With the holidays here, I see more and more friends anxiously awaiting (or even avoiding) the dreaded conversation about politics at the dinner table. There is no escaping it, America feels different than it did two years ago (no matter what party you belong to), and everyone’s waiting to see how representatives elected in November will impact our lives in the new year.
If you’re like me, it all kind of feels exhausting, and yet… I find myself wanting more and more to share my feelings and my thoughts about how political life is impacting how I feel about myself, my country, and the world.
So, how do we do it? How do we have a discussion about our political climate, without coming to blows, especially with people who may hold different views than us?
Here are some key questions to ask yourself and others you navigate political conversations with:
What are my intentions and what are yours?
You’ll do yourself a world of favor by asking yourself (and the person you’re connecting with) what you intend to give and to get from the conversation. Are you intending to debate an issue? Are you intending to offer a defense of an idea or value? Are you simply trying to express your thoughts and feelings, just to share them?
Most importantly: Are you open to hearing ideas and opinions that are different from your own?
If you can be honest with this question, you can save yourself time and emotional energy in the long run. My strong recommendation is to (1.) always come from a place of listening, and (2.) to only engage in these kind of conversations with people who want to listen and share, rather than persuade and debate.
What are my boundaries and what are yours?
Establish some simple and basic rules together, such as: no name-calling, no derogatory terms, no raised voices, listen first - speak second. Identify certain words or issues that are emotional landmines for the both of you so that you can either tread lightly with one another and choose disengage if the conversation ventures there.
Remember that you always have the option to remove yourself from a conversation if you feel it’s turned destructive. Ask yourself if everyone involved is there to listen and share. If not, let yourself exit and initiate another conversation with someone else.
What do you feel like people misunderstand about your viewpoints?
It’s okay to identify the ways in which we differ from each other; in fact, I’ve seen that it’s important to address the ways in which we do. By asking this question, you offer another way to learn about someone’s history and story, and really get into what’s in their heart. You can learn more about someone interests (on a deeper level), rather than just their surface-level stance on issues.
What do you wish people knew about your story?
Everyone has a story, and not many of us have a chance to share it.
Our values and our viewpoints likely come from an experience (positive, negative, or even traumatic) we’ve had.
Asking this question could offer another way to understand why the person you’re speaking with feels the way that they feel about certain issues and topics. (And it also offers you, the listener, a way to humanize and connect with someone that you may disagree with.)
Wondering where can you learn more about facilitating (and participating in) tough conversations?
There are a number of initiatives out there that are specially designed to help us learn how to connect over difficult topics and discuss sensitive topics (like politics). Here are a few I’ve tried myself and recommend:
The People’s Supper has an entire guide available to help you invite anyone (friends or strangers) to dinner and ask questions that provide a chance to dive deeply into each other’s stories. I did this with my community, Rise of the Bulls, last year and it was great!
The Civil Conversations Project is dedicated to helping people cover difficult group conversations in an open and safe way. Check out their “Better Conversations: A Starter Guide” for an easy to follow, step-by-step guide on facilitating effective dialogues. (I’ve read and forwarded this on as a resource to friends many times this past year.)
If you work for a corporation and are interested in having people lead a facilitated discussion at the workplace, check out the Center for Council. They have a proven, yet simple, method for having polarized groups find common ground.
Do you feel that in times like these, which feel tumultuous and chaotic, that you’re having a hard time processing what’s going on in America? I do, and I imagine that most people in the country do too - even those on the other side of the political spectrum as me.
I truly believe that we all are feeling a deep need to process our emotions out loud and connect with one another, though we may not know exactly how to do that.
Keep in mind that as you navigate conversations like these that we never, ever have to agree with someone’s else stance in order to listen to them. Try to remember that as you’re vocalizing your thoughts and listening to others, we’re all human - imperfect, but ingrained to be in community with one another. In our country where we’re growing more distant from one another these conversations - which can offer a chance to understand each other - are more important than ever.
Photos by Eun Creative