With the election less than a week away, political positions are not softening. No matter who wins, the polarization will continue. You may be in a conversation with someone who has a different political view. The question is how to have a civil conversation without it escalating into a heated argument or worse?
As a deeply experienced mediator and lawyer turned peacemaker, I have witnessed many difficult conversations. Here is how successful conversations work:
First, you have to be the grown-up. This means holding onto a mature perspective no matter how inflammatory and rigid the other person might be. If you can’t maintain maturity, don’t have the conversation.
Second, do not expect or even try to change the other person’s opinion, especially with the facts. Brain research shows that deeply-embedded beliefs are reinforced by dopamine released when confronted with evidence that contradicts the belief. In other words, polarized people strengthen their beliefs when challenged with contradictory information.
Suppose your other declares, “Hillary Clinton is a crook and a liar.”
You could rebut the statement by saying, “Interesting. Did you know that a recent analysis of statements made by Trump and Clinton showed that Trump lied 63 percent of the time, and Clinton lied 14.4 percent of the time.” This approach might make you feel smart, but would only strengthen the belief of your other that Clinton is a crook. Weird, but that’s how our brains really work.
Third, logic and reasoning don’t apply in this conversation, so do not rely on the other person using any kind of critical thinking skills to understand your perspective. Political polarization is purely emotional and is based on fear, anger, frustration, disgust and anxiety. You cannot confront an emotional issue with logic and expect a civil conversation.
Fourth, use framing to find common ground. Framing is the technique of asking questions in a way that changes perspective. Rather than confront a strongly held belief, reframe the conversation away from that belief. Here are some examples:
“What part of Trump’s business experience do you think makes him a potentially good president?”
“How transparent do you think presidential candidates should be? Do you think it’s realistic to expect full transparency?”
“How would you compare the foreign policy experience of the two candidates?”
“Why is having an outsider in the White House a good thing?”
The questions should be neutral and seek understanding. They should cause your other to reflect instead of react. You are seeking to engage the reflective brain, not the autonomous, intuitive brain. Sometimes, this will backfire, and you have to be prepared to back away. People who are not used to reflective thinking will resist the effort.
Fifth, if reframing is not working, try finding out what is under the polarizing position. You do this by asking a simple question: “If X occurred, what would be all the good things that would happen to you.”
Here’s an example:
“If Trump were elected, what would be all the good things that would happen to you?”
“Well, we would keep that crook Clinton and her husband out of the White House.”
“And if we kept Clinton out of the White House, what would be all the good things that would happen to you?”
You keep pursuing the questions until you get a statement like, “I would feel safe.” That is a fundamental interest, and you might summarize it by saying, “Your real interest is in feeling safe, and you are afraid that the country is not a safe place anymore.” This may open the door to the real fears and anxieties to be expressed. Now, you are having a real conversation.
Sixth, if your other becomes agitated or emotional, you might consider affect labeling to de-escalate the situation. Affect labeling is a skill I developed to handle high conflict situations. When working with a highly escalated person, ignore the words. Focus on the emotions. Guess at what those emotions might be. State the emotions to your other using a direct “you” statement.
“You are angry.”
“You are frustrated.”
“You are pissed off!”
Do not use “I” statements, such as “What I hear you saying is …”
There is a significant amount of science around why affect labeling works, which is beyond the scope of this article. If you want to learn more, check out www.negotiateacenteredlife.com.
Having a conversation around politically charged topics is hard work. You have to have the mindset of curiosity and compassion without being patronizing or condescending. You have to truly wish to engage your other. You have to maintain wisdom and grace even if your other engages in ad hominem attacks against you. Be non-reactive, non-judgmentaal, and non-critical for as long as possible. When you sense that you are losing your center, close out the conversation as gracefully and politely as possible.
If enough of us committed to engaging with politically polarized people, no matter what their beliefs, using some of these skills, an opening for dialogue might arise. We might slowly reverse the discourse from anger and hatred to an honest examination of our shared values. This is not an easy task because there are so few role models for us to emulate. Maybe it’s time that we became the role models for the politicians.
Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA is a lawyer turned peacemaker, author, speaker, teacher, and trainer. His website is www.dougnoll.com.