A Year Since Thanksgiving

For many people in the country, last Thanksgiving marked the first time they felt compelled to talk about politics over family dinner, and simultaneously horrified at the idea of doing so. For me, 2017 marked the first year I paid attention to headlines and politics every day. This was the first year I sought out updates on government and actually got involved contacting my representatives about legislation.


Facts have taken quite a hit this year. The very idea that facts are important seems to be up for debate. We’ve gotten to a point where debates on the merit of different ideas are pitting fact against opinion, as if they hold equal merit. As someone with a tech background that doesn’t like being wrong, I make it a priority to gather strong evidence before I make claims. When I want to discuss a contentious topic, I do research, understand the different viewpoints, and take time to get the facts straight.

One of the most challenging things is trying to debate with someone who isn’t interested in hearing what you have to say. There’s no way to move forward in the discussion. Even more frustrating is how hard it is to keep listening to someone who has stopped listening to you. Every fact falls on deaf ears, and each person just repeats their side louder, not getting through the other person’s armor.

I’ve thought about this problem for a long time, faced with people who put the same stock in op-eds and peer-reviewed journal articles. Numbers, statistics, and evidence were my best friends when discussing issues, since it pulls out the emotion and is less likely to lead to personal attacks. But the reality is that I haven’t been particularly effective at convincing people to change or temper their views in favor of mine. And, more relevantly, I don’t know if I could convince a Trump supporter that Trump does not have their best interests at heart, just by pointing at what the healthcare bill would have done, what the tax bill will do, and what effect countless other measures the administration is pushing forward will have.

I do not have a stressful family dinner coming up this week, but I know that many of you will. My most difficult interaction will be with my best friend’s dad, who voted for Trump and taunts me with a MAGA hat when I see him. I don’t have to spend a dinner listening to him, or trying to establish common ground, which has been a frustrating and unsuccessful in the past.

Even though I won’t be put in one of these situations this year, I think there is value in learning how to handle them. I have been reading obsessively on this topic, trying to understand how to start these difficult conversations and how to make them productive. So if you have a family dinner, or family weekend you’re dreading, consider taking some of these steps

  • Listen instead of waiting for your turn to speak. Learn what someone believes without just listing ways they are wrong in your head
  • Try to establish common ground early on. It’s likely that you share similar goals with a person, but that your ideas for how to achieve them are where you diverge.
  • Understand why they think you’re wrong. Is it only because they’re unfamiliar with your position?
  • Understand what would have to happen for you to change your mind. What would have to happen for them to change their mind?
  • Be respectful of other people’s values and opinions. Calling someone too stupid to understand your point of view is unproductive. Would you be willing to admit you were wrong to someone who ridiculed you?
  • Be curious about their perspectives to learn where their coming from. Start by trying to understand them before trying to persuade them.
  • Consider their unique experiences and viewpoints, and respectfully share yours. Communication is the best way to expand our views. Try this - “I’ve always had a very different point of view, but help me understand how you see this.”



Suggested Reading:

Sam Altman traveled the country talking to Trump supporters earlier this year to understand what they need and why they voted for Trump. He has some interesting insights. http://www.businessinsider.com/sam-altman-interview-trump-supporters-2017-2

Celeste Headlee on ways to discuss politics without getting into a fight https://ideas.ted.com/how-to-talk-about-politics-constructively/

Advice from Anna Curran, who runs political campaigns in Florida, about how to discuss politics with people who may have differernt party affiliations https://www.huffingtonpost.com/tuenight/talking-politics-without-_b_9399428.html

Megan Phelps-Roper, the granddaughter of the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, discusses how she broke free of the WBC’s toxic environment in 2012, and techniques to have productive debates. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/534w83/how-to-talk-to-people-you-hate-about-politics

Nine strategies for talking politics without picking a fight. http://nationswell.com/strategies-talking-tough-politics-tension-free/

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