How to Talk Politics Without Starting Fights and Ruining Relationships
But despite the vitriol, we residents of the United States still have one area of common ground: the piece of land we call home, where we have to figure out how to coexist. As Abraham Lincoln said to a divided nation in his 1861 inaugural address, "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection."
In the spirit of that most heroic statesman, what if we refrained from yelling for a second, so we could actually hear each other? Even if we didn't change our minds, we could change our mindset—and remember we're people first, not parties. Because despite the fear and loathing expressed in that 2016 survey, the majority of both Republicans and Democrats said a neighbor's party affiliation wouldn't affect their ability to get along. If we're willing to drop by with a casserole, surely we can have a civil conversation.
"Though I cohost a talk show, sometimes I go silent. The words silent and listen have the same letters. When we listen, we give each other room to see each other as we are. And when we're making change together, we have to let some things go. I have hope whenever I hear someone say, ‘I'm tired of fighting. I just want to find the answer.'" —Harris Faulkner, host of Fox News Channel's Outnumbered Overtime and cohost of Outnumbered
"When you're married to someone from the world of politics, you socialize with opinionated people. Luckily, my mother, who was Nancy Reagan's social secretary, taught me diplomacy. Anytime somebody's making my blood boil, I wonder what they looked like as an infant. All babies are cute. Then I smile." —Ali Wentworth, actress, author of Go Ask Ali, and wife of ABC's George Stephanopoulos, former adviser to Bill Clinton
"Even if I find an opinion downright abhorrent, I keep asking more questions to gain better insight into that person's perspective. It's like conducting a scientific inquiry. The key is to stay respectful—and a sense of humor always helps." —Alex Wagner, author of Futureface and CBS News contributor
"As a hostage negotiator, I could listen empathetically to anyone—even terrorists—once I realized that understanding and articulating someone's viewpoint is not the same as agreeing with it. Decoupling those ideas is a powerful and liberating concept." —Chris Voss, former FBI lead international kidnapping negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference
"When I was confronted on C-SPAN by 'Garry from North Carolina,' an admitted racist, I thought about the roots of his fear: If the only people of color I knew were accused criminals on the news, I'd be scared, too. I thanked him for his honesty. Once we got to know each other, he told me he was reading Cornel West and 'practicing not being prejudiced.' What we share is our desire to be better citizens." —Heather McGhee, president of the public policy organization Demos
"For people who say they can't stand listening to the other side, I suggest a game: Flip the script and imagine the sound bite or action you hate is coming from a politician you support. We're so reluctant to give people the benefit of the doubt, but this simple mental trick helps me stay open-minded." —Alisyn Camerota, CNN anchor and cohost of CNN's New Day
Stuck in the Middle with You
CNN commentators Margaret Hoover and John Avlon on the tricky business of being spouses and sparring partners.
Though Margaret Hoover and John Avlon have been married for eight years, the sparks are still flying: She's a GOP stalwart (and great-granddaughter of Herbert Hoover) and the author of American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party. He's a centrist who believes hyperpartisanship is damaging the country (to wit, his book Wingnuts: Extremism in the Age of Obama). The pair have had their share of squabbles, but at the end of the day, they always manage to remember that they're on the same side.
She says: "In the Hoover house, Democrat was a bad word. When something broke, my mom would say ‘It went Democrat on us.' So at first, whenever John said anything that wasn't pro–Republican Party, I took it as an attack on me and all that the Hoovers stood for. If we weren't in total sync on every point, I thought, then how could we be united in life? In hindsight, that seems laughable, but back then it felt like survival—incredibly emotionally fraught."
He says: "I'd always believed politics wasn't personal. Then I started dating Margaret, for whom it was intensely personal. Also, I love a good discussion and wanted to ‘win' every time. Understandably, that didn't feel loving to Margaret."
She says: "It was 2008, and we were about to get engaged. John had decided not to support McCain in the election because of Sarah Palin, and we fought about it nonstop. But then something in me clicked. By then I knew John well enough to appreciate that our core values—love of family and country—were the same, even if our political leanings weren't. I couldn't let his choice of candidate cheat me out of marrying the love of my life. When we got married, I designated our bedroom a demilitarized zone, where cuddling would always trump politics."
He says: "Democracy depends on an assumption of goodwill between citizens. That damn well better extend to the person you love. Did I have to push every conversation to the outer limit? No. I began wanting my wife to trust me more than I craved a verbal victory, and that was the turning point."
She says: "These days we give each other space to consume our own preferred media. I did catch John sneak-watching Ken Burns's documentary about the Roosevelts, and I was like, ‘You don't have to hide that from me! I mean, that family vilified my relatives and made my dad's and my grandparents' lives incredibly challenging, but hey, go for it!'"
He says: "It's taken years and patience, but as my mother says, ‘Trees and people grow together over time.' Lately, we've been listening to a song by Chris Thile called ‘I Made This for You.' It goes: Giving just as much hell as I get / To people I'd prob'ly like if I met / So whether these days leave you laughing or crying / If you're doing your best to be kind / This land is as much yours as mine."
No News Is Bad News
Opinion journalism confuses the issues—and the public.
Since the dawn of cablenews networks, it's been growing more difficult to separate reporting from retorting. "With a 24-hour schedule to fill, the networks built many prime-time programs around the talk-show format, often to create debates," says Amy Mitchell, director of journalism research at Pew Research Center. The trend continued in the digital era, when bloggers could offer commentary- style "news" with no reporting at all. Now, according to a 2017 Gallup-Knight Foundation survey, almost half of Americans say there's so much bias in the news that it's hard to decipher the facts. Strict partisans are more certain they can't be misled by slanted news coverage: Those who are "very liberal" or "very conservative" are the most likely to be "very confident" that they can sort fact from opinion.
Only 27 percent of U.S. citizens are "very confident" that they can tell the difference between factual news and opinion or commentary.
How Facebook really keeps us in the loop.
Last year two-thirds of U.S. adults reported getting at least some news from social media, with Facebook in the lead. But that open forum can become an echo chamber, limiting our perspective and reinforcing our worst ideas about the other side.
1. You block Crazy cousin Kyle...after reading his latest news nugget—that there are ISIS sleeper cells in Planned Parenthood clinics. And boy, does it feel good. So good, in fact, that you also block cousin Sue, her kids, and your Republican neighbor (later he'll post a thought-provoking op-ed about the refugee crisis, but unfortunately, you'll miss it). Close to 30 percent of social media users say they've blocked or unfriended someone who's posted political content. Now, even though your network may include diverse connections, your feed—and your world—just got smaller.
2. But add a cool new friend...you just met through your book club. You scroll through her feed, liking a Zadie Smith essay, clicking the laugh emoji under a hedgehog meme, commenting on her critique of a fearmongering political ad. All of this engagement means you'll see more of her posts in the future; in an attempt to halt the spread of fake news, Facebook announced at the beginning of the year that it was tweaking its algorithm to prioritize posts that circulate among your friends and family, making it less likely you'll see posts from news sites.
3. And click on a rage-inducing headline...from a story shared by a coworker: "The Moral Apocalypse of Republican Tax Cuts." Your pulse quickens. Studies show that users often engage with headlines that pique their curiosity, are highly sensational, or (as subjects in one Dutch study put it) inspire "gleeful annoyance" (i.e., you enjoy being irked by them). During the run-up to the 2016 elections, the New York Times tested two headlines: "$2 Billion Worth of Free Media for Trump" versus "Measuring Trump's Media Dominance." Guess which one got nearly three times the clicks?
4. That you share...with your network. Then 30 of your friends click and share it, too. (Even though some of them didn't read the story. In one study, researchers estimated that 59 percent of links shared on Twitter have never been clicked; the sharer reads only the headline.) The friends who clicked will now see more of your posts in their feed. Those clicks mean more revenue for the news site that posted the story: The more traffic a site generates, the more dollars it can demand from advertisers— and the stronger its incentive to post the incendiary headlines that pay off.
And now you're trapped in the inner circle—a feed full of people in lockstep with your politics. You're sharing provocative stories with your like-minded friends, who are sharing them with their own like-minded friends. The more you engage with each other, the more of each other's posts you'll see—and although you're in constant conversation, every voice sounds eerily like your own. Welcome to the echo chamber! Hello...hello...hello...
One way to have more productive conversations? Get our facts straight!
Stranger in a Strange Land
Surrounded by blue, conservative Julie Gunlock tries not to see red.
When people in my liberal northern Virginia community find out I'm conservative, they're often shocked. I feel like a citizen of some newly discovered country: "Explain to me your customs—what is this world you come from?" It's like I have a duck on my head. I want to say, "You know Republicans aren't aliens, right? We do exist. There are plenty of us in the Capitol Building, right up the highway."
The morning after the 2016 elections, when I walked my kids to school, let's just say I didn't see high-fiving in the streets. There was vodka in the coffee mugs. The principal gathered the teachers to make sure everyone was okay. People were posting on Facebook that they were crying in their children's arms. There was a three-day hangover afterward.
I try to be careful because I don't want other parents to decide their kids can't play with mine. I work for a conservative think tank and love to talk about the issues, but I've learned that some enjoy those kinds of conversations and some don't. A person who lives in an area where everybody agrees with them isn't used to debating, so they might find it unnerving if suddenly someone trotted along and started asking questions. I get it—I don't want to startle anyone!
Sometimes I do feel isolated, but in other ways, it's great to live among people who don't share my politics because it forces me to find other things to talk about. I also love great books and food and cooking. In fact, cooking videos are the only thing left on my Facebook feed. I got tired of the drama and hid everybody else. Now it's just recipes and my Aunt Trudy.
Judith Newman's Democratic bubble has become a hazmat suit.
I used to pride myself on living by Atticus Finch's dictum in To Kill a Mockingbird: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
Oh, Atticus, how I've failed you. I've cut off my beloved uncle, now a Fox News addict. (No surprise—he still says women ought to stay barefoot and pregnant.) I hung up on a friend who claimed Donald Trump was joking (ha) when he said, "There are fine people on both sides." And I unfriended a charming Facebook acquaintance who usually shares grandkid pics after she posted an image of Trump (looking more photoshopped than a Kardashian) captioned "My President!" On my news feed. Buh-bye, Grandma!
However, I still cling to Margaret, my one remaining friend who voted for Trump. She didn't like him, I tell myself—she just disliked Hillary more. She's a loyal Republican. And it's New York, so her vote didn't "count." I make excuses the way I did with the bad-news boyfriends of my youth: So what if he only drops by for 3 a.m. booty calls? He brought me a rose and a bottle of tequila!
What slays me is that Margaret is a far more generous soul than I am. She gave me my first job, and I've never seen her treat anyone with anything less than kindness and respect. She embodies grace under pressure. It's a quality I admire even more now that we're both moms of kids with disabilities, which makes us simpatico in a way that defies any other difference. Plus, like those bad boyfriends, she always makes me laugh. Even when she called to tell me her husband had died after a long illness, that dark humor of hers was still intact. "Guess what?" she said through her tears. "There's one less Trump voter around here!"
I laughed in spite of myself. And I promised myself I'd do better.
Conflict resolution expert Daniel Shapiro, PhD, recommends starting with the small stuff.
I once did a workshop on negotiation with a group of lawyers in Philadelphia who were a very rational, straitlaced bunch. We were discussing the role of emotion in negotiation—using it to connect with others—and they seemed not to entirely get it. Emotion was outside the terrain of what they were accustomed to talking about at work. So I said: "Find a stranger in this room, pair up with that person, and in the next two minutes, try to identify as many connections between you as possible. The stranger, the wilder, the weirder, the better." And so they did. All of a sudden they were invigorated. "You like sailing?" one person said. "I like sailing!" It was as if each of them had found a long-lost friend. One pair discovered they grew up two blocks from each other. Real bonds were forming. There's an emotional consequence in finding connections and embracing them, and they are often hidden. But imagine if I'd asked them to tell their partner whom they'd voted for and why.
How do you help people have a positive conversation around sensitive issues? Help them locate and celebrate their commonalities to create a safety net for discussing what separates them.
Daniel Shapiro, PhD, is founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program and author of Negotiating the Nonnegotiable.
We Feel Your Pain
Readers share tales of woe and peace.
According to our poll at Oprah.com—which drew more than 1,300 responses from Republicans, Democrats and independents—the partisan struggle is really hitting home. If you're in the thick of it, take comfort that you're not alone—and heed this presumably hard-won advice from reader Lesley Rahner of Louisville, Kentucky: "Never discuss religion or politics over a glass of wine."
"I am black and my husband is white. I thought we saw eye to eye, but lately talks about race are beginning to divide us." —Jasmine York, St. Louis
"I'm amazed by how my friends automatically judge people without listening to their viewpoints. I am a liberal democrat and have told them that I believe in protecting the borders (because it's the law), but they automatically assume I want open borders." —Stephanie Goins, Lake Villa, Illinois
"I have some of the most liberal friends and love them just the same. I harbor no ill will toward anyone who's expressing an opinion—but I don't allow people to be mean and nasty. That doesn't lead to the greater good. It just leads to a fight." —Gina Thomsen, Rapid City, South Dakota
"As a mom of Mexican American daughters and the wife of a Mexican man who is here on a green card, it pains me that my parents voted for Trump." —Jamie Martinez, Albuquerque, New Mexico
"I have close family on opposite sides, but we love each other enough to respect our differences and keep our views to ourselves. No political cause matters as much as family." —Sally Pfisterer, St. Louis
"My family has truly changed before my eyes. It really feels as though they've been brainwashed." —Kristie Bennett, Bloomington, Indiana
Let's Stay Together
The bipartisan citizens' movement Better Angels has a novel solution for America's deeply imperfect union.
In December 2016, ten Trump voters and ten Clinton voters gathered in South Lebanon, Ohio, to hash out their fears, hopes, and resentments. It was a brave experiment hosted by an organization called Better Angels, which has since held more than 40 workshops nationwide using communication principles drawn largely from marriage counseling. Better Angels' founder and president, David Blankenhorn, and senior fellow William Doherty, a marriage and family therapist, offer a few lessons that might just save our relationships.
It takes two to tango.
"People usually come in to counseling wanting their partner to change, but both sides have a role in the problem," says Doherty. "When they can admit that, we're hitting pay dirt." At the beginning of each workshop, both "Reds" and "Blues" talk about the stereotypes commonly leveled against them. "For the Reds, it might be ‘racist,' and for the Blues, it might be ‘snowflake,'" says Blankenhorn. "They talk about why the stereotypes are false and whether there could be an element of truth. For instance, a Red might say, ‘Most of us aren't racist. But some are, and if you're a racist in America, you're most likely conservative.' People will be honest if they know they're not going to be demonized."
Democrat Kouhyar Mostashfi admits that when he attended Better Angels' second workshop, he wasn't overflowing with goodwill. "I was cutting ties with all my Republican friends," Mostashfi says. "I came only because I was curious. But when we did some honest soul-searching, I realized that neither side was being painted fairly. When you talk to people, as opposed to hearing about them in the news, you realize they didn't develop their world views in an instant—they were shaped by their own feelings and life stories."
We all want to be heard.
The ground rule: No debating. "When people can explain themselves without being interrupted or judged, they hear each other," says Doherty. "The irony is that they're more apt to shift when they're not feeling pressured to change." Workshop moderators are quick to cut off lectures or insults. "We're there to listen carefully and ask questions of clarification," says Blankenhorn, "not gotcha questions like ‘How could you support the worst man in America?'"
"My first interaction was with a conservative Christian gentleman who said, ‘I have something to ask you,'" says Mostashfi, a Muslim who immigrated from Iran in the 1990s. "When I saw the emotion in his face, I knew what it was going to be."
"I wanted to know about ISIS," says Greg Smith, who posed the question. "Before I could get the word out, Kouhyar said, ‘Let me tell you something. My religion has been hijacked.' I thought about that and said, ‘Let me tell you something. So has mine.' The KKK wants to say they're with us—get out of here! Kouhyar and I quickly realized that there are like-minded people within the boundaries of both red and blue."
We can work it out.
Mostashfi and Smith began meeting to continue their conversation. "As the friendship has blossomed, we're challenging each other about our beliefs," says Mostashfi. "We know we're not trying to score political points but to get rid of the rough edges that exist between us." He's accompanied Smith to church; Smith came to Friday prayers at Mostashfi's mosque. "We're not close to agreeing on Donald Trump and Obama," says Smith. "But if Kouhyar ran for office, I believe I could vote for that guy!"
After 40 years in the therapy trenches, Doherty believes almost any relationship can be saved if both parties are motivated. "When counseling doesn't work," he says, "it's usually because someone was already out the door." Though both liberals and conservatives often enter Better Angels workshops skeptically, Blankenhorn adds, "Out of 800 people, I have heard only one say, ‘I still don't believe the other side has anything good to offer.' And sometimes there's a transcendent moment when you rediscover each other as human beings, like the guy who stood up and said, ‘You can't hate who you know.'"
The Rules of Engagement
Tips from Better Angels on the civil way to have civic conversations.
Paraphrase what the other person has just said to make sure you understand and that she feels heard. Don't go further by suggesting implications of her view: "So you're saying you wish Trump wouldn't tweet so much, but he's there to shake things up in Washington."
Not..."So you're saying the character of the president doesn't matter."
Ask questions to clarify, not to provoke "How did you come to believe that moving toward single-payer healthcare is best?"
Not..."How can you defend something as messed up as Obamacare?"
Use "I" statements ("This is how I see it") more often than truth statements ("This is how it is"): "I'm afraid we're going off a cliff on climate change, and there will be no coming back."
Not..."We're going to have to evacuate coastal cities before this century is over."
Don't take the bait if the other person makes a provocative statement. Simply restate your position calmly: "For now Trump is the president, and I want to give him a chance to succeed."
Not..."Like Hillary would have been a modern-day Lincoln? Dream on!"