We’re living in a particularly hot political climate right now. Fiery rants blast from TVs in homes, bars and even at the office; friends and family post heartfelt diatribes online; and it’s the starting point of conversation at dinner parties, networking events, and coffee shops.
“Politics gets people heated because it’s all about their personal opinions,” said Tish Squillaro, co-author of the books HeadTrash and HeadTrash2, which discuss how individual anger, arrogance, fear and other persistent negative emotions can damage your personal health and your credibility in both the professional and personal sphere. “People want to feel heard, and any attack on their viewpoints is taken personally.”
We’ve all been on the giving and receiving end of that before, especially where politically charged conversations are concerned. (Having some flashbacks to family dinner the last time you visited your uber conservative parents?)
Talking Politics The Right Way
To engage in an educated, healthy political discussion while minimizing your risk for hurting feelings or causing offense, follow these simple rules.
Stick to the Facts and Don’t Get Personal
Political discussions are likely to get heated because people feel emotionally invested. When the temperature starts rising, it’s essential that you stick to the facts and set your emotions on the back burner.
“Stay calm and focus on the message you are seeking to convey, and don’t allow your emotions to become your voice,” urged Squillaro. “The more emotionally charged you become, the less your actual message will get through.” The more charged you are, the quicker your debate goes downhill, too.
Don’t Criticize, But Do Validate
People just want to be heard, which means validation can get you very far, regardless if you’re having a conversation with someone on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
“It is never helpful to criticize someone, or their candidate,” said Jane Johnson Wall, a family therapist. “It is important to allow someone to express their views on issues and candidates, and then offer validation.”
For example, you can say something all the lines of, “I can tell that you are passionate about [insert candidate or topic], and I can see why since [validating point]. The research that I have done has me thinking along these lines, though …”
Use Your Inside Voice
Have you ever been in a fight when you suddenly realize that you’re yelling? That volume increase is usually gradual and therefore harder to detect, so you have to be very aware of how loud you’re getting at all times.
“Being effective in expressing your strongly held viewpoints doesn’t mean you have to be the loudest person in the room,” Squillaro said. “Focus on real issues with real outcomes and you will have a more meaningful debate.”
She adds that most people are more attentive to someone who speaks with strength and confidence, and less likely to take the yeller or interrupter seriously.
Have Total Control Over Your Body and Thoughts
On the same note, do your best to be very aware of your entire body while engaging in a heated political discussion. Squillaro said that maintaining calmness in our tone, body language and overall demeanor will not only facilitate a healthy conversation, but will earn us credibility.
That’s no easy task, especially if the other person is doing the opposite. Still, try your best to control your breath, your gestures, and your thoughts before you articulate them.
Know You’re Not Going to Change Minds
Many people make this mistake, especially when conversing with someone who disagrees on an issue that you feel passionate about.
“A single conversation is rarely going to result in someone changing their opinion, especially in politics,” said Wall. “I think that people need to remember that ‘converting’ someone to their ‘side’ is a process, if it is even possible.”
Instead, engage in a series of short conversations, which will have far more of an impact for both parties, versus an exhausting lecture or two-hour debate.
Sometimes it’s best to end the conversation and walk away. If the discussion starts to degenerate into personal attacks or the volume begins to rise, step away. You can come back to the conversation later, should you desire, but give all parties time to cool off. Breaking off a conversation can be awkward or uncomfortable. Here are some one-liners to help you make a graceful (and inoffensive) exit:
- “You have shared some interesting points, and I want to do some more research before we talk about this some more.”
- “Well, I think we are missing out on the [birthday cake, dancing, etc.]. It’s been great chatting with you …”
- “We’ve been so involved in discussing politics, I completely failed to ask you about…”
- “I can’t believe we’ve been talking about this for so long! I really need to get back to…”