Talking politics with anyone is a recipe for disaster.
I mean, most of us don’t want it to be, it just happens. They got angry, you came across insensitive, your friend is a jerk with no sense of civility…the possibilities are endless.
A friendly political discussion is harder than asking a girl out in highschool. And if you don’t think so, you’ve obviously never talk about politics…or like girls.
Just like asking a girl out involves a lot of moving pieces and metal preparedness, a civil political conversation has its own complexity to getting it right.
Be nice, ask questions, avoid machine-gunning facts, watch out for emotional and mental traps, the list is endless. Heaven knows how much I’ve talked about all the requirements.
But this article is a culmination of (almost) everything I’ve said on the topic so far.
So, if you’re confused or otherwise ignorant of how to keep a conversation civil, here’s 21 actions to help you get and stay there.
Action #1: Figure Out What Your Dominant Narrative Is
Some simple steps for figuring it out…
- How do you define your side versus the other side?
- Read articles on movements/issues that present a different perspective than what you believe. Then analyze what you disagree with and why. Your narrative should be obvious after doing this a few times.
- Look back over past conversations and debates to see what made you agitated and mad? What you got frustrated over shows what you can’t handle being questioned (i.e. your narrative).
Why’s this important? Narratives hold you back from questioning and analyzing issues that are vital to your worldview. They also put up barriers to honest and civil discussions as a form of defensive. Narratives don’t survive long when open to criticism, so they try their best to form a shield around you when certain “triggers” come up. These barriers range from frustration, to disgust, to righteous anger.
Further reading: The Narrative Fallacy: Story Time for Adults
Action #2: Avoid Forcing Facts Down Their Throat (The Backfire Effect)
How to avoid the Backfire Effect…
- Don’t use facts as a counter, in a question, or in statements. Questions with facts in them are using looking for a specific answer. Countering is usually unproductive, but infusing it with facts is the easiest way to trigger the Backfire Effect. Statements, like countering, should be avoided, unless specifically asked for. A statement with facts in it will trigger the Backfire Effect.
- Honestly, don’t rely on facts at all. Instead, opt for productive questions and listening.
- If someone starts going down the “fight with facts” path, try to redirect back to why they personally hold to said viewpoint.
- Forcing someone to prove that their viewpoint is true or real will bring on the Backfire Effect in you (and them, if you follow with counter-facts).
Why’s this important? Facts are important, but they’re not as important as you’d like to believe. In the Information Age, anyone can find “facts” to prove anything. Furthermore, facts are not unbiased neutral entities. If you’re trying to understand why someone holds to a belief, the last thing you want is for them to get aggressive or defensive (triggering a Backfire Effect). Asking for “proof” is a surefire way to trigger it. It’s not about if it’s true or not, it’s about why they believe it and how it affects them. Only then can you move onto the “prove it” phase.
Action #3: Define an Opposing Movement in Positive Terms (Motive Attribution Asymmetry)
How to do it…
- Look for the good people, incidents, and experiences in the opposing movement. If you can’t find any, it means you aren’t looking hard enough.
- Stop describing the other side in terms of their extreme members/incidents.
- Look for the bad people, incidents, and experiences in your movement. Again, if you don’t find any, you’re definitely not trying hard enough.
- Recognize and remember that you’re biased to see the best in your side, and the worst in theirs.
Why’s this important? Confirmation bias will destroy any chance you have of honest conversation. This is especially true with how you view your side versus theirs. If you think the “other side” is inherently bad then you’ve fallen into Motive Attribution Asymmetry.
Action #4: Figure Out the Emotion(s) Behind Their Argument/View
How to do this…
- Take their view of the issue and dig into why they hold that opinion. Why are they against/for drug legalization? Why are they for/against welfare? Why are they for/against a particular candidate?
- Find the main issue they have with the topic. For example, why are they anti-drug-legalization? Is it because they’re afraid of drug abusing parents beating their kids, or increased levels of addicts?
- Next, find the emotion at the heart of it. Is it anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise, desire, guilt, etc?
- Then, use that base emotion as the foundation for how you address their issue with the topic.
Why’s this important? Simply put…emotions don’t care about your facts. Emotions control more of our reasoning than many people would like to admit. Understanding someone’s emotional base is critical for properly addressing them.
Further reading: How to Convince Your Friend the Drug War is Immoral
Action #5: Propose, Don’t Attack
Propose solutions or suggestions to their views. Attacking their views does nothing to further the discussion. By attacking you’re forcing them into defensive mode; they’ll be less open, and calm.
Example: instead of saying “that wouldn’t work because of ‘A’ and ‘B,’” say, “What do you think about ‘A’ in relation to that?” or “Have you considered this option?”
Action #6: Stop Assuming You’re the Rational One (Naïve Realism)
You’re not rational, and you’re definitely not most rational one. Stop fooling yourself.
That’s all I’ve got to say.
Further reading: Not Everyone Who Disagrees With You Is Uninformed & Irrational
Action #7: Don’t be so Eager to Show Your Worldview
I had numerous productive and eye-opening conversations where I hid my cards so to speak. I didn’t show my worldview or views to the person I was talking to. Not because I was afraid or unable, but because I wanted to focus on their reasoning. I didn’t want my bias to affect how they reacted to my questions.
You can do this by…
- Just not giving your opinion on stuff
- Focusing on questions, not statements or countering
- Wording your questions in such a way that doesn’t give away your underlining belief
- Watching your reactions and body language to make sure you don’t overly react to disagreement
Further reading: What Happened When I Talked to Democrats at The County Fair?
Action #8: Take into Account How Your Personal Experiences & Environment Have Shaped Your Worldview
We’re all products of our environments. And sometimes, it can be hard to rise above it. It can be hard to identify the differences between my worldview and yours, and how our environments shaped them.
To understand the other person, you need to learn about their environment. Where did they grow up, how did their parents raise them, how are their parents, how was their childhood, etc. Then, you compare their upbringing to yours. Use it to make connections between what they believe and their earlier years.
Further reading: Don’t Be All Mouth & No Ears (Pointers On Political Communication)
Action #9: Listen
This isn’t hard.
Seriously, it’s not.
Stop trying to make a point, and listen to what they’re saying.
Action #10: Don’t Rely on Stereotypes
- Create barriers to you understanding their points
- Create animosity
- Are usually created by your narrative, therefore, they’re not true
- Have malicious agendas
- Close off your mind
Action #11: Don’t Dismiss Their Concerns If It Doesn’t Line Up with Your Worldview
There’s a saying that stuck with me ever since I heard it…
“It doesn’t matter whether you think they’re oppressed or not, what matters is that they think they are.”
You might not think blacks experience racism, but they believe they do. You might not think the system is rigged against them, but they do. You might not think the threat is real, but they’re terrified nonetheless.
It doesn’t matter what you think of their problems, what matters is what they think. You have to address that. “I don’t think your issue is real” isn’t an argument.
Action #12: Get Better at Asking Questions
- Take an interest in what they’re saying (this requires listening).
- Drop all Ask a question for the sake of trying to understand them better, not to fit some narrative in your head.
- Stop trying to win. This isn’t highschool football.
- Don’t get emotional…it only holds you back from asking the right questions.
- Find the emotions and reasoning behind their beliefs.
- Be neutral in your questioning.
- Don’t be forward with your political views.
Why’s this important? Questions are the bread and butter of understanding those you disagree with. It’s how you learn, keep an open mind, and keep your head above the monotony of politics.
Action #13: Don’t get Emotionally Involved
How to avoid it…
- Detach your views from your identity.
- Get comfortable with hearing different and controversial worldviews.
- Stop asking “how can anyone believe such a thing?” It’s naïve and annoying as hell.
- Stop buying into the “my way or the world burns” narrative.
- Get out of whatever groupthink you’re in.
Why’s this important: getting emotionally charged about an issue only blinds you to what’s important. You become unresponsive and narrow minded.
Action #14: Think about Why They could be Right
This is a good exercise in breaking down preconceptions and arrogance.
Try it out. Just pick a topic, find their solution to it, and make a case for why they could be right.
Constantly reminding yourself that others can be right too, helps you avoid narrow mindedness.
Action #15: Don’t Attach Moral Judgment to Their Views
Nothing kills a civil discussion like sentencing the other guy to hell. Here’s what I mean…
- Example: if you’re pro-life, calling pro-choicers “baby killers” does nothing for your side. Calling welfare supporters “slave masters” does nothing productive for you.
- This type of “judgment” and “labeling” is a form of pandering. It doesn’t convince anyone that you’re right, much less that you have something worth listening to. It’s merely an “inside joke” for the benefit of like-minded individuals.
- Passing judgment, in the case of the pro-life example, only hampers constructive conversation. The fact that you think they’re “murderers” is irrelevant for the reasons that it’s not persuasive, and they don’t think they’re murderers.
Action #16: Address what is Relevant to Them
What it entails…
- Don’t focus on your own ideas/labels for their beliefs/movement. For example, focusing on why pro-choicers are murderers isn’t relevant to them, because they don’t see it as murder. If you want to convince them it’s murder, calling them a murderer isn’t the best way of getting there.
- Again, focus on why they hold the belief and how it affects them.
- Push aside what your narrative says about their beliefs. For example, you might think many of the issues Black Lives Matter is trying to address don’t exist or aren’t that prevalent, but that’s irrelevant.
Why’s it’s important? By addressing their specific concerns, you keep the conversation grounded. It’s easy to create strawmen and red herrings to deflect from the issue at hand.
Action #17: “It’s the Truth” isn’t a reason
It’s not a reason to…
- Act like an ass to someone, because you don’t agree with them
- Dismiss their concerns and issues, because you think they’re not real or legitimate
- Say things you know won’t help further the conversation, just to stroke your own pleasure zone
- Insult people you disagree with
- Act like an ass, again
Action #18: Remember, Feelings Don’t Care About Your Facts
Action #19: Say “I Don’t Know” More Often
Simple steps to saying “I Don’t Know” more often…
- Separate “being right” and “having an answer everything” from your self-worth/confidence.
- Saying “I don’t know” is a form of genuineness and honesty. Those two characteristics help build trust with others.
- No one knows everything. Period. End of discussion.
- Don’t aim to have an answer for everything. Instead, focus on asking questions and getting deeper into their head.
Action #20: Don’t Expect to Win the First Round
- No one is won over to your side because of one conversation or debate.
- Changing someone’s mind is a culmination of hundreds of encounters, influences, and conversations.
- This isn’t about winning, it’s about gaining their respect so they listen to you beyond one conversation.
Winning is overrated in a culture where influence is the bread and butter of outreach.
Action #21: Make Friends
…Seriously! Go into each political discussion with the goal of making a friend. If you want to be friends, you’re not going to act like a jerk (at least I hope that’s not how you make friends).
Don’t let politics get in the way of worthwhile friendships.