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How to Bring Civility to Political Arguments

Civility, respect, understanding, and the willingness to listen. These are core conversational virtues that are universally appreciated.

What’s interesting is that, although we all want to see these admirable virtues on display in these political conversations, they are still woefully lacking.

We’re struggling to keep the peace because the political division we see on the campaign trail is creeping its way into our relationships.

How can we have these conversations in a way that leaves our relationships intact?

In my experience, one of the biggest mistakes I see in negotiations and difficult conversations is the tendency to begin to persuade too soon.

Instead, we need to begin these conversations with some positive momentum. In order to do this effectively, we need to use the right kind of communication.

There are two levels of communication: 

Level 1: 

Seeking understanding in order to maintain or strengthen the relationship and preserve group cohesion. 

Goals of Level 1 Communication: 

  • Learn, Not Teach
  • Share, Not Preach
  • Respect Despite Differences

Level 2: 

Seeking to persuade in order to change beliefs. 

Using Level 1 Communication is challenging because our natural response is to jump in and tell people what we perceive to be the “right answer” and to invalidate their points in order to persuade them. The danger of using Level 2 Communication too early in the conversation is that it often triggers defensiveness and may cause the other party to shut down, disengage, or become combative.

Our goal here is simple — close the gap of understanding. Level 1 Communication is all about bringing you and your colleague closer together through increasing mutual understanding and respect. 

Next, we should try to begin each conversation by introducing a positive and collaborative frame in order to create an atmosphere of psychological safety. This will make them feel more comfortable and increase their willingness to engage meaningfully in the discussion. 

With framing, we are answering the following questions:

  1. What are we talking about?
  2. Why are we talking about it?
  3. What is your goal for the interaction and the relationship?

Here’s an example: 

‘I’m looking forward to chatting with you about the election. I want to get a better understanding of your perspective because I care about you and I respect your opinion.’

According to the psychology of memory, people are more likely to remember the beginnings and endings of interactions. This means we want to use framing at the beginning and then recap the conversation with a positive frame at the end. This approach will make it more likely that they will remember the interaction fondly, which increases the likelihood that the conversation will end with the relationship intact. 

A critical skill is the ability to distinguish between a political position and the values that support it. This is difficult to do when your positions are on opposite sides of the political spectrum and you’re struggling to comprehend how a rational, decent person could see things differently.

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One of the most powerful tools that helps us to understand the values of others in political discussions is Moral Foundations Theory, a branch of political psychology popularized in the book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.

This theory identifies six moral foundations that help explain the underlying beliefs behind political ideologies and serves as a good starting point for understanding others. 

1) Caring for the Vulnerable and Avoiding Undue Harm

2) Fairness 

3) Loyalty to the Group vs. Betrayal

4) Respecting Authority vs. The Subversion of Authority

5) Sanctity (seeing certain things as sacred, i.e. The American Flag) 

6) Liberty and Autonomy vs. Oppression/Restricted Freedom

If you can demonstrate our understanding during the conversation, they will be less defensive and there will be more avenues for civil discourse. 

When we are talking about politics, emotions are inevitable. We cannot eliminate emotions from these conversations, but we can manage them by using the Compassionate Curiosity Framework from my book, Finding Confidence in Conflict: How to Negotiate Anything and Live Your Best Life.

  1. Acknowledge and Validate Emotions.

Labeling emotions is one of the most powerful ways to move people toward emotional stability in difficult conversations by diminishing the negative impact of problematic emotions.

We want to use the following terms to label emotions: 

  • It sounds like…
  • It seems like…

For example: 

  • It sounds like this is an important issue for you.
  • It seems like you want to make sure that people are treated fairly. 

With the step of validation, we’re not necessarily agreeing with them but we’re letting them know that based on their perspective, we can understand where they’re coming from.

2. Get Curious with Compassion.

Your secret weapon in these difficult conversations is curiosity. 

Make sure your questions are both compassionate and open-ended. Focus on questions that start with “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “how.”

Use the word “why” with caution because it is often associated with judgment and often triggers a defensive response.

The reason the word compassion is included in this step is because we need to be mindful of our tone. If we use the wrong tone, they are likely to have a negative emotional response. 

3. Use Joint Problem Solving

This speaks to the fundamentals of collaborative negotiation.

We can use this part of the process to bring the discussion to its logical conclusion. 

If it’s a situation where there was previous tension, let them know that you appreciate their participation in the conversation and that your hope is that you can continue to work together effectively. 

This is where you can talk about your positive vision for the future of the relationship. 

If you’ve been able to generate positive momentum by using Level 1 Communication, then you can use Level 2 communication and begin the persuasion process. Sequencing the conversation in this way works because people will be unwilling to adjust their position if they don’t feel like you understand their position.  

Remember this — conflict is an opportunity.

Let’s bring civility back to these conversations and use this model to turn these discussions into opportunities to deepen our relationships and improve mutual understanding.

Acknowledgements also to: 

Chris Voss' book Never Split the Difference. In the article there are two sections from the book:  Acknowledge and Validate Emotions which is from pages 54-57 of NSTD and Get Curious With Compassion which is from pages 148-155 of NSTD.


Kwame Christian

Kwame Christian Esq., M.A. is the Director of the American Negotiation Institute where he conducts negotiation and conflict resolution trainings. Additionally, he practices business law at Carlile Patchen and Murphy LLP and serves as a professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and Otterbein University's MBA Program.    MORE >

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