Let’s talk politics. Or not.

In less than six months, we’ll make a choice, as a country, who we’ll have as our next president. There are discussions everywhere about candidates and issues. Much has also been written about the incivility of the discourse, and it does seem that there is more violence at political events this year.

So how do we make way for the political discussions necessary for our democracy?

Some of us were taught that it’s not “polite” to talk about politics. Presumably that was because of the discomfort some felt at disagreements and strong discussions. Even now there is the fear that talking about politics will ruin relationships. But there are ways of talking about politics that can be civil and positive.

The most important step is to listen to the other person. We need to become curious about their thinking and pay attention as though we will need to report back what they’re saying. Assume there is logic and thought behind their position. Listen for that logic – what does their viewpoint say about their values, their needs, the things that are very important to them? For example, maybe family ties, respect, and safety are strong concerns. Perhaps they express a need for financial security. Do you share those values and needs? Perhaps your values and needs are the same, but you differ on strategies for expressing and meeting them. Often we can find common ground by remarking on the mutual importance of the shared values.

Once you’ve listened well, share your opinion civilly, without personal attacks on the person you’re talking with, or their favored candidate(s). It’s so easy for us to start attacking the character of those who disagree with us. After all, they can’t be as good as we are if they believe THAT way, right? It’s important to remember that attacking another’s character, rather than debating views, says more about us than them – it shows that our emotions, including fear, have overtaken our rational minds and we’re reacting rather than responding.

If things start going off the rails, revert to listening. When there’s a pause in their comments, go ahead and paraphrase the gist of what you just heard them say. Ask if that’s what they meant and listen to their answer. Maybe ask them more about the things you don’t understand. Once you’ve done that, you’re much more likely to have an audience for what you have to say. Of course, some people aren’t interested in dialogue, but it increases the chance that they will listen in turn.

Perhaps most difficult, let it be okay if the other person is not open to hearing anything other than their own viewpoint. We certainly can’t make anyone listen, think, or change their mind if they don’t want to. After all, past efforts of others to try and force us to change our minds probably weren’t very successful either.

In that vein, accept others’ desire to avoid talking about politics, presidential or otherwise. Some people prefer to keep their views private or make their decisions after quietly researching the issues. That’s no more or less valid than having political discussions with others.

The underlying thread of these suggestions is respect for those who have different views and/or different ways of expressing them. As long as there is mutual respect, conversations can be civil. We only have control over our side of the conversation, but showing respect can make a big difference. Getting along in a presidential election year means we have to be aware of how we might be adding to the problem and be willing to change our behavior to match our desire for civil discussion.