How to have a stress-less political conversation
Eric Brilliant got into a shouting match with his cousin about racism in his grandparents’ living room. It smelled like roasted ham. Then another shout came, “Time for dinner.” Their political conversation ended as the two cousins took their seats kitty-corner from one another at the table.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” said Brilliant, a 26-year-old from Chicago. “It drove me bananas. I was really, really upset. I tried to talk to him.”
Brilliant is not alone in his anger. Six in 10 Americans say it is stressful or frustrating to talk about politics with someone who has a different opinion on President Trump, according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center.
“It’s normal to feel frustrated when encountering people who think differently than you. That’s not a new phenomenon,” said political scientist Brian Harrison, a political scientist at Northwestern University. But, “Donald Trump brings identity into politics that hasn’t been done. That’s why I think it’s so difficult because the president makes it so personal.”
In a Trump-driven political world where tensions run high, here are three ways you can have a less stressful, more productive political conversation with an opposing party member.
A political conversation is not personal
It’s important to realize that politics today is viewed as highly personal, but don’t make it that way.
According to Alexa Bankert, a political scientist at the University of Georgia, political parties have become less about what policies you support and more about underlying morals. What political party you align yourself with is now part of your identity.
“Partisanship has become a part of American’s self-understanding just like religion or race,” Bankert said.
Which, according to Bankert, is a concerning problem.
“The problem is when politics becomes personal, then we have even more trouble finding common ground because when someone disagrees with us it almost feels like a personal insult,” Bankert said. “As long as you perceive disagreement as an insult, you probably won’t be able to find a solution, or let alone start a conversation with a member of the other party.”
Brilliant said he notices people taking arguments as personal insults in his own conversations. “How personal it’s become makes me feel a little bit hopeless about how we can reconcile our differences,” he said.
To fix this, Brilliant said he goes into conversations playfully, keeping in mind that a disagreement isn’t a personal attack. “I try to, at this point, let things go,” he said.
According to Bankert, studies have shown the best way to let things go is to remind yourself and your conversation partner that you are both fighting for the same goal – to better America economically, politically and socially.
Talk like your opponent
Typically, we talk about political problems in our own terms, not realizing that the other person may view the situation differently.
“The root of our arguments is that we think we have different values, but it’s not that we have different values, it’s that we prioritize the same values differently,” said Lauren Elliott-Dorans, a political scientist at Ohio University.
A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, revealed that a person is more likely to accept the other side’s view if it is framed in the values they care about most.
“People need to realize that we all have a shared set of values. It’s just that in any given situation I might be more committed to liberty than you are at that particular time,” Elliott-Dorans said.
What this looks like practically is taking a political argument and framing it in the values the other person believes in most. For example, if someone is deeply against environmental policies, but values purity, then framing pollution as ruining the purity of earth is more likely to get their attention.
Another tactic includes paying attention to the words you use. Certain words may trigger frustration in someone, even if they aren’t insulting at first glance.
“For instance I have a lot of relatives who voted for Trump, but they get very upset if I say that they’re a Trump supporter, so I try not to,” Brilliant said. Instead, Brilliant said he just mentions that they voted for President Trump, but not necessarily that they support him.
Certain labels in political disputes can also create a high-tension atmosphere, so avoid those, too. For example, “If you’re against [pro-choice] then you’re against choice,” Brilliant said. “If you’re against [pro-life], you hate life. So, the entire way you frame this debate demonizes the person who disagrees with you.”
Make a Reasonable Goal
If you’re going into a political discussion dead set in your opinions, then it’s likely the other person is too. You’re not going to change their mind, so don’t make that your goal.
Instead, Harrison recommends picking either one thing you might be able to persuade someone on, finding one thing you have in common, reaching mutual understanding of both sides, or having the other person agree to another discussion.
Jadonna Keim, a 24-year-old from Indianapolis, said her goal for each conversation is to find out why someone has the opinion they do.
“I try to understand,” Keim said. “I feel like most of the time I’m genuinely curious. I’m not holding the conversation just so at the end I can tell people I think you’re wrong.”
Harrison said this is one of the most crucial aspects of a political conversation.
He said, “Thinking through reasonable and actionable goals in a conversation can be really helpful because then you feel less frustrated and less like that was a waste of time. It wasn’t. You just didn’t get all the way to 100. Maybe you got to 50 or maybe you got to 10. You still moved the needle, but maybe you didn’t get there in one conversation.”
ContributorNaomi Reibold is freelance writer from Indiana University where she is pursuing degrees in journalism and environmental studies. She’s passionate the communication of science and climate change and loves all things that have to do with moss and fog.