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5 Keys to Civil Political Discussions & Debates With Friends & Family

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According to Professor Nolan McCarty of Princeton University, it seems that political rancor today has reached heights not seen since Reconstruction after the Civil War. A Stanford University report found that Americans have become increasingly polarized along political party lines, primarily due to “political candidates relying on negative campaigning and partisan news sources serving up vitriolic commentary.” As a consequence, the report concluded that the level of political animus in the American public exceeds racial hostility.

Conservative columnist Gerry Feld claims that politics has turned into a “sewer of insults, name-calling and character assassinations like we have never experienced before.” He cited examples of jokes on an MSNBC program about presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s black grandchild and disparaging remarks about former Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin’s child with Down’s syndrome.

Liberals and conservatives alike are to blame. Wendy Davis, a Democratic candidate for governor of Texas, was called “Abortion Barbie” by a Republic party country chairman and “retard Barbie” by her opponent and eventual winner of the gubernatorial race, Greg Abbott. At the 2013 Missouri State Fair rodeo, a clown wore a Barack Obama mask and was run down by a bull to the delight of much of the crowd. Feld bemoans the undignified ways we treat each other and says “to move forward and be productive, we need to drop disparaging remarks and name-calling.”

Keys to Civil Political Discussions

Political disagreements can end friendships and destroy family relationships. According to a YouGov.com poll, more than one in four respondents (28%) have serious political disagreements with a family member, and more than one-third of those aged 18 to 29 experience political friction.

While friends and family have a lot in common, it can be shocking when you uncover political disagreements. Discussions can quickly degenerate into name-calling and hurt feelings. One blogger writes that political discussions can be “down right painful and fill one with such angst,” and another says that “We have to brace ourselves before any political discussions in the family because they get nasty fast.”

Family members of former Vice President Dick Cheney (whose daughter Mary Cheney is gay) took their feud over gay marriage publicly to Facebook. Liberal Democrat Melissa Reylek-Robinson, a 34-year-old mother in San Diego, married to a conservative Republican, notes that “Election time is probably the worst time for us. We definitely get into some heated debates.”

If you want to be sure that partisan politics stay out of your personal relationships, consider these tactics to reduce the heat:

1. Respect the Opinions of Others

Despite the desire of Americans to simplify very complex issues, the reality is that there are no perfect solutions. Libertarian and Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle recently wrote, “Politics is all-out details. Each of these tiny details has to be endlessly negotiated because the system is set up to precisely frustrate a powerful guy with a big idea.” The checks and balances established in the Constitution are intended to make rapid change difficult and ensure that the rights of the majority and the minority are protected. According to McArdle, the result is an “unslayable amoeboid agglomeration of 300 million citizens’ worth of unenlightened self-interest.”

No matter our political views, we should recognize that there are people who know at least as much about the issues as we do and can successfully draw conclusions from the information, advises University of Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy Gary Gutting. “Most of us, for example, would not fare well in a debate with, say, Paul Krugman or David Brooks.”

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center Report, the majority of Americans do not have consistently liberal or conservative views and believe that their representatives in government should meet halfway to resolve contentious disputes rather than hold out for more of what they want. As a consequence, political discussion can be thoughtful and informative by following basic rules of civility.

However, a minority of ideological thinkers in each party – 21% of the total electorate, according to the same Pew Research Center Report – increasingly influence the policies of their parties. Being the ones most likely to engage in politics, they control the selection of candidates and party platforms. This group of extremists – on both the left and right – believe that the opposing party’s politics “are a threat to the well-being of the nation.” This attitude makes an agreement between diverse views difficult, if not impossible.

Beware of friends or family members who are certain they have all the right answers. They are likely to reject any information that conflicts with their belief, so political discussions degenerate quickly into a hostile debate about who is right and who is wrong. In such cases, it is better to avoid any mention of politics to preserve the relationship.

James Carville, a Democratic strategist known as the “Ragin’ Cagun,” has been married to Mary Matalan for more than 20 years. She was a Republican counselor to both President Bushes and a trusted adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Matalan explained to a reporter when asked how they could be together, “We’re philosophically opposed to the role and scope of government, but we love each other.” Carville added that they might fight “if I wanted to provoke or discuss [a controversial subject like Obamacare, but] I have no desire to do that. I’m not going to change, and she’s not going to change.”

Social media sites like Facebook can be problematic for relationships, especially if a friend constantly posts articles, links, and opinions that are antithetical to your views. To avoid being seen as such a person, Scott Dickson, a professional Internet consultant, advises that one should never post political opinions on Facebook. If you’re being inundated with such behavior, ignore the offending posts or “unfollow” the poster. It is better to skip the online updates and keep a real-life friend.

men having a political discussion

2. Don’t Try to Change a Friend’s Mind

The issues confronting the country – immigration, the economy, growing income inequity, climate change – are complicated and none have perfect solutions. While it can be distressful to learn that your friends don’t believe the same things you do, recognize that everyone has an opinion based on their unique perspectives and experiences. Rather than trying to convert your friends or family members to your view, focus on understanding their views and the reasons behind them. Ask questions and listen closely to their explanations.

Don’t assume things about the views of your friends – the fact that you disagree on one topic does not mean you will disagree on others. If each party listens, and better understands the other’s perspective, you’re likely to find some consensus and possibly even a solution to which you both can agree. If you are listening just to find a point to argue about, hard feelings will probably result.

Asking “why” your friend holds a particular viewpoint encourages further discussion. Interjecting “but” followed by your opinion puts the other side on the defensive and shuts down communication. Similarly, be careful of your tone and facial expressions. A sarcastic, dismissive attitude wins no arguments and will harm your relationship with others.

Most of us suffer from confirmation bias, a tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. At the same time, we disregard or deprecate any information that conflicts with our opinion.

For example, according to the Pew Research Center, 60% of Fox News viewers describe themselves as conservative while only 10% call themselves liberals. By comparison, 32% of MSNBC viewers identify as conservative, while 36% say they are liberal.

This tendency to rely solely on a single source of news and opinions means that we get only one side of a story, a position that is likely to be prejudiced and may not be factual. It also means that it is more difficult to see another’s point of view. While it isn’t easy to avoid confirmation bias, knowing about it could prevent you from making statements about facts that may be questionable.

According to Debate.org, two well-respected news organization recognized for their objectivity are the U.K.-based Reuters and The Independent. Fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org are nonpartisan sources dedicated to ensuring facts that can be verified. Of course, it is important to look from time to time at the news sources that your friends and family view so you know the basis for their positions.

3. Check Your Facts

The Internet is full of hoaxes, scams, rumors, and chicanery due to its combination of free access, instant distribution, and lack of any single source to validate information. Counterfeit websites disguised as legitimate for purposes of disseminating false information are common. While the majority of these sites are intended to scam buyers, they are also used for political purposes.

According to Forbes, the National Republican Congressional Committee set up more than a dozen real-looking-but-fake websites in the name of Democratic opponents during the last election. Donors, thinking they were contributing to a Democratic candidate, were contributing to that candidate’s opponent. When questioned about the tactic, NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek stated, “They’re just jealous that they didn’t think of the strategy first.”

Many sites publish fake news that is almost indistinguishable from real news, occasionally fooling legitimate news organizations. According to New Republic, faux-satire sites are “cashing in on gullibility and knee-jerk outrage,” and the false information is spread across the Internet by partisans as truth because it reinforces their opinions of the other side. “White Supremacist Groups Unite to Host ‘Make America White Again’ Trump Rally” appeared as a headline on the National Report in September 2015, as did an article entitled “Constitutional Scholars: Obama Free to Run as Independent in 2016!”

Another fake news site, The Daily Currant, published a story in August 2015 about Donald Trump killing Jeb Bush’s live kitten to demonstrate his willingness to take decisive action. The act, according to the story, increased his lead in the polls to 53% of likely Republican voters. In 2014, the same site published an article claiming that “Obama had called for a $700 billion bailout of the Veterans Administration.” The article suggested that the bailout was similar to the TARP bailouts of Wall Street firms. Fake news has a long shelf life, particularly when the information reinforces our biases.

Unfortunately, spoof sites are not the primary sources of misinformation. According to PolitiFact.com, most major news sources tell the truth less than half the time.

The percentage of verified true claims made by news stations via reporters or pundits breaks down as follows:

  • Fox News: 22% “true” or “mostly true”
  • NBC/MSNBC: 34% “true” or “mostly true”
  • ABC: 42% “true” or “mostly true”
  • CBS: 50% “true” or “mostly true”
  • CNN: 56% “true” or “mostly true”

The lack of veracity by public new sources is a major reason for our inability to agree on facts. As a consequence, you should be open-minded about possible variations from the truth as you know it. If your friends use information contrary to your understanding, ask for the sources rather than challenging them or responding angrily.

However, if you have uncontested facts – not opinions – that provide a different perspective, offer them calmly. If your friends try to argue, let their responses go. It is unlikely that you will change their minds, nor they yours. If other aspects of your relationship are positive, work on those rather than trying to agree politically. In cases where a discussion is too incendiary, you can agree to either avoid the subject or agree to disagree.

CNN Atlanta HQ photo by Sean Pavone

4. Find Common Ground

While it may not be possible to agree on solutions, you’re at the very least likely to agree on the problems. Despite our diverse backgrounds, different religious beliefs, and opposing political opinions, Americans share a common set of ideals: liberty, equality, and faith in hard work. These ideals unite us and make our culture distinct.

The anxiety and anger over national issues notwithstanding, more than eight of ten Americans are very or extremely proud to be Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll. Another 14% are moderately proud of the nation. Americans are more alike than different, so finding common ground should not be difficult in most cases.

In fact, you can agree with most folks on contentious issues simply with a little thought. For example, feelings about the Affordable Care Act remain highly partisan, according to a Pew Research poll. A majority of Republicans (87%) are opposed to the law while the majority of Democrats (78%) favor it. Though they disagree about the solution, most Americans are concerned about the rising cost of healthcare, now accounting for more than one-sixth of our economy and continuing to rise every year.

According to America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), continued escalation means “higher costs for health insurance, the fraying of the nation’s safety net, an erosion in our global competitiveness, and long-term fiscal insolvency.” Republicans and Democrats have a shared interest in reducing the nation’s healthcare costs, so a political discussion that begins with agreement about the problem promotes civility during the rest of the conversation.

While using common ground can facilitate a discussion, psychologist Joni Johnston cautions against using the common ground to show how superior you are. Asserting that “I have no insurance, but I’ve paid for my healthcare without help for the last two years” in a discussion about healthcare is likely to result in a heated reply from your listener. Equating one person’s experience to a population of individuals – generalizing – is rarely persuasive and may be illogical.

5. Listen

Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” advises, “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.” When engaged in a political discussion, most of us hear what we want to hear, not what the person is saying. Rather than listening to the speaker, we are focused on what we want to say next. When we hear something with which we disagree, we interrupt the speaker, anxious to make our points, effectively dismissing the speaker’s words. As a consequence, the discussion becomes heated, each side trying to verbally bludgeon the other into submission.

Discussions deteriorate into arguments and anger, rupturing friendships and creating hard feelings. Neither party wins in such situations. Active listening to others has many benefits, including the following:

  • Showing Respect to Others. When talking about politics, it is easy to be dismissive or sarcastic. Such behavior communicates to speakers that you do not value their input and, by extension, the individuals speaking. As Sebastian Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm,” wrote in National Geographic Adventure magazine, “Everyone has a role in this world, and who is to say which role is more worthy or admirable than other… Since every person I’ve interviewed has led a life unique to them, they have something to say about the world that I couldn’t get from anyone else. That gives them a value that transcends any job or social rank they might have.”
  • Expanding Your Knowledge. No one knows everything, and the best way to gain information is to listen. The longer you listen, the more information you receive, the greater your grasp of the content. Ask questions to encourage the speaker to provide greater details, ensuring that your understanding is more complete.
  • Promoting Civility. When you listen in a calm, respectful manner, the person to whom you are communicating will subconsciously mirror – the act of mimicking another person’s posture, gestures, and words – your behavior. Mirroring is a sign of comfort, trust, and rapport between two people – they are in sync. Because all of us crave attention, people like people who listen, and this can bolster your relationships.

Everyone can learn to be a good listener by applying a few listening skills and practices:

  • Let the Other Person Do Most of the Talking. Follow a ratio of 70% listening and 30% speaking.
  • Avoid the Temptation to Interrupt. Interrupting signals speakers that you think what they’re saying is not worth your attention. Whenever you are tempted to speak, ask yourself if your goal is to gain information or expound your views.
  • Be an Active Listener. Be sure people who are speaking know that you are listening. Look them in the eye, send nonverbal messages of agreement such as nodding your head, and wait until they have finished their thoughts before you speak.
  • Keep Cool. Political arguments can become very heated if you let them. Whenever you are tempted to respond antagonistically, take a deep breath and smile. Remember that you do not have to agree with someone’s position to be civil. Discussions between friends and family are not about winning debates or converting people to your position – they are about learning each other’s political beliefs. If pressed to agree, simply say, “I understand your passion and appreciate your position. Thank you for sharing with me.”

couple talking politics

Final Word

Because presidential elections are always right around the corner – accompanied by 24/7 media coverage, political advertising, and candidates on the campaign trail – it is unlikely that you can avoid all political discussions. Remember, while those who occupy political office are constantly coming and going, friends and family are the long-term foundations of a happy and satisfying life. Whenever you might be tempted into a potentially destructive political conversation, remember the advice of James Carville: “It’s better to be married to someone who hates your politics than someone who hates your mother.”

What’s your strategy for having political discussions with friends and family?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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