How to Have Better (Political) Conversations

December 1, 2018 –

This holiday season comes on the heels of an election season where Democrats and Republicans have found themselves, once again, starkly divided. This dynamic can make for difficult conversations – but those conversations can be worth it if you commit to having them in good faith.

How is it possible to find common ground with your Bernie-boosting sister, Trump Train uncle, and 25-year-old nephew who still hasn’t registered to vote? Start by trying to understand how people form their political opinions and why they hang on to them so tightly.

Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” says that “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” If we want to understand another person or group of people, Haidt says we must look beyond their rational arguments to the moral values behind those arguments.

Some people hold the view that humans are inherently flawed, and thus need external structures and constraints in order to cooperate and thrive, says Haidt. Others view human nature as inherently good and feel that people can reach their highest potential with fewer arbitrary rules and constraints. Some people identify primarily as members of a community and prioritize their responsibilities to family, church, and country. Others see society as a collection of individuals, and believe we should value individual rights above all.

These sensibilities filter down into all kinds of political opinions. For example, are feminism and antipoverty programs negative influences that increase rates of single motherhood and lessen pressures on fathers to support their children? Or are they positive forces that liberate women from traditional dependence on men? As Haidt points out, our answers depend a great deal on our view of human nature, and on the role of individuals in society.

Here’s another view: “Political opinions are really a representation of one’s expectations regarding change,” Seon Kim, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told Bustle. “Some are ‘conservative’ and some are ‘liberal,’ meaning some deal with change through maintaining and some manage change through making adjustments.”

Both views help explain why facts aren’t necessarily the best tool for convincing someone to change their views. In fact, research shows that when trying to win hearts and minds, presenting contrary facts is likely to make a person dig in their heels even more. To keep the conversation going, you have approach others with respect and empathy.

“If you are going to talk about these things, you have to be willing to listen to someone that has a different opinion than you do,” says Daniel Post Senning, an etiquette expert from the Emily Post Institute, in a recent interview with CNN. “Showing some awareness of that reality communicates a certain grace and awareness and consideration of others.”

Beginning a conversation with respect and empathy allows you to understand that person’s feelings and experiences. If you can connect on a human level, you have a much better chance of connecting on a policy level. After all, policy issues – health care, jobs, immigration, defense, the economy – are ultimately human issues. Our personal values, experiences, and biases will always affect our political views.

Respecting another’s opinion is the first step toward understanding their beliefs and finding common ground. If we can take some of the gridlock out of our everyday conversations, maybe we can lessen it in our political life as well.

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This article originally appeared in the December 1, 2018 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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