Keep Your Friends: Six Tips for Talking Politics Without a Fight

5 years ago

It's campaign season again in America, that wonderful time when the people with whom you get along three out of every four years suddenly chafe you raw with their dinner conversation, their retweets and their Facebook status updates. I myself am among the annoying: I fly my liberal flag pretty much all the time, but I get worse when the rest of the country starts talking issues, too. And I really don't want to lose my friends over our differences of opinion. (Even though I'm right and they're wrong.)

Credit Image: apdk on Flickr

While many of my friends share my worldview, not all of them do. And -- I'm sure you've all had this happen as you've increasingly met more people through blogging and social media -- we're now confronted on a daily basis with hundreds or even thousands more people than we could ever see moving through our daily lives in the physical world. More opportunities to connect ... and more opportunities to disagree.

The most interesting thing about this 2012 campaign season to me is the laserbeam attention of the all-male candidate line-up on women's reproductive health. There was the Santorum supporter who wanted the ladies to use aspirin between the knees as birth control. There was the Planned Parenthood defunding and the resulting backlash. Rush Limbaugh called student and contraception coverage mandate supporter Sandra Fluke a slut on the air and female bloggers wondered if there was a war on women in this campaign season or if Rush is just one blowhard who does not a RNC make.

When politics focus on women's reproductive health, it's even harder for me to talk to women with an opposite viewpoint. (I've never had an abortion because I've always been a fiend about birth control -- sometimes using two methods at the same time -- but I believe it should be a safe, legal option for women.) It's going to be nearly impossible for me to discuss abortion or birth control with someone who is adamently opposed to either without needing to resort to my rules for civil discourse and hugging it out at the end of the day.

How to Discuss Politics with Respect Even When You Know You're Right

Tip one: Listen all the way without thinking about what you're going to say next while the other person is talking.

I'm horrible at this. (These rules are for me, too.) I'm a really bad interrupter. I'm not sure if I've always been an interrupter or if I developed it during my stint in super corporate America when the only way to get a word in edgewise with certain groups was to just talk when a space opened in the conversation. It's hard for me to not interrupt, and if I'm interrupted while I'm talking, it's hard for me to not interrupt BACK to finish my sentence (and then be accused of interrupting, oh, the injustice). My best advice: Write down what you want to say (just a phrase so you don't forget) and then sit back and listen. In many cases, the other person will acknowledge your point before you make it, and that can go a long way toward helping the two of you see you're not entirely misaligned on every point in the universe.

It's also much easier to not do the virtual version of interrupting if you read every word before starting your comment. It is so tempting to just flip down to the comments section halfway through the post. Always, always a bad idea. Also, do try to read all the other comments, because someone else may have already made your point and then you just look dumb if you make it again three comments later.

Tip two: Acknowledge the relationship whenever things get hot.

Conversations ebb and flow, and if it gets too hot, it's totally fine to back away from the discussion with a simple "We've been friends for eight years, and I don't want to say anything I can't take back because I feel really passionate about this. Let's talk about something else." In the online world, you can always close the window and just walk away. It's hard, but you can. Call a like-minded friend and get it all out instead of taking it public.

Tip three: Own your right to your viewpoint and the other person's right to hers.

In Erica Holloway's post about conservative women, she wrote:

"Don't for a second think that believing in limited government, fiscal conservatism, a strong national defense, free markets and personal responsibility means that I've somehow dropped my vagina off somewhere along the way. I'm still a woman."

Whether or not you agree with Erica, I like how she ended her post with that -- it establishes common ground with a mostly female readership before leaving the conversation to the comments.

Tip four: Stay focused on one topic at a time.

Any time you start talking politics in the U.S., it's sure to go to religion. They are pretty enmeshed here despite our founders' emphasis on the separation of church and state. And if you're talking women's issues, it's likely to get even worse. On Feminism Section Editor Mona Gable's post on birth control, Irishmom4 wrote:

ladies, we all have our different views on war/politics/plastic surgery/religion etc. and we will continue to have these, that's life. I totally undertand the lady tonight that said she does not want to pay for another persons contraceptives as she does not believe in them. I also understand that many women do not wish to pay for a war that may have drained our economy. What is not acceptable is for us to allow our rights to be dictated by an all male panel. It may be contraceptives now but what will it be next time? Are you willing to go back to June Cleaver days? This is not about our differences this is about our say in goverment of our issues.

Tip five: The absence of consent is not failure for either party.

I recently argued feminism with some very important people to me and realized I was not going to *win*. After sitting with it for a few days, I decided I'd made my point and should focus on making sure my daughter understands how I feel about women's rights -- particularly women's reproductive rights -- and leave it up to her to accept my viewpoint, rebel against it or take a thoughtful stance different from my own when the right time comes. I did it in relation to my own parents and grandparents, and of course at some point she'll do it, too. I don't have to convince the world I'm right, but I do want to convince the world I'm fair. Being fair means listening to other's viewpoints and agreeing to disagree and acknowledging when someone else has a great point even if you don't agree with it. It's really, really hard, and I'm still working on it.

Tip six: Ask an honest question.

In Karen Lynnn's post on voter identification, she owned her viewpoint but also her genuine bafflement over why anyone would disagree with her. It is much harder to be upset with someone who is genuinely confused, so if you are, go ahead and admit it -- people will be more inclined to explain their position than to ram it down your throat.

It's going to be a tough road to November. I actually majored in communication studies in college and still screw up basic discourse. How do you deal with political discussions?

For more discussion on commenting, read Virginia DeBolt's post on how comments add/detract from discussions. BlogHer's community guidelines are here.

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for

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