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Virginia Lawyers Wellness — How to have healthy conversations about politics

Though the pandemic may limit the amount of political conversations you have with family members this holiday season, it’s likely you’ll still run into quite a few in the upcoming months. And in a deeply divided political climate, it’s difficult to talk with others with opposing views without the conversation turning into a full blown screaming match. 

Political conversations have the potential to be healthy and enlightening, as long they are done with respect, and as long as each party listens to the other. Unfortunately, the “respect” factor is often hard to come by. Once the political discussion begins, people who start out with the best of intentions often become defensive, offensive and volatile.

So how can we talk about such touchy issues with people who fundamentally disagree with your views?

We have a few ideas for you to try.

Do your research. If you’re going to try to discuss or debate politics with someone, make sure you know what you’re talking about first. Before you state something as fact, research the details. Your argument won’t stand up if you misquote or misrepresent the facts, and your goal to educate another person on your political views will be moot if you aren’t sharing accurate information.

Avoid an accusatory tone. If you begin a conversation with someone who has an opposing political view, try to keep your tone cool and even without a hint of accusing someone of being anything negative. This can be difficult if the other party starts yelling; but if you keep your cool, at least you can walk away knowing you did everything you could to keep the conversation calm and constructive.

Listen to what others have to say. This can be the most difficult part of a political debate, especially if you vastly disagree with what another person is saying. But it’s important to give everyone a chance to speak before you break into a long discussion. We know it’s difficult not to interrupt when you agree or disagree strongly with something that is said. But hey, you’re lawyers. Your used to arguing with someone you disagree with and getting a zinger in when they’re done.

Avoid name-calling and foul language. The second someone calls another person in the group a derogatory name, the discussion immediately pivots from a political conversation to an unnecessary attack. Don’t be that person.

Ask questions. If you’re trying to educate another person about your political stance, it’s important that you do your part to hear about their views, as well. If you aren’t clear on a point that someone is making, ask specific questions to clarify. Then give the person a chance to answer without interruption. You may be surprised and learn something new.

Try to find common ground. Don’t assume that just because you follow an opposing political party that you disagree on all issues. There must be something you can agree on, or you wouldn’t be friends (Note: This rule may not apply to drunk extended family members).

Give praise when you can. When the other person makes a good point, even if you don’t agree with the general concept, give him or her credit by saying something like, “I can see your point,” or “I still don’t agree, but I can see where you’re coming from.” Using constructive language shows that you’re listening and can help prevent the conversation from becoming heated. 

Don’t take anything personally. This is difficult to do, but don’t consider yourself affronted just because someone disagrees with your political views.

Ask what your intentions are of starting the discussion. Are you instigating a political conversation to educate a family member or friend? Are you bringing up politics because you want to have a constructive conversation, or because you’re feeling feisty and want to knock another person down a peg? Carefully evaluate your intentions before starting a political debate. If you go into the talk with guns ablazing, chances are nothing productive will come out of it. 

Know when to end the conversation. If the conversation has not come to a resolution, and if resolving your differences seems impossible, you may want to find an appropriate time to end the discussion. Try your best to do it calmly and peacefully. This can be done by shifting the conversation to a different topic. However you choose to end the conversation, reinforce maintaining the connection you have with the other person and that this conversation doesn’t have to get in the way of your relationship, if you don’t want it to. 

It’s important to remember that disagreeing with someone you care about is okay. If you are concerned about potentially difficult conversations at family activities or gatherings with your friends, remember these events are about bringing people together, not driving them apart.