You’ve probably had something like this happen to you: a friend, co-worker, or family member tells you about their political views or their opinions about a hot-button topic. You quickly realize that your views or opinions are squarely on the opposite side of the issue. What do you do?
I think you have a couple of options:
A) Quickly change the topic to something less controversial. (“Can you believe this weather?” “How about those [insert name of local sports team here]?”)
B) Launch into a passionate defense of your side of the issue, getting angrier and more frustrated as the argument escalates. (“Why can’t you be a reasonable human being and just agree that I’m right?”)
C) Try to engage them in a conversation that helps both of you understand – even if you don’t end up agreeing with – the other person’s perspective.
(Just to be clear – I’m differentiating between choosing to have conversations about reasonable differences in political opinions and the absolute imperative we have to call out those who promote violence, hate, or any form of discrimination. I do not think that we should give hate speech a place at the table in the name of “fairness” or “balancing perspectives.”)
So which option should you choose?
Weighing the Options
The common political disagreements we run into at work or home can certainly lead to uncomfortable conversations. Depending on how we handle those conversations, they may even damage our relationships. Honestly, it can be really hard to talk politics with people who disagree with us.
Option A is probably the easiest choice to make (and in some cases, the most appropriate – maybe the office holiday party isn’t the time to get into a potentially contentious conversation).
Option B might be very satisfying in the moment – after all, righteous indignation can feel pretty darn good sometimes.
Neither of these options, though, will likely win over any hearts or minds. In fact, Option B may do just the opposite, causing both people to dig in their heels and defend their side, no matter the cost to the relationship.
The Question that Makes a Difference
So what can you do if you want to try Option C – engage in a healthy conversation that helps you understand each other better?
Try asking the other person the question, “Why do you feel that way?” Then listen. Intently. Without formulating your rebuttal. Just listen.
Being willing to hear their rationale can give you insight into what really matters to them. It may even help you make a counterargument that is meaningful to them.
Values and Politics
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt studies the moral roots of our political beliefs. He and some other psychologists believe that we share a set of universal moral foundations that we each prioritize in different ways. They believe that we each view the world – and form our political opinions – based on which of these values we hold most dear.
These values are Care, Loyalty, Fairness, Authority, Liberty, and Sanctity.
When you can identify which values are at the heart of the other person’s particular belief, then you can make a case that might appeal to that specific value. For example, someone who supports strict immigration standards may value Sanctity and Authority. Someone who supports universal health coverage may value Care and Fairness. If you’re on the other side of the political spectrum from either person, what can you say that may be persuasive to them, based on what they value?
Even if you don’t end up changing the other person’s mind, a conversation that revolves around the core values that shaped each person’s opinions can be meaningful and eye-opening. You might also walk away feeling like you understand each other a little bit more. And in times as divided as these, couldn’t we all use a little more understanding?