How do you engage in political discussions with those you care about? For many, the answer is “I don’t!”
Others engage eagerly in these discussions, but find themselves repeatedly caught in the muck of destructive conflict. There is another way – one that allows for respectful discourse and even strengthened relationships.
In 2007, I was invited to participate in a small Los Angeles-based symposium for facilitators of Palestinian/Israeli dialogue groups. While in town, I took the opportunity to visit my grandmother. It was sure to be a welcome reprieve after the often heated political discussions of the symposium.
As I arrived at my grandmother’s house, my two uncles Stewart and Michael were also there, chatting amiably around the dining table. We got to talking about my business in the city. The conversation became animated, with my uncles taking opposing views about the value of dialogue groups in transforming inter-group violence. But suddenly this was not about the issues any more. It was becoming personal.
Something Stewart said, or the way he said it, made Michael’s temper flare. Fists clenched, he moved aggressively toward Stewart. With my heart racing, I leapt up from my chair, blocking his path toward his more elderly adversary. Michael shouted a threat in Stewart’s direction, of which I recall only the tone. Then he stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.
In the days and weeks following, the family became fractured. Stewart and Michael were estranged. My grandmother was no longer comfortable with Uncle Michael being at her house. Michael’s wife, my aunt, was caught in the middle. As the extended family heard of the incident, they chose sides. Before long, most of the lines of communication and relationship in the family had been altered. The incident was only the beginning of the real conflict.
My experience was disturbing, but I have come to realize that the emotional fragility that precipitated this incident is not especially unique within families. “Talking politics” unearths deep core values. When we interpret those values as being challenged or undermined by those we trust or with whom we share a bond, the feelings of defensiveness, indignation and even betrayal can be overwhelming. We can end up speaking and acting impulsively, which then feeds a cycle of escalation.
In some families or close-knit groups, emotions are expressed less directly than in my case – for example, through passive-aggressive behaviour, gossip and other attempts at finding validation. But the results on people and relationships can be just as damaging.
One common solution is to avoid talking politics altogether. There’s an unspoken code within some families: simply leave these issues at the door. While this strategy may work to prevent spectacles like mine, it often leaves people feeling that they are walking on eggshells with one another. A useful strategy in some cases, avoiding conflict can also cost us something vital in our closest relationships.
I believe we can benefit from taking the risk to engage in political conversations with those close to us, by considering some fundamentals of conflict.
- Set the Stage
Timing and setting matter a great deal in conflict. If people are distracted, intoxicated, already stressed or in a rush, the quality of conversation deteriorates. As conflict escalates and becomes more personal, the stress reaction in each person makes it hard to concentrate, express reasonable opinions or consider the impacts of our behaviour. Every family has a different tolerance for escalation, but generally when people begin to raise their voice, talk over one another or attack others’ character, the dialogue is no longer productive. Find a tactful or humorous way to suggest a break or change of subject.
- Affirm the Person
Underneath most conflict is the question, silently being asked by each party, “Am I being respected?” Answer this question overtly by using language and non-verbal cues that demonstrate respect. Make genuine eye contact. Lean in. Keep an open posture. Ask questions that are not designed to attack or corner the person, but instead to explore their views. Reflect back what you’re hearing of their meaning and fundamental concerns. Validate them by saying things like, “I can see where you’re coming from,” or “I appreciate your passion about this issue.” These cues will help to minimize anxiety for the other person, allowing them to explore issues with less defensiveness.
- Check Your Assumptions
Don’t become a casualty of unexamined beliefs about another person’s intentions or meaning. When someone catches you making a snap judgement about their intentions, they often take it as a criticism of their character. If something rubs you the wrong way, bring it up by objectively stating what was said or done, and inquiring about its meaning. “When you say, ‘Here we go again,’ what are you referring to?”
- Explore the Essential
People in conflict of all kinds will often state a position or “stance” on an issue, and work to defend this at all cost. Instead of arguing over positions or trying to prove them wrong, find out what’s important to them about it. What are the underlying concerns, goals and values that would motivate them to take that stance? When people see that their underlying interests are being understood and validated, they tend to become more flexible about their positions.
- Seek to Understand, Not to Persuade
We often assume that a successful conversation ends when the other person agrees with our opinion. What if the goal of the conversation with family and friends was simply to understand, and be understood? The reality is that very few political conversations actually change a person’s perspective – and the more we push, the more likely they are to dig in.
Politics is not just about opinions: political views are often linked to a person’s understanding of their own identity. If your friend or relative finds their personal identity or core sense of belonging in the world in their political views, no amount of rational persuasion will alter this. If a change will occur, it is because their identity slowly makes a shift in a different direction. Such a shift happens only out of a perception of safety: the more we feel threatened, the more we retreat into old ways of thinking and acting.
Understanding conflict dynamics, and maintaining habits like those offered here, takes commitment and practice. For those interested in honing their skills in conflict, there are plenty of opportunities. As a start, check out ACHIEVE’s upcoming conflict resolution workshops in your city.
I’m curious to hear: what other strategies can you offer that have helped you successfully navigate political conversations with friends and family?