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How to Make Political Conversations More Productive

Listening, sharing, and working with complexity

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Source: cco public domain

There is an emotionally charged atmosphere in our country right now. Day after day, we hear of another tragedy, another bewildering act of violence, another nasty attack on a rival’s character. Terrorism, racism, radicalism, and divisive politics are running hot. They stir in us outrage and helplessness, and tend to draw us into their psychological web so that we enact, in our personal lives, the very dynamics that we feel so troubled by. From the evening news to our social media feeds, from political speeches to water cooler conversations, it is easy to see how the contagion of negativity spreads.

As a psychoanalyst, I feel that I should try to offer something productive about this toxic dynamic. While it is intimidating to do so, here are my thoughts about ways to make political conversations more productive. I offer these suggestions to help further political conversations in our personal, social circles. I leave it up to the reader to consider their application to larger political conversations.

Try to minimize splitting and projection

Under the pressure of anxiety and confusion, it is a natural human tendency to try to find safety in splitting and projection. By splitting, we rigidly separate “us” from “them.” Through projection, we build up a view of the other as very, very bad (ignorant, mean, criminal, selfish, etc.) while viewing ourselves as very, very good (smart, right, moral, virtuous, etc.). The net result is that we come to believe that we are right and the other is wrong. End of conversation.

The antidote to splitting and projection is to recognize our commonalities by acknowledging our own limitations and trying to see the good in others. When we see ourselves and others as complex, whole people, there is a greater likelihood of coming together productively.

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Source: cco public domain

Try to stay with the conversation in a respectful way

Productive political conversations take time and a lot of mental effort. Often, early on, there is a temptation to shut down the conversation because upsetting feelings enter the scene. An easy way out is to say to the other person, “That’s stupid” or something to that effect. It is far more helpful to try to contain those impulsive, negative, conversation-killing comments, and stay with the conversation a little longer, with a cooler head. This allows more time for something productive to emerge.

Listen more and ask intelligent questions

If you want to stay with a conversation in a productive way, listen more. Often, we are so invested in our point of view that we try to shove it down the other person’s throat. This rarely leads to anything productive. Instead, be curious. People have different points of view, sometimes quite legitimately different points of view. Ask intelligent questions. Try to really understand where the other person is coming from. Approach the conversation with an expectation that you might learn something that would help you more fully understand a complex situation.

Give the benefit of the doubt

Being able to listen and ask intelligent questions rests on a fundamental attitude: giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. If we can ride herd on our own know-it-all attitudes, we stay open to the possibility that the other person might have something useful to say. This is a non-judgmental posture, a posture of openness and receptivity.

Explain your view in a clear and humble way

For a conversation about politics (or anything else) to be productive, it is crucial for each person to be able to articulate his or her point of view. Gathering your thoughts and putting them into words actually helps you clarify what you believe, regardless of its impact on the other person. If you can be humble as you go about it, you also get to listen to yourself and consider that there might be limitations, biases, or inaccuracies in your point of view. A humble attitude also makes room for the other person to weigh in—in a non-defensive and non-aggressive way. It paves the way for a back-and-forth conversation which is motivated by a search for understanding rather than the need to be right.

Link your opinions to your concerns

If you want to overcome a stalemate in a conversation, it is useful to shift from arguing selected facts to sharing what you are really concerned about. This brings a level of vulnerability to the conversation. After all, political conversations are rooted in very personal concerns for our own safety and livelihood, for the health of our communities, and for our family’s future well-being. When we link our conversations to these more tender concerns, the atmosphere shifts and we have the opportunity to find common ground.

cco public domain
Source: cco public domain

Research the facts from more than one credible source

Splitting and projection, arrogance and a know-it-all attitude are greatly fueled by the tendency to base our views on our emotions and vague impressions rather than the facts. Similarly, they are compounded by a tendency to get our facts from poor sources or from a single source with its inevitably limited point of view. Instead, look things up. Search for more information about an issue you are discussing. Use your best judgment. Ask yourself if the statistic you are using is accurate. Is that meme you saw on Facebook based in reality or something just made up for shock value? And dig deep. Look at more than one source. The picture is complex so it helps to have more than one credible point of view.

Emphasize your desire to be constructive

The most productive way to approach a conversation is to view ourselves on the same side—the side of wanting to be constructive, healthy, safe, and prosperous. The more we can come together around these shared values, the more we can talk with one another. This allows us to feel understood, to share the frustration and discouragement together rather than to be alone with it. Being together in the face of difficulties is a small but mighty consolation.

While I recognize that these are modest suggestions in the face of big problems, I hope that you will find them useful. Who knows the positive impact that our personal productive conversations might have on the bigger picture? I think that all we can do is try to live in the spirit of Dorothy Day who said, “Let's build a society where it's easier for people to be good to each other.”

Copyright 2016 by Jennifer Kunst, PhD

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