10 Tips for Friendly Political Discussions

Talking politics without alienating a friend isn't always easy, but can be done.

Posted Oct 04, 2016

Politics and sports are a lot alike – there are always going to be winners and losers. Campaign managers are like coaches. Points are scored in debates. The competition is even called a “race” and when the results of a poll is too close to call, the candidates finish in a “dead heat.” To the victor go the spoils and when your candidate loses, you feel like your team just lost the Super Bowl. Although some of us like to “root for the underdogs,” most of us still want to be on the winning team. Just like sporting events can stir up feelings of allegiance, belongingness, and intense competition among viewers, political contests can get the whole nation riled up and ready to defend their candidates and hurl insults and taunts at the competition.

Getting an Emotional Charge

Politicians are masters at stirring up our emotions; they share their own dreams in such a way that their dreams become our dreams. When we feel excitement and eager anticipation of the outcomes politicians describe, we become increasingly ardent in our support of their efforts to make our now shared dreams a reality. They paint a picture of how their public efforts will change our personal worlds for the better and we are sold on what they are selling. It’s like “new car fever,” once you get a hint of how your self-image is going to increase once that brand new vehicle is sitting in your driveway, it is hard to be satisfied sitting behind the wheel of last year’s model. Politicians promise change and when someone dangles that carrot, we are off to the races!

When politicians stir up emotions, they are making their audience feel something – whether it is rebellion at the status quo, disgust for the opposing candidate, or passion about their platform. Research shows that emotions and politics are deeply intertwined (Petersen, Giessing, & Nielsen, 2015). The best way to get people to take action is to touch their emotions and give them a cause worth fighting for. We want our candidate to win, because we want to win. Competition takes us to a very primal place and when candidates paint a picture of a dark and desolate future if they are not elected, the fear of this outcome takes root and we are suddenly operating from a point of fear, which can lead us to fight dirty if the fear is strong enough or if we are overly zealous in our support for a candidate.

If a candidate is unable to touch our emotions, it is unlikely that even strong logic and a comprehensive, fact-based plan will move voters to place a sign in their yard or put cash in the campaign chest.

How to Talk About Politics Without Losing a Friend

  1. Recognize that our own identities get wrapped up in a candidate’s public identity – so when a person stands behind a candidate, they have identified with that candidate on a personal level. If you bash a friend’s candidate, your friend probably feels like you are bashing your friend, too.
  2. Know your friend and know her limits. If conflict makes her crumble, and you value the friendship, don’t intentionally or mean spiritedly attack her candidate.
  3. Think about how you feel when someone makes fun of your big dreams or big plans – your friend has probably taken ownership of the candidate's dreams as her own dreams.” Don’t shoot down a friend’s hopes for a better future – even if you “know” your own candidate’s dreams are far superior to that of your friend.
  4. Agree to disagree with your friends. If you both enjoy a lively debate – and the next official one isn’t scheduled for another week – then engage in a friendly debate with your friend and let the fur fly and the zingers launch. Set ground rules if necessary.
  5. If you are trying to convince a friend to change their candidate allegiance, encourage their emotions and focus on the positive outcomes possible from a win by “your” candidate. Don’t denigrate your friend’s candidate – that is equivalent to denigrating your friend.
  6. To keep the election conversation from getting out-of-hand with a friend, stick to the issues. Logical reasoning and platform minutiae are less likely to stir up heated arguments than reputations and attacks.
  7. Never let go of respect for your friend or your friend’s beliefs, if you value the relationship.
  8. Focus on the issues and potential solutions; don’t insult a friend to prove a point, keep the conversation on topic.
  9. Let your friends wave their “Terrible Towels,” if they are Steelers fans, or let them wear their cheeseheads proudly, if they pull for Green Bay. You don’t have to especially care for their teams, just because you especially care for them.
  10. Bear in mind, if a friend is a dyed-in-the-wool believer in their candidate, it is really unlikely that you will be successful in moving them to “your” team, anyway, so don’t go into the “friendly political discussion” with an aim to convince a friend to pull for your candidate. If you want to change someone’s mind, you will need to stir their emotions, inspire their hopes, and rouse their passion. Not always easy tasks, and if the friendship matters, don’t risk it to prove a point that may have no footing once an election is decided.

Reference

Petersen, M. B., Giessing, A., & Nielsen, J. (2015). Physiological Responses and Partisan Bias: Beyond Self-Reported Measures of Party Identification. PLoS ONE 10(5): e0126922. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0126922