I’m excited to head home to Minnesota this week for Thanksgiving with my family. In addition to the turkey and football, I enjoy debating politics with my dad. I’m a latte-sipping, New York Times-reading liberal who likes yoga. He’s a Fox News-watching conservative who loves fishing.
This year, needless to say, there’s no shortage of topics for us to discuss. While it’s usually fun, things can get heated, and sometimes I’ve said things that have hurt our relationship. I’m not alone. A poll found that 40 percent of Americans said the past presidential election damaged a personal relationship with a friend or a family member.
So this year, I’m going to try something different. And, whether you’re on the right or the left, if you talk politics with someone on the other side, I encourage you to join me in trying this better approach, developed by Prof. William Doherty of the University of Minnesota.
First, do not approach the conversation as a debate to win with facts and arguments. You’ll end up talking past each other, trading talking points rather than engaging in actual conversation. Sure, your arguments are better, and maybe some of their “facts” actually are “fake news.” But saying so won’t work, and it may even backfire. Research suggests that when people are presented with facts that conflict with deeply held beliefs, they often become more convinced of their original beliefs.
Whether liberal or conservative, people’s politics are often driven by emotions, not reason. So while it’s easy to get upset when our well-reasoned, factually based arguments don’t change someone’s mind, we shouldn’t be surprised. That’s just not how our minds tend to work.
Abandon the goal of changing someone’s views or proving someone wrong. Leave your ego at the door. Instead, bring intellectual humility and a willingness to listen.
To start, acknowledge your general political affiliation and let the person know you’d like to understand other perspectives better. Offer up something critical about your own side and say something positive about the other side. (Unless you’re a politician’s press secretary, you can find something.)
Ask questions designed to better understand the person’s beliefs. How did he come to his overall outlook or particular views on an issue? What stereotypes do people have about her side, and what do those stereotypes get wrong? Does he think the stereotypes have any kernel of truth in them?
By all means, ask the hard questions, but in a way that elicits thoughtful conversation rather than defensiveness. For example, try “What do you think about [Juanita Broaddrick’s/Jessica Leeds’/Beverly Young Nelson’s] story”?, not “How can you claim to be a [feminist/Christian] yet support a sexual predator like [Clinton/Trump]?”
While the person is responding, don’t prepare rebuttals — listen to understand. As any marriage therapist will tell you, paraphrasing someone’s comments back to her effectively demonstrates you understand her perspective.
When giving your own views, say things like “I’m concerned about X” rather than making declarations about motives or the truth as you see it (“It seems to me that Trump’s words exploit racial resentments and further divide us,” not “Trump is a racist white supremacist who clearly wants to divide us!”). By explaining how life experiences have shaped one’s views, a discussion can move from abstract ideological arguments to two citizens sharing deeply held, if differing, beliefs. Wherever possible, identify common ground.
For those of us with strong political opinions, none of this comes easily. But in this hyperpolarized era, where Americans don’t just disagree with their political opponents, but increasingly demonize them as enemies, such efforts are needed. As a leading moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt said, “Political polarization and cross-partisan hatred are an existential threat to the future of the American Experiment. Personal relationships are the most powerful way to bridge the divide and bring Americans into productive democratic discussion.”
So let’s embrace our patriotic duties this Thanksgiving and have a constructive conversation about politics with someone we disagree with. If the discussion starts to get out of control, you can always steer talk to the Vikings-Lions game.
As for me, I’m disappointed there isn’t enough ice on the lake yet for ice fishing, but glad that my dad and I have already made plans to check out a yoga class together.
Tom Sylvester is the chairman of the board of Better Angels, a nonprofit initiative that brings together “red” and “blue” Americans at the grass-roots level to rebuild social trust (better-angels.org).