Republicans and Democrats have become like a couple with marriage problems; they've become enemies. Political speeches too often degenerate into opportunities to malign and misinterpret opposing candidates.
The antagonism modeled by our leaders is echoed by media commentators and, alas, in political discussions between friends and family. Over-heated posturing with the denigration of differing viewpoints has become a cultural norm for talking about political topics.
This adversarial style, alas, especially puts male friendships at risk because politics is right up there with sports as far as topics men most often talk about.
The main alternative to argumentative discourse about political issues seems to have become avoidance altogether of political discussion. "Let's not talk politics!" That's sad for our country.
If you want to be sure that political discussions don’t wreck your relationships, and especially guy-to-guy friendships, pay attention to these eight damaging political discussion tactics.
A dismissive tone worthy of Rachel Maddow on MSNBC or O'Reilly on Fox may be what some folks want to listen to on TV, but it is rarely appealing to friends or a spouse.
Psychologist John Gottman’s marriage research has found that a sarcastic, dismissive attitude toward a partner’s comments is the single best predictor of divorce. That’s scary. A perpetual sneer vis-a-vis your opposing political party’s viewpoint wins no arguments and can lose you your loved ones.
2. Blocked listening
In healthy dialogue, each participant listens to better understand the other’s perspective. The mutual uptake of new information gradually leads to consensus and creative solutions.
By contrast, when folks who are talking politics listen only to argue away the other side’s input, participants develop increasingly negative feelings about each other. “But …, But …, But …” is likely to butt others out of your life. But erases what others say, and no one likes to feel erased.
For a summary of good and bad listening habits plus a quick self-assessment quiz, you might want to check out my blog post on listening patterns.
3. A fixed belief system
It's no fun talking politics to someone who is certain he has all the right answers. As beliefs consolidate into sets of ideas bounded by impenetrable walls, there will be increasing little uptake of non-confirmatory data, that is, ideas that differ from what you already believe. A fixed system of beliefs that allows for no additional data to enter is clinically termed as a delusional system. In the context of political discussions, we call a fixed belief system an ideology.
Discussions in which one or both partners have fixed ideological beliefs with zero uptake of non-confirmatory data degenerate quickly into a tug-of-war about who is right and who is wrong.
Discussion in which both sides learn from each other, increasingly broadening their understandings of issues, is healthy. Debate about who is right and who is wrong by contrast produces stalemated ideas and increasingly hostile relationships.
4. Unwillingness to engage (“Let’s not talk politics”) or to allow the other side to speak
A pattern I see increasingly, especially among younger Americans, is an unwillingness to allow the other side to speak. As soon as someone expresses a view that differs from their own, they walk away in fear or disgust, or talk louder and keep interrupting so alternative viewpoints cannot be expressed.
The ability to tolerate and learn from differences is essential to healthy friendships, a loving marriage, and a free society.
5. Distortion of what the other side says
Many speakers at the Republican and Democratic conventions used their air time to berate opposing candidates for what they ostensibly are thinking and saying. These strategic distortions, designed to malign their opponent, instead make the speaker look untrustworthy.
Distortions of an opponent's positions are lies. Many lies of this type are projections, that is, attributing to the other what the speaker himself thinks or does. If you hear what seems to be a false accusation, ask yourself what that accusation says about the speaker.
6. Speaking for the other (“He thinks that…”)
When folks use their air time in political discussions to misattribute negative motives and beliefs to members of the other political party, it is a big turn off to friends and family. Hearing someone misunderstand political leaders that you respect leads to feeling like they could easily similarly misinterpret you. Not safe to connect too closely with someone like that.
7. Bad-mouthing opposing perspectives
Derogatory labeling of the other side similarly risks hurting your relationships. It's a conversation ender. Far better as you listen to an opposing perspective to listen for something you can agree with. For example, if your friend advocates, "We've got to raise taxes so we can give folks who are having hard times more handouts," you might respond with, "I certainly agree that many people in this country need a helping hand." The more expression of agreement, the more the dialogue will feel productive.
As you then continue the dialogue by adding your perspective, be sure your link work is additive, i.e, and or and at the same time, not but.
8. Escalated emotional intensity
Friendly dialogue proceeds in gentle voice tones. As folks get increasingly adversarial, their voices get louder and the words flow faster. Unpleasant volumes and high-risk speeds make a continuation of the discussion, and maybe even of the relationship, feel unsafe.
The more anger, the more of a turn-off to others who have to listen. Also, the more anger, the less listening anyone in the conversation will be likely to do. Trying to listen to a point being made by someone who is angry is like trying to drink from a firehose. Ever tried that? Don’t. It hurts.
Angry folks make it hard for you to listen. They also become deaf themselves. When a person is mad, his viewpoint feels holy and others’ viewpoints seem to him totally insignificant. All he can hear is himself.
The moral of the story
If you want to enjoy healthy relationships when you are talking politics with your friends (and with lovers as well) and you are going to engage in a political discussion, remind yourself early and often to stay cool.
Keep your ears open so that you can listen for what makes sense in what others say. Treat what others say respectfully, listening in the best possible light to their differing perspective.
Add your own thoughts without downgrading others'. Again, keep your voice quiet and neutral. Avoid arguing, persuading, or stumping for your perspective. Just calmly put your thoughts out on the table. You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink.
If you want to be especially persuasive, talk less and instead ask questions. The best question begins with how or what, e.g., What is the most important factor for you as you decide whom to vote for as President? What's your understanding of what each candidate would do about that issue? How did you feel about ... ?
Asking people to explain their concerns often leads them to reassess more effectively than barraging them with information from your perspective. In addition, understanding their concerns enables you to focus your comments on the information that might make a difference to them.
If, when you've been talking politics, you can end with a conclusion about ways in which you both are right, you have earned a gold star. Wear it proudly, feeling good that your political discussion skills will protect your relationships, and that you have been a fine contributor to the democracy which makes our country so very special.
Learn more about the skills for sustaining goodwill in relationships when you and others have different viewpoints by reading the books by Denver psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D: The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook.