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Give the gift of political discourse: 5 tips for political conversations with family
By Jennifer Wolowic, Naomi Perks, and Nicole Armos
Were you brought up in a home where you were told never to discuss politics, sex or religion at the dinner table, but you know that’s what makes for interesting dinner parties? We at SFU’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue agree with you. Not only does talking about issues that matter make the conversation more interesting, but research shows that when we try to engage in political discourse – especially with those who hold beliefs that are different from our own – we are actually strengthening our democratic culture.
This holiday season, use our tips for political conversations with family and give the gift of political discourse. Not only will you build your own skills and gain a better understanding of Auntie Karen’s viewpoints, you'll also discover the two of you actually share some common ground. And who knows, maybe she’ll finally share the secret of her legendary holiday dessert.
Tip #1: Tell stories
Stories help create a welcoming tone for everyone to share their views and feel heard.
“I never get tired of reminding people that data does not change minds. You can be given poll after poll after poll, survey after survey after survey, challenging your view on something, and it doesn't matter. What changes your mind is relationships and storytelling. They work on a completely different part of you. They're dealing with your emotions, rather than your reason."
- Reza Aslan
Rather than stating your opinion as fact and arguing with others until they see your side or storm away, talk about your experiences and how they relate to your thoughts. Be honest about how your and others' stories make you feel. By adding context and meaning to your position, you create opportunities for connection and empathy.
“I think this topic is important, let me tell you a story about the other day..."
“I worry about this issue because...”
Ask others to share their stories too. Ask them to tell you about a time they had an experience that ties to the issue. Then share your story. Asking questions before you share your opinion is also a great way to keep the conversation friendly and interesting.
Tip #2: Channel your inner Oprah
In line with sharing stories and asking questions, think about how Oprah became a legend by getting her guests to open up and share. By doing the same with your family about social or political issues, you give the gift of discussion, not debate. All stories are important and deserve to be told, not just the ones that you agree with. You don’t have to take the other person’s side. What you have to do is listen and look for a place of understanding.
One way to keep the conversation flowing is to tell folks you are "going to put on your facilitator (or Oprah) hat." Then paraphrase what you are hearing, ask probing questions, or seek clarification with phrases such as:
“I think I hear you say….is that what you meant?”
“When I listen to both of you, I hear some things in common... But you're saying it in different ways.”
“Let's hear from the others, does anyone else want to weigh in…?
We’re not going to lie, at times discussions around social and political issues can get heated, and that’s OK. To avoid this, think of yourself as a facilitator or a TV show host. If this idea makes you nervous, there is likely someone in your family who already plays this role—learn from them!
And if tensions do get a little higher than you’d like, you can always embrace your inner Oprah and offer everyone eggnog—Oprah style.
Joking releases endorphins that can keep a conversation rolling. Having a sense of humour helps political conversations.
Tip 3# Hide the cell phones
Cell phones may allow us to feel closer to people when we aren’t near them. But when we are together in person, cell phones can hurt our in-person interactions.
Research shows that just having a cellphone visible, even if it is upside down or off, actually harms conversation. People are distracted, even if the phone isn’t asking for their attention. These negative impacts become more significant when talking about something meaningful.
If you put a cell phone into a social interaction, it does two things: First, it decreases the quality of what you talk about, because you talk about things where you wouldn’t mind being interrupted…and, secondly, it decreases the empathic connection that people feel toward each other.
- Sherry Turkle
Just having a cellphone visible in the room when you are having meaningful discussions with your relatives can hamper your ability to find common ground. Give your conversations a better chance for success by leaving your phone in another room and asking guests to follow suit!
Tip #4: Never say the words, “you’re wrong.”
As soon as you tell someone they are wrong, they are more likely to grab tight to that opinion and get defensive. Research shows telling someone they are incorrect is a great way to actually increase their commitment to the idea.
Rather than becoming more tolerant thanks to interactions with others who do not share her firm beliefs, a strongly opinionated person will strengthen her prior views and become more hostile toward the other side.
- Magdalena Wojcieszaks
This holiday season, leave aside the arguing, convincing and advocating. Approach family time as a way to learn why members of your family think the way they do. Find what emotions are under the surface of their stories and name them. Try saying:
“I can see how you would feel…”
“What about what I am saying do you find frustrating? Can you tell me more about why?”
Acknowledging someone else’s perspective doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. Their opinions might still feel wrong to you, but by encouraging others to elaborate on their opinions, you might learn something new. If you feel yourself wanting to argue, try repeating back to them what you think you heard and ask if it’s right. Often you will discover there is another layer to their thinking that you missed.
Tip #5: Don’t be afraid; conversation is a treasure hunt
The way that you reach people is by finding common ground. It’s by separating ideas from identity and being genuinely open to persuasion.
- Julia Dhar
Although you may hold opposite views on a topic, when you ask open-ended questions and give the other person a chance to answer, you may discover common ground.
When you listen with the intent of uncovering emotions and stories you can empathize with, you will find golden moments of new understanding. Treasure these moments by saying,
“I found what you said interesting. I think we can agree that…”
“Is it fair to say that…”
"I can see how that makes sense to you because..."
When you keep the conversation about the issues and not about the person, you are also more likely to open yourself up to accepting other people’s perspectives. You may not win your relative over to your side of the issue, but you may find that you both end up with a better understanding of each other’s views and a new source of mutual respect.
References and further reading:
Reza Aslan https://www.vox.com/culture/2016/11/23/13708622/talking-to-family-about-politics-arguments
Sherry Turkle https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_smartphones_are_killing_conversation
Julia Dhar https://www.ted.com/speakers/julia_dhar
Gastil, J., Black, L. & Moscovitz, K. (2008). Ideology, attitude change, and deliberation in small face-to-face groups. Political Communication, 25(1), 23046.
Himmelroos, S. & Christensen, H. S. (July 2018). The potential of deliberative reasoning: Patterns of attitude change and consistency in cross-cutting and like-minded deliberation. Acta Politica.
Kuhar, M., Krmelj, M., & Petrič, G. (2019). The impact of facilitation on the quality of deliberation and attitude change. Small Group Research 50(5), 623-653.
Wojcieszak, M. (2011). Deliberation and attitude polarization. Journal of Communication 61, 596-617.
Wojcieszak, M. (2012). On strong attitudes and group deliberation: relationships, structure, changes and effects. Political Psychology 33(2), 225-242.
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