How to Talk Politics So Others Will Listen

When decisions and actions of a significant part of a community are experienced as dangerous, threatening, or unjust by others, that community (or family or nation) is forced to figure out what it stands for. That’s what is going on now in America. Our conversations about how to handle the pandemic and how to come to terms with our nation’s systemic racism are surfacing long-simmering disagreements and resentments about who we are. Social media is ensuring that those issues can’t be pushed back underground and ignored. In order for our nation to survive, we are challenged to find common ground.

Conversations between those with opposing views are not pretty when they devolve into righteous judgmentalism. Facts get lost in the heat of moral debate. A divide widens between people as they trade accusations and defensiveness. Perfectly reasonable people dig in and start saying unreasonable things and behaving in less than reasonable ways. It falls on all of us to keep the conversation going in a productive direction. Like it or not, we are all now involved in redefining the America we live in and the America our children will inherit.

Judging others’ behavior is a normal and useful human behavior. Judgmentalism, however, brings conversation to a screeching halt. There is an important difference between the two. 

We all judge. We have to. Yes, we have to — both as individuals and as a society. In order to navigate the world, in order to make hundreds of decisions a day, in order to get along with others, we are all constantly making judgments. We judge negatively people who violate our personal and community sense of our rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. We judge positively people who behave in ways that we find good, right, and comfortable. But judgments aren’t written in stone. They can be — and must be — changed as we learn more about an issue and redefine what is best for all. 

Judgmentalism, however, is rigid and is usually born of fears. Judgmentalism refers to using judgements to criticize and put down others who don’t share our beliefs and values. Being critical of a person because of their choices or scolding or dismissing them as being unenlightened, stupid, or clueless doesn’t persuade them to adopt another point of view. This is especially true when the person doing the judging takes an ‘I’m morally better than you” stance. It only makes the person doing the judging feel superior and the person being judged feel defensive. It separates people further. 

While talking with others who may not agree, we must ask ourselves how to best use our judgments. Are we using our judgments to shame, blame, and feel superior to individuals or groups? Or are we are using our judgments constructively to guide our own behavior and to educate and positively influence others to make changes for the collective good? 

How to engage in the conversation constructively:

Be clear about your goal: Do you want to move other people toward mutual understanding, or do you want to punish them for their beliefs and behavior? Are you interested in unifying people or perpetuating an “us vs them” situation? Punishing others may feel justified and personally empowering, but it won’t move them to share your point of view. Defining other people as “other” dehumanizes both the judger and the judgee and ensures continued conflict.

Take an emotional step back: We all have reactive feelings when someone seemingly violates our values or invalidates our point of view. In such conversations, take a deep breath and think about how to respond without being defensive. If people express themselves with invective, join the conversation in a way that doesn’t respond in kind. 

Be willing to be wrong: Do you want to be “right” or do you want to have a conversation? There is no place for self-righteousness in a conversation that is intended to bring people together. To argue that you are fundamentally right and they are fundamentally wrong dismisses the other person and their experience. Instead, look for common ground so you can work together to address the problem.

Be curious: Expressing curiosity and interest always works better than expressing anger. When talking to someone who is in pointed disagreement with you, be curious about why they think as they do. You will learn more about them and, often, they will learn more about themselves. You may find a point of agreement to work from.

Be empathic: Someone else’s situation may not let them make the same choices you do. Each of us brings our own past and our present circumstances to the table. Unless we take the time to truly walk in each other’s shoes, we can’t have a respectful discussion.

Don’t assume you know another’s history or even their current efforts: You don’t. Not unless you ask. People are usually more complicated than they seem. They may be on the same side of an issue as you are but much more quietly. They may be using a different vocabulary to express it. They may already be doing what they can in ways that you can’t see or don’t understand. Constructive conversation starts when a person feels seen.

Stick to the facts: Telling or repeating lies or half-truths or promoting unfounded theories doesn’t move a conversation forward. It only makes the other person doubt anything else you have to say. Resist the temptation to believe the opinions of other people, even people you respect, about the issues. Do your homework and do real research. Be willing to change your mind as new facts emerge.

We can’t influence others by judging them harshly. We can be influencers by being tolerant, compassionate champions for a society that is invested in everyone’s well-being. Talk alone won’t do it. As important as it is that they are giving voice to the issues, demonstrations alone won’t do it either. It is by making daily efforts to do what we can when we can to support positive change that we will contribute to our nation’s healing from the effects of both a biological and cultural virus.

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