Political discussions in many places around the world have become more contentious than at any time in our recent history. It seems almost impossible to have a calm conversation with someone who doesn’t hold our own political views. In North America and Liberia, we’re approaching the Thanksgiving holiday where families have a tradition of coming together to show gratitude for a successful harvest. In many of these settings, the dinner-table conversation with be with people we don’t agree with.
In this episode, Kurt and Tim share 5 tips on how to maintain civil discourse at the dining table during these family gatherings. As we all know, families aren’t homogeneous groups of automatons – in the United States or anywhere else. People choose different paths for their political or religious beliefs and “what I believe” can be difficult for those who don’t share those beliefs.
At the heart of these conflicts is that we are all different and different is good. To maintain a successful civilization, we need both conservative and liberal perspectives. Without a conservative perspective, we might fail to honor long-standing institutions. Without a liberal perspective, we might fail to move past our comfort zones. We need both, so we start by recognizing that.
Our list begins with being curious and we refer to the person we disagree with as “the crazy uncle,” with no disrespect for uncles or mental illness. When this uncle makes a statement you don’t agree with, don’t zing back a rebuttal…just ask him about his comment. How did he come to this perspective? What makes him believe this is the case? To what degree is he certain of this?
We reference an excellent article in Psychology Today by Robert Mauer on the topic of curiosity. Mauer urges readers to frame questions with high integrity and pure wonder. When you’re in that space, you are more likely to engage in conversations with people you initially disagreed with.
The second tip is to focus on the topic, not the person. Never attack the person with your objections – focus on the issue at hand. It’s about the topic, not the person! A critical error in any contentious conversation is the erosion of the dialogue away from the topic at hand. When emotions get the best of us, we can dog-pile our grievances onto the crazy uncle and lose sight of why we disagree in the first place. Don’t wander from the point either of you was trying to make.
The third tip is to argue the facts, not the perceptions. And when you don’t agree on facts, agree to move on to a topic that you DO agree on the facts. (That means you need to think about the FACTS, not just your opinion.) It’s more of a philosophical approach, but still important in keeping the discourse civil, it’s best if we can agree on certain facts, even when they don’t support our own position.
John Greco’s chapter called “Knowledge as Credit for True Belief” in the Clarendon Press book titled Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives From Ethics and Epistemology is a great example of how to focus on facts and not perceptions.
Another way to approach the potentially contentious discussion is to make an agreement up front with the other person to focus on facts. Annie Duke, in her book Thinking in Bets, speaks to the importance of agreeing on a set of “rules” and sticking to it. Set up an agreement prior to the discussion and hold yourself accountable.
Our fourth tip is also related to Annie Duke’s book, and that is to talk in percentages and avoid black-and-white statements. Use statements like, “I’m 75% confident that gun legislation could have a positive impact on mass shootings,” and avoid saying things like, “You’re an idiot for not supporting gun control!”
Annie’s book is the best reference for avoiding a black and white approach to topics, especially challenging ones, and gives readers a very powerful toolbox for working our way through difficult dialogues. Most importantly, she reminds us that we don’t know everything – we never have, and we never will. We can feel certain, but that doesn’t mean we are perfectly correct. Allow our conversation with the crazy uncle to rest in the space of, “We could be wrong, even a little bit.”
The fifth tip is to respect our differences. Political difference has roots that are deeper than where we grew up – scientists are discovering that there are biological differences between conservatives and liberals. From what we know, the brains of people who tend to be more progressive experience triggers differently from those who tend to be more conservative. For instance, loud noises tend to impact people who are more conservative with more fear or caution than those who tend to be more progressive. These are uncontrollable, reflexive responses and we’re not going to persuade anyone to change their DNA.
To expand on this topic, we refer you to two pieces of value. In a Scientific American article by Emily Laber-Warren, the author highlights key findings in recent years about how Conservatives are better organizers and cleaners while Liberals are more novelty-seeking.
And one of our favorite books, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, is a reference volume on how to understand and work with the differences we have. Highly recommended.
BONUS TIP: What do you want to achieve in this conversation? If you’re approaching your dinner conversation with the intent to persuade others to your point of view, think again. How would you feel if you felt as though others at the dinner table were trying to persuade you to agree with their controversial ideas?
We recommend you leverage the power of your curiosity to learn more about what your crazy uncle has going on in his cranium. You just might leave the dinner table a little more informed than when you arrived.