In 2020, it’s really tough to avoid talking about politics—and you shouldn’t! These discussions can be difficult to start, but they can also end up rewarding for everyone involved… promise.
Due to confirmation bias, notes author and law professor Ozan Varol, “we tend to undervalue evidence that contradicts our beliefs and overvalue evidence that confirms them. We filter out inconvenient truths and arguments on the opposing side. As a result, our opinions solidify, and it becomes increasingly harder to disrupt established patterns of thinking.”
Does your family have decidedly different beliefs and values than you do? Here’s our cheatsheet to having a productive political dialogue with your loved ones.
Understand where they’re coming from
Begin by asking yourself why you feel so strongly for or against certain hot-button topics.
Maybe your college roommate later enlisted in the Marines. Perhaps you read a particularly concise article in Mother Jones that shifted your whole perspective on climate change.
Now think about your parents or grandparents. Where are they from? Does that place have certain issues, values, or prejudices that may have shaped their political interests?
How old are your folks? Did they live through a pivotal event or war that may have greatly impacted how they view and vote for new policies. Remember that you didn’t experience the same events that shaped your parents’ political identities.
A split-screen news environment
Also consider exposure. How do your loved ones get their news?
If they’re online often, are they following influencers who post news? Are they addicted to social media, whose algorithms push users into an echo chamber of opinions? Do they hunker down in front of the TV every night for a few hours of cable news?
You’re likely receiving your view of the world through a different news prism than they are, which can drastically color how they view political realities.
Keep it constructive
Starting a convo or debate off on the right foot is all about tone. Let’s face it, even if you’re a grown-up now, your parents still get angry when they think you’re yelling at them or being disrespectful. The words you choose matter!
Rather than emphasizing what they should be fixing—a move that can make you come off as aggressive—try talking about potential change as something you can work on as a family or as a community. This will make them feel less targeted and more open to hearing what you have to say.
Going into your political heart-to-heart with a calm, collected, and respectful tone will preserve your credibility, keeping any arguments and specific points you make from being tainted by an ugly comment you said in the moment (and likely didn’t mean).
Aim for small victories
Have a clear idea about what you hope to (and reasonably can) achieve. If you begin with the outlook that your family member is completely wrong—and that your goal is to change their mind entirely about politics, values, and election day choices—you’ll likely come out empty-handed.
It’s also a two-way street. Don’t act as if you’re the enlightened one whose sole job it is to educate your backwards mom, aunt, or sibling.
And realize that everyone tends to get stuck in their ways, clinging to their existing beliefs. (You’re guilty of this, too!)
When you hear someone make a statement about politics (even one using solid data) that contradicts your personal view, a different part of your brain responds than would if you had, say, just heard a new trivia fact about sports or pop culture.
A study in Scientific Reports showed that heated political comments stimulate your default mode network, the part of your brain where you store your identity and internalize threats. This is why it can be hard for you, or your loved ones, to stomach a political comment that’s at odds with an ingrained belief system.
Make it a group activity
Maybe your aunt or cousin is a real bookworm. If that’s the case, why not propose a family book club?
Dig into environmental issues with Elizabeth Rush’s Rising, or unpack issues of racial justice through any number of excellent resources. Set weekly video calls to talk through what surprised, confused, or enlightened you. Or arrange a virtual brunch session to team-read the news.
If your family isn’t big on reading, suggest a few documentaries, such as 13th or Knock Down The House, that you can watch together, or even a historical blockbuster like On the Basis of Sex.
Serve up a “truth sandwich”
What if your parent or sibling comes to your political chat with verifiably false information? Perhaps they trotted out a completely erroneous statistic a friend emailed them. Maybe they’re flirting with debunked and dangerous conspiracy theories like QAnon, which has metastasized on social media platforms.
In a recent New York Times Op-ed, writer Richard Friedman dishes on cognitive scientist George Lakoff’s solution for such a scenario: the truth sandwich. Capitalizing on our human tendency to remember only the beginning and end of an exchange, this strategy tasks you with repeating the same false statement your parents made… but sandwiching it between two accurate statements, supported by data.
Let’s say your mom hits you with “climate change is just a hoax… there are always natural disasters!”
The truth sandwich you offer might look something like this: “Five of the six largest California wildfires in history have started in just the past six weeks. I know you may feel climate change is a hoax given that the world has a long history of wildfire. But you can’t deny the sheer number of homes and lives destroyed in just these past six weeks by five of the largest fires in California history.”
Bring in a “credible colleague”
The Harvard Business Review, reflecting on how to persuade co-workers, suggests a handy tactic if a discussion is going nowhere: Enlist extra help to make your point.
“Rather than trying to argue with someone who seems resistant, bring in a credible colleague,” they write. Doing so “…forces the detractor to disentangle who you are from what your argument might be and evaluate the idea based on its objective merits.”
Now the HBR might be talking about an office setting, but this trick works just as well with personal, political arguments. Maybe the “credible colleague” in your life is an older sibling, a likeminded uncle who works in public service, or even an old college professor. Loop their expertise into your conversation and see if the message sticks.
Know that this is just the beginning
Maybe you’ll walk out of your first convo satisfied, completely having changed your family member’s outlook on an issue. Maybe you’ll find that you have a more nuanced understanding of an issue that your parents or siblings are passionate about. Or maybe… nothing much will happen at first. And that’s totally okay. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Remember that people’s minds (usually) don’t just change overnight. You’ll likely have to have many of these discussions before a true dialogue can happen.
At the end of the day, it’s all about being comfortable to start these tough conversations: challenging each other, educating each other, and simply being a good, engaged citizen.