How To Talk Politics Without Blowing Your Lid
SMU Dispute Resolution Professor Tom Hartsell talks about how to - and not to - discuss politics without destroying relationships.
By S. Holland Murphy
There’s a deep political divide among my Facebook friends: On one side, the conservative suburbanites whom I grew up with, and, on the other, the liberal artists and urbanites I have befriended since college. The election is bringing out the worst in all of them, and the dogmatic social media posts have now hit a fever pitch.
It may be bringing out the worst in me, as well. I’ve never been a fan of political discussions—the result of being raised by a lawyer whose sport of choice is heated debate—but this week’s political theatrics compelled me to leave an incendiary comment on a relative’s Facebook post, and I started to wonder whether some of my relationships could survive this election cycle.
All of this led me to email Tom Hartsell, a lawyer and mediator who teaches in the Department of Dispute Resolution and Counseling at SMU. I asked him if he had any thoughts on how I could make it to November 8th without having to sever ties with people I otherwise love and respect. He wrote back with an essay about his own experience. It’s worth sharing:
“Like most Americans I can’t wait for the presidential election to be over with. My spouse and I have been coexisting on opposite sides of the political divide since we got married over 20 years ago. Every four years the tension begins to ramp up around the presidential election. What we have learned is that we do best when we avoid discussion of the election and candidates. We spent years debating and arguing and trying to persuade and change each other’s views without success.
The old saying ‘love the person, abhor the sin’ is applicable, but in a marriage it is best not to let on how much you abhor your spouse’s chosen candidate. For the sake of the greater good—the relationship—we had to agree to disagree and discontinue political debate.
As an educator and professional involved in conflict resolution for most of my professional career, you would think I would have had more success in navigating political disagreements with my spouse and keep them from becoming contentious. My spouse and I were unable to keep our emotions from getting hijacked which caused bad feelings. In other words, we would get nasty with each other. Not the kind of heat you want in the marital bed. Fortunately, time has given us perspective. Guess what America, the country survives whoever gets to set up shop in the oval office. The emotional upset political disagreements generated was physically draining for my spouse and I, and would temporarily blind us as to how we truly felt about each other.
I usually also find myself to be on the opposite side of the political divide with most of my relatives and in-laws, including my mother. Since I didn’t have to live with them I attempted from time to time to explore their rationale for supporting a candidate. I would have to be careful not to trigger emotional hijacking of their brains so I would usually wait a short time after a snide political remark was made about the other candidate and I would speak calmly and softly with the conversation sounding something like this:
Tom: I am really interested in why you’re going to vote for candidate A. I would very much like to hear what you have to say.
Relative: Because Candidate B is a lying sack of _______.
Tom: That may be, but tell me what you like about candidate A?
Relative: He’s ……. He’s….. Well, hell he’s not a ________.
That usually ended the conversation because I could see my relative’s emotions getting triggered. It was rare that I could draw out any rationale for their candidate of choice. What this told me was that any attempt at dispassionate and reasoned discussion was not going to happen. So I learned to not discuss politics with most of my family members and focus on marginally safer topics such as sports and, with my mother, the latest episode of Blue Bloods.
I wish I could say that my family is just a unique set of blockheads and the vast majority of Americans are capable of calm and reasoned political debate, but I don’t believe that to be true. Yes, we may be blockheads, but I doubt we are that much different from all of you out there. Too often we vote our emotions not our intellect. It doesn’t help that campaigns are calculated to cause this effect on us. The more things change the more they stay the same. If you don’t believe me, just study up on the shenanigans that took place back in the days of Adams and Jefferson. So for the sake of my personal and domestic tranquility, I will keep my political thoughts and commentary to myself and be satisfied knowing my vote will be canceling out that of my spouse, and that the election is less than one month away.”
Noted, Tom. I have already deleted the Facebook app off my phone. I’ll add it back in a few weeks. Or, I don’t know, maybe I’ll just wait another four years.