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Seven Tips for Political Dialogue

By Jason Combs

As election season ramps up, the prospect of having difficult conversations with friends, coworkers, and family members is looming on many people’s horizons.  While some people enjoy the give-and-take of a vigorous conversation about political topics, many people avoid these topics entirely, out of fear that they will devolve into conflict.  This is not only true at home around dinner tables at holiday times, but also here on campus as people interact with colleagues, teachers, students, and other members of our university community on an everyday basis.  How can we resist the urge to avoid these topics, the exploration of which is so important to the well-functioning of our democratic society?

Dialogue offers an alternative to the partisan debate that, in so many people’s minds, is the default means for people to have a conversation about politics.  There is value in debating particular positions, especially those relating to politics. However, many people do not realize that this manner of interacting is not the only means for talking about these topics.  Unlike a debate, the purpose of a dialogue is to develop mutual understanding around a topic. Understanding does not imply that people agree, nor does it mean that people avoid their different, even contrasting views.  Rather, it means that people explore these views in a way that resists seeing other participants as opponents to be defeated or overcome. The goal in a dialogue is to learn about the topic alongside the other person, even with them, through the lens of such views.  This can be a pleasant and heart-warming process, but it can also be quite tense and challenging. Nevertheless, participants commit to engaging each other in ways that help everyone to keep sharing what they believe and experience in light of everyone else’s contributions, as well as the available facts.

Such conversations are not easy.  They require a lot of self-discipline, personal reflection, open mindedness, and humility on the part of participants, and all of these qualities hinge upon the effort that participants are willing to exert.  There are no formulas for making a dialogue happen, and dialogue does not boil down to a set of techniques that one can enact to produce automatically the understanding that one seeks. That being said, there are still some best practices that can be helpful.  Here are a few that might help you the next time you are faced with the prospect of engaging someone who has very different views than those you hold, in a political conversation:

  1. Lead with process not position.  Talk about the understanding that you hope to build through the conversation and how you would like the conversation to unfold.  Consider setting some ground rules or common expectations with the other person, if you anticipate a difficult conversation.
  2. Ask clarifying questions.  When the other person shares their views, don’t leap immediately to giving your position in response.  Ask questions that help you to understand the meaning of certain concepts: “When you said X, what did you mean by that?” or “What do you mean when you use that term?”  Remember that your overarching goal is to understand.
  3. Invite others to share more information.  In addition to asking clarifying questions, ask questions that allow your conversational partner to elaborate on their view.  Who, what, where, when, and how are good starting words for these questions. Be careful about asking why. Why questions have a place in these conversations, but can give the impression that you are talking down to or criticizing the other person.
  4. Explore the story behind what is said.  When people express their views on a given topic, they did not come to that view in a vacuum.  They came to that view though their lived experience. The view that they are sharing might have come from years of watching a loved one struggle with some difficulty or conversations with someone whom they admire and respect deeply.  The more able you are to bring this story to the surface of the conversation, the more you are able to understand why the person believes what they are espousing.
  5. Don’t shy away from examining the facts.  Even though the overarching purpose of dialogue is to build understanding, facts are an important part of a dialogue.  They are what root the dialogue in reality, so that it is not free-floating and entirely self-referential. Participants can and should ask each other about the factual basis on which their views rest, whether their views are rooted in research, listening to the views of others, third-party observation, or firsthand experience.
  6. Build trust.  Successful dialogue depends on trust among participants.  At the outset, trust is not likely to be high, especially among acquaintances or strangers.  If there have been past conflicts between participants, then memories of these interactions can present a considerable obstacle to trust.  If you intend to engage in dialogue with someone, then you must find ways to convince the other person that you respect them, that you value their views even if you don’t agree with them, and that you are committed to listening to what they have to say.  If you find that conflict is beginning to heat up, then you might return to talking about the way in which you want to have your conversation with each other and the relationship that you want to build, and only after you have reestablished trust, move back into discussing the topic.
  7. Remember that conflict between people and the clash of ideas are not the same.  An oft-touted view, both in both personal and academic discourse, is that conflict is helpful and desirable in building understanding.  I myself have not found this to be true. In my experience, conflict as a form of antagonism between people presents a real obstacle to understanding.  In saying this, I am differentiating between conflict between persons and the clash of differing ideas. When people hold different ideas about something, expressing those diverse views often enhances their understanding, both of each other and the topic at hand.  What differentiates this from conflict is that one need not see another person as a adversary to explore the spark of differing ideas. So when the clash of differing ideas occurs, don’t run; lean into it and explore further. However, if this devolves into conflict, step back and talk about your process, so that you can get back to investigating the topic in a fruitful way.

There are many other best practices that people can bring into dialogue, but perhaps these seven can give a start to those who want to improve their ability to have difficult conversations about political topics.  As Bill Moyers wrote in The Nation, “Democracy works when people claim it as their own.”  Dialogue on topics that affect the well-being of the nation is one way in which people make democracy their own.

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