With election season around the corner, many of us may find ourselves thrust into heated discussions — with friends, family members, or our broader social networks — about our deeply-held political convictions. Although these conversations have the potential to be constructive, enlightening, and even transformative, many of us likely have had the opposite experience, of difficult conversations leaving both sides feeling hurt, angry, and misunderstood. In this post, we’ll discuss some of the most common mistakes that people make when engaging in politically-charged conversations, and offer evidence-based strategies about how to navigate them.
Talking to win
All too often, we approach disagreements like verbal wars — feeling like we need to dominate our partners into submission by shredding their arguments and attacking their character. By winning this war of words, we think, we’ll force our partners to abandon their beliefs and convert to our way of thinking. Unfortunately, this rarely happens — even if you feel like you’ve won the argument, in many cases your partner will walk away with their opinions unchanged.
This happens because attacking your partner in an argument makes them feel threatened. And when people feel threatened, they put up their defenses — making them much less likely to engage with you.
The next time you enter a disagreement, resist that intuitive urge to “win” the argument. Instead, your first priority — especially at the beginning of a conversation — should be to listen and seek to understand what your partner believes. When they offer an opinion, don’t immediately rebut it; instead, ask “Why do you think…?” or “Can you help me understand…?”
Focusing on areas of disagreement
When having conversations about politics, it’s easy to fixate on the areas where you disagree. This is understandable, since that difference in opinion might be what sparked the conversation in the first place! But research shows that trying to find common ground — even between people with opposing political beliefs — can set conversations on a more positive trajectory.
For example, even if Mark supports a ban on purchasing assault rifles and Shannon opposes it, they both might still agree that there should be some limits on gun sales. Rather than focusing exclusively on the ban of assault rifles, they could start their discussion by thinking through what gun-related policies they do agree on. An honest exploration of their common ground can help the two build rapport and trust, and nudge them towards the belief that their differences may be reconcilable. Even in cases where both sides really do have little in common, a good-faith effort to find common ground can convey to your partner that you’re open-minded and willing to hear other opinions.
Standing your ground
“I’m absolutely certain I’m right.” It can be tempting to say things like this, especially when discussing an issue we’re passionate about. After all, standing your ground and communicating your unwavering certainty might seem like a powerful way to convince your partner to listen to you. But instead, this kind of absolutist language can make you appear stubborn or unwilling to consider alternative points of view, leading your partner to conclude there’s no point in further discussion.
Even if you feel strongly about your beliefs, it’s often more constructive to express humility rather than certainty. Instead of making definitive statements like “Science clearly shows that…” or “It’s definitely the case that…” try using hedging language like “It’s possible that…” or “Maybe it’s true that…” You might worry that this softened language could make you seem hesitant or unconfident, but research suggests that hedging language actually makes you a more appealing conversational partner because you appear more receptive to other points of view.
So, to recap: The next time you have a political conversation, try to 1) listen and understand, 2) find common ground, and 3) be humble. Chances are that if you communicate this way, your partner will be more likely to reciprocate with generosity and respect. Wouldn’t it be incredible to finally have some political conversations like that?
Chen, F. S., Minson, J. A., & Tormala, Z. L. (2010). Tell me more: The effects of expressed interest on receptiveness during dialog. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46(5), 850-853.
Fisher, M., Knobe, J., Strickland, B., & Keil, F. C. (2017). The influence of social interaction on intuitions of objectivity and subjectivity. Cognitive Science, 41(4), 1119-1134.
Greater Good Science Center. (2020). Bridging differences playbook.
Yeomans, M., Minson, J., Collins, H., Chen, F., & Gino, F. (2020). Conversational receptiveness: Improving engagement with opposing views. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 160, 131-148.