Celeste Headlee on How To Talk About Politics


Intent on making 2017 your Best Year Ever? We can help with that, thanks to our 2017 Coach of the Month series. For October, radio journalist Celeste Headlee, author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, dispenses priceless advice on how to communicate. This week, she shares her best tips on how to talk—to anyone!—about politics.

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In my grandparents’ time, it was acceptable to avoid certain topics. Remember Henry Higgins’ advice in My Fair Lady: stick to the weather and your health. But politics now influences nearly every possible subject, including the weather (climate change) and health (Obamacare). So, instead of avoiding potentially controversial subjects, why not learn to talk about them without getting into an argument?

New research from the app Plenty of Fish shows that most of us think conversation is a lost art, and that’s really too bad. I have found that, if you follow some basic guidelines, there’s almost nothing you can’t discuss without fighting.

The first step is to let go of trying to change someone else’s mind. There are any number of psychological terms used to explain why human beings resist changing their opinions, including “confirmation bias,” “motivated reasoning,” “the backfire effect.” But it all boils down to this: you probably won’t convince someone to admit they’re wrong.

So instead of trying to do that, try to learn something from them. Enter the conversation hoping to understand them better, to understand their reasoning and motivation. That’s something you can accomplish every time you talk to someone. That’s something you over which you have control, while you can’t control their mindset.

Remember Stephen Covey’s warning, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Instead of waiting for them to take a breath so you can start talking again, really listen to what they’re telling you. Ask questions. Put some effort into discerning their underlying message.

Next, hear them out. Don’t evaluate everything they say according to whether or not you agree. Sometimes, when we hear hot button phrases like “gun control” or “law and order,” we immediately assume we know their opinion on everything and we stop listening. People are not the politicians they support. Listen to them and don’t make assumptions.

Another crucial step is to show respect at all times. Talking about controversial subjects is tough and it can be scary. If you’re dismissive or smug or insulting, you aren’t creating an atmosphere that encourages them to share honestly or openly. Treat them as you want to be treated; speak to them as respectfully as you’d speak to your boss.

Social media can tempt us into some very bad habits, including rude language and insulting behavior. Remind yourself constantly that this is a human being in front of you, with dreams that are as important to them as yours are to you. This is a person who’s lived through hardship that you haven’t and endured strife that you have been spared. That’s true of every person on the planet. Remember it, and show respect.

Finally, stay in there. If things start getting heated, it’s always okay to say, “I didn’t mean for this to become an argument and I’m honestly interested in hearing what you have to say. Can we take a moment to let things cool down a little?” Try not to walk away in a huff or throw your hands up and say, “This is pointless.”

If you can stick with it, I promise it will be worth it in the end. Unless you listen to others and hear different perspectives, you won’t grow intellectually. If you only talk to people with whom you agree, you’ll stagnate. So take a breath, straighten your shoulders, and dive into that political discussion. The payoff is worth the effort.



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