Navigating difficult political conversations

Sile Surman, Columnist

Last Saturday, virtually every major news network announced Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. Cities across the nation broke out in cheers of celebration for the country’s shifting leadership. To understand the coming political changes in the White House, let’s take a brief look at the varying positions voters took this year.

Polls from this election reveal the starkly different voter opinions on key issues. The Pew Research Center found that voters disagreed on the importance of topics like racial inequality, law enforcement, climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. Areas of agreement include the urgency of prioritizing economic recovery. From these results, it’s clear that political polarization will likely persist, even under a new presidential administration. 

In preparation for the next few months and beyond, I encourage you to consider how to navigate polarized political discussions. Engaging in political conversations with someone you disagree with can be difficult, but in some cases, it is necessary to gain a better understanding of why someone holds particularly strong opinions. Now, I won’t lie, keeping anger or frustration out of sharply divided discourse feels nearly impossible. How can you not get heated when the other person just doesn’t understand, damn it?

This is totally normal, and emotions are practically inseparable from political positions. Despite this, I think allowing yourself to feel these emotions and still talk about politics is possible. So, if you’re planning on attending a Zoom Thanksgiving this year, and for whatever reason you wander into political territory, here are some pointers for keeping calm. Having a plan in mind will help you better navigate that conversation.

Illustration by Elie Flanagan.

First, think about the goal of your discussion. You’re likely entering the conversation in one of two ways. Maybe you’re trying to convince the other person that your political views are the better of the two. Otherwise, maybe you’re simply listening and trying to understand the other person’s opinions. Both of these intentions are okay, but clarifying your intention to the other party may produce better results.

Find areas of agreement. Yes, I know it’s hard, but try to find underlying places of agreement. Perhaps you both wish for the better well-being and health of the ones you love, but you disagree on how to achieve that reality. If areas of agreement simply don’t exist, that’s okay too. But at least attempting to find those similarities may help shift the tone away from antagonism. 

To be clear, political discussions don’t always have to meet a middle ground. Sometimes it’s more frustrating to walk away with a reluctant compromise on issues you didn’t want to surrender. No, it really isn’t productive to find a happy medium between “I believe gay people shouldn’t have the right to marriage,” and “I believe gay people should have the right to marriage.”

To generate greater chances for understanding, try asking plenty of fair questions, especially “why” questions. Why do you hold this position? Why is this topic important to you? Remember, the goal here is finding the underlying values embedded in opinions. This also allows the other person to feel heard and acknowledged, even in disagreement.

Be sure to understand and accept that changing someone’s mind might not happen. If you sense the discussion sinking into an argument, don’t waste your energy and time. Often, emotionally draining debates aren’t worth it for either person involved.

Though the goal should be having a productive conversation, it’s incredibly difficult to do that sometimes. I myself tend to enter these conversations with the goal of convincing the other person that I’m right. Here’s the thing: it’s okay to not want to compromise. Maybe the goal should be understanding why someone prioritizes one issue over another. It’s also okay to walk away from a conversation and not find areas of agreement.

I think shying away from these conversations is actually the biggest problem. Right now, I’m taking a politics course that investigates conservatism, and while I still disagree with many of the fundamental values of conservatism, I do have a better grasp of where they’re coming from politically. Perhaps that is the only goal: having a better grasp of why the other side believes what it does. And maybe you already know, and engaging in that conversation is a waste of time. Again, that’s okay.

As we shift into the colder months, I encourage you to explore these conversations, not necessarily to find agreement, not to settle on an unsatisfying middle ground and not even for proving the other person wrong. Walk into these discussions with the hope of getting a better picture of their beliefs, because it may add a human dimension to abstract, intangible concepts.

One thing is for sure: political discourse isn’t stopping anytime soon, so it’s best to be prepared for those inevitable (and even uncomfortable) conversations.