The world we live in today is arguably more politically divisive than it has ever been before. Brexit has caused strong differences of opinion among people in the UK and Europe, while the election of Donald Trump has harshly divided the US along party lines. Differences of political opinion are so likely to cause heated arguments and resentment nowadays that many people feel inclined to avoid talking about politics with friends, family, and coworkers altogether, lest it should damage relationships. The big question is, can we still have civil discussions about political issues? Is it even worth risking the potential damage in order to do so?
The temptation to avoid talking about politics with people whose opinions differ from our own is strong. It often leads to pointless, circular arguments in which feelings are hurt and nothing is gained on either side. However, discussions about political issues are an important part of living in a democratic nation, and in a sense, it is more important now than ever that we do talk about the issues that make us uncomfortable. The key is how we approach these conversations.
What is the best way to talk about deeply divisive issues like Brexit, immigration, abortion, or any other number of others without alienating ourselves from the people close to us? Experts in communication say that the important thing is the mindset with which we go into these difficult conversations. One of the biggest problems with talking about politics is that everyone tends to think their beliefs are the only right ones. When we have certain beliefs that we hold onto strongly, it can feel extremely difficult, or even impossible, to listen to people who contradict us, so we try to force our opinions onto our conversation partners rather than listening to what they have to say. However, it’s extremely difficult to change someone’s mind about something, especially after just one conversation. Instead, you’re more likely to come across as condescending and insulting, which helps no one.
The thing most of us need to focus on more is listening. If we don’t at least listen to people with opposing opinions, we can’t ever figure out how people on the other side of an issue think or where we can find common ground on which to build compromises. Conversations about politics are more effective if we view them as an opportunity to learn about another person’s perspective rather than as a verbal sparring match. If we respectfully listen to other people share their opinions and experiences and share our own without trying to make ourselves seem superior, we stand to have a more successful conversation that won’t leave either side feeling put down.
That is, of course, easier said than done. We all tend to be extremely passionate about certain issues, especially the ones that impact our lives directly. It may feel strange or even wrong to entertain ideas that conflict with our own, but really, that’s all we can usually do without the conversation devolving into an argument. In a best case scenario, you may actually learn something new, and worst case, you can agree to disagree and move on. Listening and being civil is in no way a compromise of our values, so you don’t have anything to lose.
Ultimately, as long as both sides are willing to agree to adhere to basic rules of politeness and open-mindedness, political discussions are still worth having. Our democracies, after all, do depend on informed and thoughtful citizens getting involved with their communities and the political process. Listening to others may be hard, but it is one of the most fundamental ways to do that.