary schools might open.
80% of the people who have died from Covid in the U.S. are over 65 years old; in contrast, children represent 0-0.3% of Covid deaths. Further, most studies show that children are not significant spreaders of the disease. Similarly, child care centers remained open for frontline workers and have not experienced notable outbreaks.
Experts forecast that if schools don’t open, poorer children will fall irreparably behind, and students’ well-being, as well as domestic violence and child abuse reporting, will nosedive. Additionally, closed schools are forcing parents, mostly women, out of the workforce. Thus, if schools are closed, lots of people will suffer, possibly for the rest of their lives.
One can present an argument with contradictory studies and disparate conclusions (different facts). Moreover, someone else might believe that ANY risk of spreading COVID is too much, no matter the losses (different values).
I’m not trying to advocate either side here. My point is that it’s a complicated issue. No one is an idiot or an evil person for picking either side.
8. Keep it Offline
Don’t get on arguments on social media!
Texts and Twitter are not good places to have meaningful discussions. You lose nuance, you are limited to the number of characters, you can both talk at once – none of these are good for meaningful dialogue. People say things online that they would never say in person, and that leads to a much worse conversation. Plus it’s on public display, which encourages low-brow blows and humiliating humor.
Have a discussion in a safe space where you can both feel comfortable. It might not be possible to be one-on-one but be wary of others (perhaps family members) ganging up against the other person. If anything, you need to protect your discussion partner from outside influences. They will notice the care you show them.
9. Keep it Positive
One way to discuss politics without hate is to infuse politics with love. During your conversation, you have a lot of ability to steer the conversation toward the positive. According to marriage researcher, John Gottman, couples must maintain a ratio of positive to negative interactions of 20:1, 20 positive interactions for every negative. Though this ratio can decrease when the couple is in conflict, the ratio is still 5:1.
As I’ve stated before, you have to converse with someone who is a good friend – someone you already have a 20:1 ratio with. And when you’re conversing, you have to maintain a 5:1 ratio.
How can you do this? Here are some ways to be positive:
-acknowledge their feelings
-acknowledge their concerns
-practice active listening, mimic their body language
-find common ground. People are really not all that different. They all want safety, good schools, good jobs, clean air and water, and an affordable cost of living
-tell personal stories and respond to your partner’s stories. Try not to contest facts. Statistics can be misused and misinterpreted for every which side and facts and figures are unlikely to change minds.
-introduce vulnerability into the dialogue and your partner will likely reciprocate.
-ask “what” questions instead of “why” – this tends to make the question less judgmental and makes the other person less defensive.
10. Stay Focused
There are about a bajillion mistakes people make in arguments, political or not.
-Stay focused. Avoid bringing up old arguments.
-Do not attack the other side when pointing out hypocrisy on your side. Do not bring up unrelated fringe topics (whataboutism).
-Actually, do not attack the other side at all. Again, the key to having a discussion of politics without hate is not to hate.
-Keep your body language neutral. Do not engage in contempt (eye-rolling, sarcasm, snickering).
-Try to get consensus for ending the discussion. Don’t walk away mid-discussion just so you can get the last word in.
-Be very careful with labels. I know some anti-vaxxers who believe in vaccinations but are cautious about which ones their kids really need. Some people are considered climate change deniers because they don’t think the world will literally be destroyed in 12 years. The label can sometimes obscure a pretty reasonable opinion.
-Try to reduce judgment. You can learn more about how to state your positions without inviting defensiveness through the work of Marshall Rosenberg and Nonviolent Communication.
11. Seek to Understand
If you can’t articulate smart arguments for the other side of the argument, it’s not that the other side is stupid or wrong – it’s that you have not thought about the issue. Knowing political issues are complicated and that thousands of very smart idealistic people have been working on them for generations, should give us all a dose of humility in tackling these problems.
When I hear people talk about their political views, their stories make total sense. I may have different experiences, or different values, but I can see their train of thought is logical.
When you hear others’ stories, you need to listen with a dose of empathy. Fear is often more present than hate. And often it takes some time to let in new opinions and new ideas. Patience is very important. If you can think of a time when you learned something new, you can be grateful for others’ patience with you.
12. Work On Yourself
If you enter into discussions to humiliate, if you can’t realize that issues are complicated or that people can have different perspectives and morals than you, if your identity is synonymous with your political view and you can only see different perspectives as attacking who you are, then you shouldn’t be talking to anyone about politics. If you find that you are always making enemies when discussing politics, remember that the only person you can truly change is yourself.
Here are some books that can help you bridge the divide:
13. Nail the Aftermath
Once you have said your piece, don’t thump the other person’s head with it. No need to repeat it – your discussion goals were met and you have to stop there.
And if the discussion doesn’t go as planned, don’t let it wallow. Reach out to your person and say it was an enlightening conversation, and that you still love the person even though you disagree. Apologize if you regretted any actions or if there were hard feelings and mean it. Thank them for engaging in the conversation an being vulnerable and open.
Finally, don’t stereotype all people of the same party as the same. People come to their values from all walks of life, all kinds of experience. Also don’t be discouraged. You tried something new and failure is often necessary before success. It shows that you’re trying, learning, and striving. It’s a wonderful thing you’re doing. We need more people like you.
Conclusion – How to Discuss Politics Without Hate
I know some of you may have thought this article would be about bending people to your will and opinion. Really it’s the opposite – it’s about becoming a person who can have productive discussions with people of differing viewpoints.
Political discussions can be extremely divisive right now, which leads to people not talking at all. This is the worst outcome. If we’ve learned anything from the news, it’s that there are dozens of issues that we need to talk about. Talking with people who are different from you expands your own mind, refines your own viewpoint, and gives you empathy for different people. Ultimately, if you look for common ground, you will find it.