How to Discuss Politics (Or Any Other Sensitive Topic) Without Hostility

We live in a polarized society.  It is difficult for people who hold different viewpoints to have a reasonable discussion.  If someone disagrees with us, they are crazy, stupid, or out of touch.  Facebook is the worst culprit.  Take a look at virtually any political meme on Facebook.  It will tell you just how stupid the other side is and just how smart the people are who agree with the meme.

This is a formula for disaster.  We have to learn to speak to each other.

Why Debates Don’t Work

It is possible.  The key to having a difficult discussion is to stop thinking of it as a debate and to start thinking of it as a kind of shared problem solvingDebates are rarely effective in influencing someone else on an important issue.  That’s because they aren’t supposed to!   Debates competitions.  They are about winning and losing.  Debates are showing how smart we.  People rarely change their position in a debate because doing so means that they have lost.  If I lose the debate, I lose face.  I am ashamed.

The trick to genuine problem solving is to stop trying to convince the other person of the merits of your position.  Does this sound strange?  I’m sure it does.   How can I influence someone if I don’t try to convince them of why my view is the better one?   Well, the best way to NOT convince someone is to try to tell them that your view is the better one.  When that happens, the other person will become defensive.  At that point, you have lost all hope of reaching a meeting of the minds.

How to Have a Real Problem Solving Discussion

Here are some steps that can change a potentially hostile conversation into a collaborative one.

  1. Stop trying to convince the other person that you are right.  Try to step outside of the “debate” mindset.  Don’t think of yourself as trying to win something.  Instead, think of yourself as trying to figure out why the other person thinks the way that they do.
  1. Seek the humanity in the other person. This is perhaps the most important step.  Our knee-jerk response these days is to immediately see the person who disagrees with us as some sort of horrible person with evil intentions.  When we do this, our first impulse will be to knock the other person down.  Don’t.  Do exactly the opposite.  Work to see the other person as a human being with his or her own interests, beliefs, fears and vulnerabilities.   Have compassion.  Think of the other person as a human being who is doing the best that he or she can with the resources that he or she has available.  After all, doesn’t that describe you?  Why should you think the other person is any different?  “Be kind, as everyone you meet is fighting a great battle” (Philo).
  1. Seek to understand the interests, concerns and fears that motivate the person to take this position. This is central.  Beneath any opinion or position is a series of interests and beliefs that motivate that position.  A person’s position is their “opinion”, “side” or “stance” in an argument.  Look right past that.  Try to find the need, interest, fear or grievance that motivates that person’s opinion.   Even if you don’t agree with the person – even if you hate what they are saying – express genuine interest in finding out what problem they are trying to solve by taking the position in question.
  1. After you identify each other’s interests (without judgment), negotiate (seek new ways to solve the problem being discussed) from interests – not positions. This is a key step. Once you and your partner have both articulated the real interests and fears about the issue at hand, you can begin to brainstorm together.   Your job becomes one of seeking to find novel solutions to the problem at hand in ways that bring together, reconcile, or coordinate the genuine interests of each party.

When this happens, we might not find that we always resolve the differences between us, but we can make a great deal of progress toward doing so.

An Example

Here is an example.  Imagine that Alice and Andy are discussing economic inequality.  Here is a familiar scenario:

Alice:   Rich people drive me crazy.  They have so much money, but they won’t pay their fair share of taxes.  The rich in this country are selfish.

Andy:   Are you one of those bleeding heart liberals?  So, just how much money do you give to charity?  You want the government to solve everyone’s problems for them!

Alice:     I can’t believe you can think that way.  Don’t you care about poor people?  We need taxes to provide the services that people need and to bring people up to a decent standard of living.

Andy:    Rich people are the people who create jobs.  If you take their money, they won’t be able to create jobs for the poor people you care about so much.

And so forth.  This conversation is going nowhere.  How might it go differently?

What would happen if Alice and Andy were to assume that the other person was not crazy, stupid or evil, but instead had honest reasons why they felt the way they did.  What would happen if each person – without negative judgment – sought to genuinely understand those reasons?  What would happen if each partner tried to understand the interests behind each other’s positions – even if each person hated the positions of the other?

In this dialogue, let’s pretend that Alice is a liberal minded person who is trying to engage Andy in a problem solving discussion.  Let’s assume that Andy is a conservative individual, is interested in the topic, but does not know the how to have a problem solving discussion like Alice does.  (Note: We can easily switch the roles here and make Andy the one withe problem-solving knowledge.  In fact, a dialogue with Andy in the lead is provided below.)

Dialogue What Makes This Better
Alice:   I am very concerned about the problems of poor people in this country.  The poor have so little.  I believe that we should raise taxes on rich people so that we can fund programs for the poor. Alice starts off by stating her interests – that she is concerned for the poor.  She suggests a solution but does not cast blame for the problem.
Andy:   I not sure that I agree.  Taxing the rich is not going to solve the problem. Although Andy states disagreement, he does not demean Alice or her position.
Alice:     Hmm.  Tell me more.  Why do you think that? Instead of becoming defensive, Alice seeks to understand why Andy feels this way.
Andy:    Rich people create jobs.  If you task the rich, they won’t be able to create as many jobs for poor people. Andy states his reasoning.
Alice:     So, you seem to be concerned about making sure that people who create jobs have the resources to do so. Alice summarizes what Andy has said, and tries to identify what Andy’s real interests are.  This makes Andy feel heard and safe enough to reveal them.
Andy:    I get so tired of liberals with their “tax the rich” strategies.  If someone has a business, they deserve to reap the rewards of that business. And poor people have to realize that they have to work to gain wealth. Because he feels safe enough to do so, Andy is venting here.  He is saying some things that Alice is likely to find quite distasteful.
Alice:     So, you also want to make sure that people who work hard and become wealthy don’t get penalized for having done so.   And you are worried that some people want to get benefits without working for them. Alice doesn’t take the bait.  Even though she disagrees, Alice continues to try to understand and summarize – without judgment — Andy’s real interests and fears.  (He is afraid that that his money will be taken away; he believes that poor people are taking advantage of the system).

Now, what has happened?  We have not solved any problems yet.  But at least the conversation is moving.   By acting of compassion, and attempting to understand why Andy feels as he does, Andy has been able to identify some of Andy’s interests.  Even though Alice is probably frustrated and angry with Andy’s statements, she doesn’t attack them.  Instead, she acknowledges them without judgment.

To acknowledge the other person’s interests and beliefs – even if they are distasteful – is not giving in.   You can acknowledge, understand, and even empathize with someone’s interests and fears without agreeing with them.   Ask yourself, “If I felt like the other person, would it be possible that I would take a similar position?”  If you find a way to say “yes” to that question, you will have understood the other person – but without agreeing.

For example, Alice may not agree that taxing the wealthy is the same as taking away earned income, but can she see how Andy might think so?  Alice may not agree that wealthy people are the only ones who create jobs, but can she see how Andy might think this?  Alice may not agree that poor people try to take advantage of government programs, but can she appreciate that this is something that Andy genuinely fears?   If so, she can have compassion for Andy, without agreeing with him.

Continuing the Thread

Acknowledging and accepting the other person’s interests and fears is not giving in.  Acknowledging is not the same as agreeing or sanctioning the other’s view.  Instead, it is merely the first step to a genuine problem solving discussion.  After Alice works to identify Andy’s genuine interests, fears and concerns, it will be her turn to do the same thing.  She should identify her own interests – but without blame or defensiveness.  For example, she might say:

Dialogue What Makes This Better
Alice:     I’m sure that there are poor folks who abuse the system.  I know a lot of poor people, however, who work hard but still have difficulty getting ahead.  For example, my friend Eric got a football scholarship to go to a small college, but he wasn’t raised by parents with an education. He finds himself falling behind in school.  How would you go about helping people like him? Without agreeing entirely, Alice acknowledges the validity in Andy’s fear that poor people abuse the system.  She then provides a concrete counter-example – something that cannot simply be explained away.  She then asks Andy to offer a solution that would not be inconsistent with Andy’s core interests and concerns.
Andy:    People who don’t abuse the system and work hard should be helped out.  I would be open to finding ways to support kids like Eric. Andy could have responded in many ways.  Feeling as though his interests are being heard, Andy suggests that some assistance may be offered to people who do not “abuse the system”.
Alice:     Where would the money come from? In asking an open-ended question, Alice invites alternative suggestions for advancing her interest.
Andy:    There could be a tax credit given to corporations to fund full scholarships for students who show promise. Andy proposes a solution that is consistent with his belief system, but which also acknowledges that many poor people are deserving of assistance.

Now, we have not solved the problems of poverty.  Alice and Andy still disagree about a great deal of things.  Alice probably does not see Andy’s solution as something that will solve the problems of poor people.  But Alice and Andy have proposed one possible solution that neither one of them would have been likely to propose alone.  It would have been easy for this conversation to degenerate at many different points.  However, by seeking deep understanding and acknowledging his interests, Alice was able to structure a discussion that led to a positive outcome that neither could have foreseen.


The Same Issue — But With the Conservative Individual Leading the Discussion 

Dialogue What Makes This Better
Alice:   I am very concerned about the problems of poor people in this country.  The poor have so little and the rich are so often just selfish.  We need to raise taxes on the 1% Alice starts off by stating her interests – that she is concerned for the poor.  But then she immediate begins to blame conservatives for the problem.  Her solution is to tax wealthy people — but she uses the pejorative “tax the 1%” — which immediately sets up a fight — not a problem solving conversation.
Andy:   Yes, we do have a problem with the poor in our country.  It seems as though you don’t feel that wealthy people are doing their part.  Tell me more about why you think that. In this dialogue, Andy is the one who knows how to have a problem solving discussion.  So, he doesn’t take the bait.  He is going to be bigger than Alice.  He starts by acknowledging the interests that Alice has stated so far.  Then, rather than being defensive, he is going to try to get Alice to further articulate her interests, fears and concerns.
Alice:     Well, 1% of the people in the nation hold 40% of the wealth. Go look it up!  The rich want to keep as much as they can for themselves.  Taxes on the rich can go for better schools, to build homes for the homeless, to improve inner cities. Because Andy has not challenged her, Alice does not become defensive.  Instead, she sees this as an opportunity to state her thoughts.  (People like to state their thoughts).  She doesn’t know how to have a problem-solving discussion, so she is not going to be very good at stating her thoughts without being offensive.
Andy:  You are are very passionate advocate for the poor!   I agree that we must find a way to help poor people.  I know you think that wealthy people should pay more taxes.  However, I have some worries about that.  When people own a business, they put a lot of time ,work and money into it.  If I work hard and build a business, I want to know that I will be able to keep some profit.  Does that seem reasonable to you? At this point, most people in Andy’s shoes would be fuming and ready to retaliate.  Don’t do that!   He knows what Alice’s interests are — to help the poor.  Andy starts by acknowledging Alice’s interests.  He then goes on to state his own interests and fears, but without blame.  Without blame, Andy describes HIS worry or fear here — that he, as a wealthy person — would not be allowed to keep the profits that he worked so hard for.
Alice:  Yes, of course people should be allowed to make a profit.  But not at the expense of workers!  Many workers don’t have health insurance!  And they have to go on food stamps even though they have a full time job! Although it may seem as though Alice hasn’t changed her mind about much, some common ground is already being created here.  Alice wants Andy (and people like him) to be able to make a profit.  We now have the beginnings of a problem solving conversation.
Andy:   Yes, many people are working hard and still not getting by.  This is a problem.  I wonder — how do you think we can improve the situation of poor people while still allowing business people to make the profits that they feel they deserve?  There must be many ways that this can be done! Again, Andy resists the temptation to fight back and deny what Alice says.  Instead, again, he begins by acknowledging Alice’s concerns.  He then asks the problem solving question: How can both Alice and Andy advance both of their interests — helping the poor while enabling businesses to make profits.
Alice:   Well, of course!  We can let businesses keep profits –but the don’t need to keep all of their profits!  They can still pay their fair share of taxes. So, we have one possible solution that is intended to meet both Alice’s and Andy’s interests.  Neither side is likely to find this perfect…but it’s a start.
Andy:  That is one solution it seems to me.  But are there others?  What about encouraging wealthy people to give the charitable causes?  To open businesses in poor neighborhoods.  What if government gave tax credits for businesses to hire and train poor people? Andy acknowledges Alice’s solution as a reasonable one.  He goes on to list many other solutions.  These solutions may not seem perfect to Alice, but they at least begin to address her interests (help the poor).  A constructive conversation has begun.

Is it possible for them to keep talking to create solutions that will meet both of their interests, without either of them “giving in”?  This cannot always happen. But it can happen more — far more — than we think it can.


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