By Dalton Langdon, DCI Fellow
The holidays are a time for gathering and spending time with loved ones. For many, the process of going home around the holidays is not always seen as a joyous occasion, but one of contention and argument – especially during an election year. If you are anything like me, you’ve probably thought long and hard about what you might say to your family this year about the current political atmosphere. You may have even practiced what you are going to say, fact checked yourself, or geared yourself up like you’re going to take the stage for debate. I am here to say there is an alternative approach to discussing politics with family…the path of deliberative conversation.
Through the Deliberative Citizenship Initiative, I have learned a few different skills I would like to share with you now to help ease you through the holiday season. However, before we lean into these skills, I want to first dissuade you of the notion that swearing off politics altogether is the key to a quiet, stress-free holiday break. While many think avoiding the topic of politics is the smartest move to avoid conflict, I respectfully disagree. By avoiding these difficult conversations, we allow feelings of resentment to fester and grow, until finally they are unleashed in a whirlwind of barbarous insults. Instead of playing the proverbial ostrich with our heads in the sand, I instead suggest we all consider using the following framework when having our next contentious political conversation: 1) set the stage and expectations, 2) listen with strength, 3) ask probing questions, 4) find common ground, and 5) show grace.
Set the Stage and Expectations
Before engaging with a relative this holiday season on a controversial topic, first ask yourself “what do I hope to gain from this conversation and what is my intent?” The objective of having an informal and unstructured conversation should not be to change the other person’s mind or win the conversation, but to gain perspective. Set this expectation early and make your intention well known. Disagreement will happen, that is natural; productive deliberations depend on how you react and your willingness to understand the other person’s point of view.
Listen with Strength
Listening with strength is all about active listening without judgement. While this sounds like an easy process – it does not come as intuitively as one may think. Typically speaking, we give a person about a quarter of our attention while devoting the rest of our attention to formulating a response. Active listening means giving the person your undivided attention and listening to understand them. This takes practice and can be accomplished by rephrasing what your conversation partner said previously – this way they know you are in fact hearing them.
Ask Probing Questions
Asking probing questions is just as important as actively listening. Asking follow-up or clarifying questions can showcase you are invested in learning more about the person’s perspective. To get at this deeper level of understanding, try asking the five Ws:
- Who in your life had the most impact on the way you think about this issue?
- What life experiences might have led you to develop this view?
- Where do you see this issue playing out in your life?
- When do you think your view applies? Are there any exceptions?
- Why is this issue so important to you?
Find Common Ground
After asking probing questions, try to find connections or areas of agreement with the person. You can identify common ground by noting words or phrases your conversation partner said and trace them back to values like liberty, equality, or kindness. By finding a shared common value, you further validate the person and become aware of the perspective from which they view an issue (e.g., “it sounds like the right to choose is really important to you in this context”). Generally speaking, when it comes to politics and values there is no one objectively correct perspective, but by hearing the person out and finding common ground you can see where they are coming from and hopefully learn from their perspective.
Lastly and possibly most importantly, give the other person the benefit of the doubt. If we go into a conversation with a negative mindset, chances are high that we have put on our blinders and will bulldoze through the conversation. Thus, the conversation will become a self-fulfilling prediction; the conversation is going to go horribly, and we shouldn’t even try to avoid that outcome. However, if you show a bit of grace, avoid snap judgements, and assume the best about the other person, chances are you might just have a productive conversation.
I submit this framework to you not lightly, but with high hopes that we can all unbury our heads from our respective sandboxes and take the first steps toward meaningful and deliberative conversations. Happy holidays!