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How to Talk Politics Without Destroying Your Relationships or Getting Yourself Fired: 3 Tips for Avoiding Disaster

Politics. That word probably evokes more fear and anxiety than that time your neighbor dressed up as a scary clown for Halloween. But unlike your neighbor’s scary clown costume, it doesn’t just come out for a few hours and then get buried in the back of a closet for the rest of the year. It’s everywhere. All the time. Everyone is constantly talking about it. Thinking about it. Fighting about it.

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It’s easy to cast the blame of political divisiveness on the politicians. However, while they have done a lot to get us into this mess, the problem of political polarization extends far beyond the White House and Capitol Hill. As a country, we have become so divided and so hostile towards each other that our political differences are destroying relationships. They’re tearing apart families and friendships. And causing a lot of pain.

The hatred and tension in today’s political climate can seem overwhelming at times. How are we as individuals supposed to deal with all of this? What should we say? What should we do?

Sometimes, the best way to talk about politics is to not talk about politics. Problems are not always solved by talking about them and there are times when talking can cause more harm than good. In Part 3 of this series, I’ll discuss how to know when we should avoid talking politics.

But, given the number of political conversations that will be taking place over the next few weeks, I want to start the series by giving some tips on how to make the best of political conversations when you can’t escape them.

How can you talk politics without destroying your relationships or getting yourself fired?

Here are 3 key concepts to help you get your political conversations off on the right foot and avoid disaster:

1. Don’t assume the worst about the other person (or the best about yourself)

When we have conversations with people who have different political views than we do, it’s often tempting to reduce them to a single stereotype based on their political party and then assume the worst about them. We assume they’re ignorant, irrational, and perhaps even evil. After all, how else could they support the political party they do?

There are a few problems with this. First, our political stereotypes are surprisingly inaccurate. Research suggests that we’re actually more similar to the typical member of the opposing party than we think. When we have inaccurate views of each other, we end up talking past each other and fighting about things that we might actually agree on.

Second, people don’t like being stereotyped. We might think that people in the opposing political party are all just puppets whose strings are being pulled by their party leaders, but we like to think of ourselves as rational, unbiased thinkers.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Most of us are not puppets incapable of forming our own opinions, but we’re also not completely rational or unbiased. Motivated reasoning is not a liberal or a conservative problem; it affects people on both sides of the aisle. Recognizing that we’re not as rational or unbiased as we’d like to think we are can help us have more grace towards others. And when we think less of ourselves and more of others, we decrease the gap between us and them.

2. Don’t make it all about you

People are more open to new information if we frame it in a way that resonates with their own beliefs and values. While this might seem obvious, it is surprising how little we actually consider this in our political conversations. When we try to persuade people who hold different beliefs and values than we do, we often make the mistake of giving arguments based on our own beliefs and values. And somehow, we are surprised when the other person isn’t convinced by our wonderful arguments. Even worse, we sometimes vilify the other person for not being convinced by these arguments.

If you want your political conversations to get off the ground, talk about issues in ways that resonate with the other person. Think about what the other person believes, what they value, and how they view the world. Better yet, don’t just think about it, ask them.

This applies not only to people in the opposing political party, but also to people on our own side. We tend to make ourselves the standard and think that all good liberals or all good conservatives will believe the same things we do. But just because you might vote for the same people doesn’t mean you agree with each other on everything. Don’t just assume that because someone is “on your side” that they will have all the same beliefs and values as you.

3. Disagree with ideas; don’t attack individuals

When people feel personally attacked, they tend to either shut down or become defensive, neither of which is productive.

To avoid personal attacks on others, consider how you want the other person to treat you:

  • What assumptions do you want them to make (or not make) about you and your motives? Do you want them to assume that you are ignorant, irrational, or evil because you have different views than they do?
  • If you say something that can be taken in more than one way, do you want them to ask you to clarify what you meant, or do you want them to interpret it in the worst or most extreme way possible?
  • Do you want them to twist your words or try to trap you?
  • Do you want them to call you derogatory names?
  • Do you want them to dismiss you entirely based on one thing they disagree with you about?

If the person you are interacting with were to treat you with respect, what would that look like? What kinds of things would they think? What kinds of things would they say? Now, treat them as you want to be treated.

Jen Zamzow
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Jen Zamzow lives in Michigan with her husband and two little boys and teaches ethics online for UCLA and Concordia University Irvine. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy and cognitive science and writes about faith and doubt, meaning, morality, and motherhood at jenzamzow.com. You can get her free eBook guide with tips for talking to kids about God here.

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