THE BLOG
06/30/2016 06:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ADVICE 28: Talking Politics

2016-02-18-1455830670-5402497-CostanzaTherapy.jpg

Photo Credit: Brent Stoller

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(Questions have been modified for space and clarity.)

Talking politics with friends and family...is it worth it, or should it be avoided at all costs?
--Pete; Medford, OR

The adage of never talking politics or religion has earned its adage status -- for many, politics is religion. A person's political views often correlate with his deepest beliefs -- on life, on society, on his definition of right and wrong. So pit two people with opposing perspectives in conversation at your own risk.

This has never been truer than right now, in what has to be the most contentious, combative political climate of my lifetime, full of half-truths and hand measurements. It's a bloodbath, and there's no reason to think it's going to end come November. Each side keeps digging its heels in deeper and deeper.

Which is too bad, because it's my understanding that democracy and the two-party system were built on debate. Shouldn't our differences help make us stronger? Shouldn't we be able to discuss ideas, and listen to other viewpoints, and be open to having our minds changed? Isn't that how it's supposed to work?

Ideally. So in the spirit of Fighting for Us and an effort to Make America Great Again, I'm launching a campaign of my own, aimed at helping people discuss politics in a polite and productive manner. My platform consists of the following two tenets:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

This is a good thing to consider in any conversation. It's as critical as asking questions. But it's especially important when discussing a delicate subject matter like politics.

In my first full-time job after college, I was in charge of the junior golf program for the Houston Golf Association, which was essentially a citywide little league for golf. The woman I replaced had been there forever -- she was in charge when I played -- and she left under less-than-ideal circumstances. There were plenty of parents and remaining staff members who were loyal to her and upset to see her go.

A few days after I was hired, there was a small dinner to introduce me to the important people associated with the program. I was to give a speech.

In hindsight, what I needed to do was to get up and convey a sense of confidence, to show the skeptics that their program was safe in my hands. No, I was not my predecessor, but I was up to the task.

Instead, I decided to open with a joke about how I was anything but:

"Hey everyone...my name is Brent Stoller, and I don't know anything," I said with a laugh.

The crowd's reaction was what you'd expect -- a combination of disapproving silence and did-he-just-say-that looks.

Chalk it up to the ignorance/naivety/outright stupidity of a 23-year-old; I'd been self-deprecating when I needed to be strong. Which is a nice way of saying that I had misread my audience. The people were already mad that their Chosen One had been dismissed, and when I got up and (seemingly) confirmed their greatest fears, it made them that much madder.

The same pitfalls loom when talking politics. If you know someone stands on the other side of the aisle, you can't talk to them as brazenly as you would to someone with whom you agree. You have to shape -- and sometimes soften -- the conversation, so your words come off palatable and respectful. Think about how the other person is going to hear what you say. Stick to the issues, and stay away from personal attacks.

That doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your beliefs or tell someone what they want to hear. It just means that what you say and how you say it both count.

Of course, no matter how hard you try, and no matter how polite you are, there are still some people you can't discuss politics with. They're too emotional, too close-minded, and no amount of tact can overcome that.

This is part of knowing your audience, as well. So before engaging somebody, ask yourself, Is this a person I can talk to? Is this someone who is open to discussion and comfortable in disagreement? Are they capable of communicating respectfully? Will they listen to an opposing viewpoint, or will they take what I say and turn it around against me?

KNOW YOURSELF

Before asking those questions of the other person, first ask them of yourself. Are you the person everyone's afraid to talk to? And if you are, is that who you want to be?

This introspection is critical. It's easy to flip on and log on to the news channels and websites that share your political beliefs and get lost in their sea of confirmation bias. Few daily activities feel as satisfying, as vindicating.

But every once in awhile it's good to be reminded of those shades of gray, that there's not always a right and wrong, that more often than not there's just different.

And while you don't have to change your mind, you can at least be open to the idea of it, because you're not the same person you were yesterday. The sooner we all realize that, the closer we get to forming our perfect union.

COMING WEDNESDAY: My Jealous Boyfriend

Need more ADVICE? Check out the most recent installments:

ADVICE 27: Should I Tell My Crush How I Feel?

ADVICE 26: Surviving a Long-Distance Relationship

ADVICE 25: I'm Dating a Married Man

ADVICE 24: Love Hurts

ADVICE 23: Loyalty, Jessup and A Few Good Men

ADVICE 22: The Two-Pronged Approach to Handling Stress

To send in a question, please complete this short Google form. All submissions are anonymous, even to the author.