5 paths to civil conversation (especially when you disagree)

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(NewsNation) — Political polarization is a top concern for many Americans, especially during the holidays when many people get together with their friends and family and contentious arguments on social and political issues may arise.

But your discussions don’t have to devolve into free-for-alls. Here are five paths to civil conversation.

Hold one-on-one conversations

It can be tempting to jump into a wider conversation that’s happening around the dinner table, but it’s generally better to engage in conversations one-on-one, according to Bill Doherty, who works as a family therapist and is the co-founder of Braver Angels, a group that works to heal America’s political fractures.

“Whoever is the weak link in terms of being unreasonable or antagonistic, they will take over,” he said. “I would try to avoid it in groups unless everybody happens to agree with themselves. Mostly confine political conversations to one-on-one.”

Prepare for your triggers

We all have issues that we care deeply about, and they can get us worked up when someone disagrees with our beliefs during a conversation.

K. Scarry, the director of partnerships at The Dinner Party, works to help people get through those kinds of conversations.

She suggests identifying your triggers ahead of time and preparing for the moment when they will arise. Then you can have a strategy for what you’ll do when that happens.

“I feel anger take over my body and so before I respond, I’m hoping to prepare in a way that I’m going to take a deep breath. I’m going to walk away from the table for a second, and I’m going to come back,” she said is one possible way to respond.

Be curious rather than combative

 “If you want to engage in politics, practice some curiosity rather than convincing,” Doherty said about conversations around the dinner table.

Jake Teeny, a marketing professor at Northwestern University who does research on psychology, added that going into conversations with the aim of convincing the other side can quickly lead to more combative interactions.

“One of the big issues that arise in these conversations is (that) people kind of take it upon themselves that they need to persuade or convince this other side to see the light. And when you get in this kind of persuasion mindset, it creates a sense of competition and defensiveness. And that’s usually when you start to see these tensions arise,” he said.

Avoid labeling others

“Only describe your own views, don’t characterize the others’ views,” Doherty said, saying that conversations usually go awry when we try to label the other person’s point of view rather than our own.

“Most of the escalation occurs in response to not what people say about their own side but the words they use to describe the other side. So, racist, socialist, fascist, you’re a Trumpster, that kind of thing — you just want to defund the police,” he said. “Those are inflammatory. And the way you prevent that yourself is to stick with describing your own side, not the other side.”

Put relationships before politics

“Don’t feel you have to win every disagreement or argument or debate you get into with family,” said Suzanne Degges-White, the chair of Northern Illinois University’s Counseling, Adult and Higher Education Department. “Friends, we choose our romantic partner, but family, we can’t choose them, so don’t try to beat them. Because you’re never going to beat them! You’re going to be part of that family as long as you’re alive. So don’t go in with, ‘I’m going to show them.’”

Sometimes, it might be best to just avoid politics altogether if you’re at a family gathering like a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

“In some families, it’s three hours of your life out of 365 days and if you have to keep a lid on it, manage not to go where you know it’s … dangerous waters, you can do it,” she said.


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