The Focus Is You

8 Ways to Talk about Politics Without Ruining Thanksgiving Dinner


Thanksgiving Dinner

It’s an understatement to say this presidential election year had some unprecedented moments. All three debates seemed to contain a shocking level of rancor, accusations, and reality TV-style moments. This year’s campaign tensions spilled out from TV and mobile screens and into other social situations. Recent workplace studies are showing higher tension, hostility and arguments among coworkers because of heightened political divisiveness.

Political arguments are certainly not rare, whether at work or home, but this election cycle showed itself to be particularly contentious. Given the current political climate, it’s important to keep an open mind when communicating your beliefs. Whether it’s with friends, family, or strangers, turning political discussions into shouting matches rarely accomplish anything … except maybe a ruined Thanksgiving dinner.

Contrary to the popular sentiment that discussing politics is just inviting trouble, political discussion is actually one of the bedrocks of our democracy. It’s how we work through problems, find common ground, and build compromise. We the People need to be able to talk — not scream at one another.

Our civil discussions can stay out of the gutter if we use some basic listening skills and approach political discussions with the right attitude. Here are eight rules for having a better conversation — political or otherwise — when you’re at home during the Thanksgiving break. These strategies are based on a 2015 TED Talk by writer and radio host Celeste Headlee.

Don’t Just Hear, Really Listen

Put down your cell phone and really listen to the other person. Be a part of an actual conversation. Hearing is not the same as listening because it doesn’t include the process of making meaning. You hear a dog barking, but usually it doesn’t mean anything other than maybe someone’s at the door. Listening to another person means being present in the moment, understanding not just what they are saying, but why they may be saying it. “If you want to get out of the conversation, get out of the conversation, but don’t be half in it and half out of it,” Headlee advises.

Don’t Be Preachy

One big hurdle to engaging in effective political discussion is coming to the conversation ready to listen rather than simply explain your position. We’ve all talked to someone who appears to be thinking about what they’re going to say next after we finally stop gabbing. It’s annoying, and, rightly so, it makes us feel unheard.  Again, just because you’re not speaking doesn’t mean you’re really listening. “A conversation requires a balance between talking and listening,” Headlee says. If no one is listening in a conversation, then what you have are two talk show hosts delivering a monologue with no one willing to be the audience.

Use Open-Ended Questions

Headlee also advises sticking to basic reporter questions: who, what, when, where, and why. The intent is to avoid “yes” or “no” questions that suggest, by their own structure, a specific answer. “Are you angry at how your candidate was portrayed in the media?” Answer: “Yes!”  Obviously, this short answer doesn’t really delve much into why someone believes something, which is what you’re after. A better question would be “How do you feel about how your candidate was portrayed by the media?” The person can then use their own adjectives to explain how they feel. Such a question also indicates you’re interested in understanding their perspective.

Be Honest about What You Don’t Know

Talking with others about politics means, above all, being honest. There’s no room for claiming to know something you don’t. One might think a counter to this advice might be Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson’s misstep last month when he was asked about his policy toward Aleppo, the war-torn city of Syria.  After admitting he didn’t know what Aleppo was, Johnson was taken to task pretty heavily by the media. However, Johnson isn’t an average voter having a coffee shop talk with a friend; he’s running for president, so his overall knowledge is held to a higher standard. Don’t let Johnson’s example keep you fearful of admitting when you don’t know something — or, more importantly, admitting when you’re wrong.

Don’t be a “One Upper-er”

Have you ever talked to someone who always wants to “one-up” your story? No matter what you share with them, no matter the individual experience you convey, they always have a better one. It’s annoying, but we are all guilty. Headlee points out that “all experiences are individual … It’s not about you … Conversations are not a promotional opportunity.” Constantly being a “one-upper” only serves to create a competitive atmosphere for the conversation. It’s a bad approach to building consensus and understanding. However, don’t let this advice keep you from sharing something that shows you understand how they feel. Just don’t confuse competition with empathy.  

Try Not to Repeat Yourself

If you find yourself repeating particular facts and opinions about the economy, foreign relations, immigration, or other hot button topics, it’s likely not because you’re not making yourself clear. It’s also probably not because the other person doesn’t understand your point. It’s likely they simply don’t want to acknowledge the point or they don’t have a counter argument. At these moments it’s natural to want to repeat your point again and again (usually in a louder voice). Resist this temptation. Repetition can come off as condescending and aggressive. If the person doesn’t seem willing to concede your point, back off your enthusiasm for a few moments. If it’s a valid point, it can wait. There’s no need to force it.

Stay Out of the Weeds

Obsessing over specific details and facts is good practice if you’re a scientist doing experiments but bad conversation habits if you’re discussing politics. It’s not that facts and details don’t matter; it’s that they tend to dominate the focus of the conversation. Following the trajectory of an average political discussion is much like tracking the flight of an inebriated house fly. It’s all over the place until it runs up against a window. Our conversations can appear much like a fly banging its head against a window: we should clearly be able to move forward, but for some inexplicable reason, we can’t. The reason is usually that we’ve become so focused on specific details that we can never get back to the broader issue.

Be Brief

Everyone likes the occasional marathon debate session, but most conversations need to be short and to the point. As all of these tips suggest, having a constructive conversation is hard work. The longer we talk, the more energy we expend. Political debates can often create anxiety, which causes tightening of our muscles and an increased heart rate, affecting our physical stamina. A tense conversation often leaves us feeling as if we’ve just run a 5k. As our interest wains and our energy levels run low, our ability to follow best practices for conversation gets weaker. You should come away from a good conversation invigorated, not feeling like you just ran three miles, so keep things short and focused when possible.

These eight tips are only a small part of being a better communicator. SWOSU’s Art, Communication and Theatre Department has many courses that can add even more strategies to your communication toolbox. Have an enjoyable and peaceful Thanksgiving! 

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The Focus Is You