Thanksgiving get-togethers often turn to political conversations. It has recently become popular for partisan groups to prepare their soldiers for this battle, and I see many talking points in social media. Sure, I could do that, but instead, here are some non-partisan tips for productive conversations:
1. Treat the pros and the part-timers differently.
There are the pros who live politics, have real experience in it, and can have a fun argument without it getting too personal. You can try to score points with the pros, as they realize it’s mostly a game and they know that their side is wrong sometimes. The part-timers, who just watch partisan TV and like politics, often take things personally and are too upset about the latest outrage on cable television. Never get into a destructive argument with the part-timers. It doesn’t work out. Instead, retreat to safe ground and don’t argue. It is important to realize that the biggest risk in any unplanned group political conversation is not that people disagree. It is that the part-timers ruin the conversation because they don’t know how to disagree in a civil manner. (I have, on rare occasions, been among only pros – even with different views – and no one ever got hurt in those conversations.)
2. Seek agreement.
It is often better to pull back from the latest outrage and agree on higher-level themes, especially when things get testy. So people might disagree about the value of the health care law, but I think most people would agree that the government is trying to do too much and isn’t good at large projects. Even if you want to disagree about something specific, it always improves the quality of the conversation to first establish agreement on something more fundamental, if possible. At least you then know what you’re arguing about.
3. Concede things!
Our hyperpartisan political culture teaches us to concede nothing. It’s terrible for our national debates. It’s much better in a conversation to admit some things your side has done wrong, or some deficiencies in your argument. It reduces tension and encourages others to do the same thing. This is a great habit to get into to improve your conversations.
4. It’s OK to declare things off-limits.
There are topics that are just not going to work out. It’s really OK for someone to say in a calm voice, “You know, I really enjoy our political conversations, but I think this topic is just going to upset people and get us nowhere.” Even if people still want to talk about it, that warning usually reduces the risk of that topic.
5. Improve the conversation, don’t dominate it.
If you are one of the pros, it’s usually better to inject non-partisan information that enriches the conversation than to try to go for the knockout punch. This happens to me all the time. Someone says something that is either untrue or not relevant and it would be so easy to strike back. Instead, I will calmly give some background information or a useful anecdote, without fighting them. You can also do this while being partisan – giving good information that helps your side. It’s always better to win a partisan argument with non-partisan evidence rather than partisan attacks.
6. Bring in other voices.
Often, someone is sitting quietly and listening. When things get rough or non-productive, I will often ask the quiet guy his opinion, and try to make it easier to contribute by asking him or her something related to their life or professional experience. Even people who get hot under the collar will usually yield to someone who hasn’t spoken in a while, and it can reduce the tension.
7. It is good to show respect for age and life experience.
Older people who have seen a lot usually have wisdom about people and politics. Yes, they can be wrong – especially in areas where we are seeing lots of change. But it is healthier to let them have the last word or to not challenge them too much. It is hard for 30-year-olds to tolerate someone saying something they don’t agree with, but letting a senior citizen say something doesn’t mean that younger people agree. People get that.
8. Silence is not agreement.
Don’t forget that it is perfectly OK to let someone state something as fact that isn’t. It’s OK to just indicate with your facial expression or body language that you didn’t agree with that. Not everything must be challenged, even though partisan media has trained us to believe that. If you’re sitting in a group, a frown from a wise person carries a lot of weight. It’s also perfectly fine to say nothing at all, most of the time.
9. Humor – but not sarcasm – is usually better than attacking a nonsensical position
So much of our politics would be improved by people using wit rather than indignation.
10. Admit when you don’t know a lot about something.
It’s perfectly OK to say about a topic – particularly a risky one – “You know I have not had the time to follow that.” This relieves you of the burden of responding to someone. Sure, they may decide to bulldoze you with their point of view, but as I said above, you can just listen without agreeing.
11. Surrender often works great!
Sometimes when a topic is exhausted or it is going badly, I will say something like, “Well, I guess you will get the last word on that.” (If I doubt they will accept that, I will often say that while leaving the room to get a beer.) If the conversation really is going nowhere or is destructive, no one will think you lost the argument, they will just be grateful that you helped everyone move on.