How to Talk Politics and Stay Friends

Reviewed Aug 10, 2016

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Summary

  • Be mindful of the setting and the occasion.
  • Be curious, not argumentative.
  • Be ready to end a conversation that’s getting too heated.

“Who are you voting for?”

That question, when asked by a friend, relative or co-worker, can produce any number of outcomes. It can lead to a respectful and enlightening conversation that helps bring people together. It can also point in the opposite direction—toward a verbal brawl that leaves no one happy.

Talking politics doesn’t have to go that route, even when feelings are strong. But it takes some care to keep the dialogue civil. And there are at least a few settings in which it would be wise to leave political topics alone.

There is no one agreed-upon code of etiquette for talking politics. For instance, experts disagree (see “Resources” below) on whether political topics are appropriate for the workplace. But it’s clear that old social rules, such as not talking politics or religion at the dinner table, seem out of date. Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post, noted during the 2008 presidential campaign season that “talking politics is happening everywhere from boardrooms to family dinners.”  

Still, as Post and others have pointed out, people still need rules of some kind. Here are some tips for keeping political conversations civil:

Consider the context

Political speech is protected by the First Amendment, but it’s not free of social risk. It may be a divisive distraction at a workplace, and it may be out of tune with a wedding reception. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself a few questions about the people around you before bringing up a political topic:

  • How well do you know them?
  • Could you be mistaking a liberal for a conservative or vice versa?
  • If you’ve talked politics with them before, were they respectful or did they go for the jugular?
  • If the conversation goes sour, would that ruin someone else’s good time (or cost your company a sale, or break up a team)?

Having weighed these concerns, you should not be afraid to raise a political issue just because people will disagree. Airing of differences, if it’s done right, enriches everyone by exposing them to other points of view and pushing them to examine their own more closely. “Having as much collective wisdom as possible aired in a room is a good thing,” says Maren Showkeir, a leadership and organizational development consultant based in Phoenix, Ariz.      

Think about your motivation

You also need to ask questions of yourself and consider the following:

  • If you feel the urge to turn the conversation toward politics, what’s your goal?
  • If you’re secretly spoiling for a fight, you may well get one.
  • If you just want to vent your feelings about some issue or politician, be warned that those who disagree with you may feel just as strongly.
  • If you want to change someone’s mind, prepare to be frustrated. Deeply held convictions are not easily changed in the space of a conversation. You may even find yourself arguing against someone’s DNA. Research on the political views of identical twins suggests that a tendency to lean right or left may be at least partially inherited.

Be curious, not argumentative

You stand a better chance of having a constructive, friendly discussion if you approach it with the goal of learning. You do not need to make a secret of your own views, but you should be genuinely interested in understanding someone else’s point of view.

When you ask questions, they should be framed as true questions and not as argumentative statements. Don’t ask, “Whatever possessed you to vote for that guy?” Try something more like, “I’m interested in hearing your case for him.”

Can you ask such a question in a way that truly conveys respect and curiosity? Yes, says Showkeir who with her husband, Jamie Showkeir, has co-authored the book Authentic Conversations. Your intention will show, she says. If it is to “play ‘gotcha,’” the question will come out argumentative. If it is “truly curious,” that’s how the question will be heard. “If you want to be authentic, you have to make that choice before you engage in conversation,” she says.  

Know when to pull the plug

Sometimes there’s just no meeting of minds in a political conversation. You know you’ve reached that point when the same points are being repeated, only at higher volume.

Your own emotion may be a signal, says Jamie Showkeir. If you’re feeling frustrated or defensive, it’s probably time to bow out with a graceful line like these suggested by Anna Post:

  • “I guess we just don’t see eye to eye.”
  • “I’ll have to consider that.”
  • “For me, it’s private.”

You also may have to rule out certain topics with certain friends. Says Jamie Showkier: “There are some relationships where I have decided, after many conversations, that I just can’t talk about that subject with that person.”

Resources

Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment by Jamie and Maren Showkier (with foreword by Margaret J. Wheatley). Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.

“Civics and Civility,” Harvard Business Review. October 2004. Available at http://hbr.org.

“The Ethics of Talking Politics at Work,” by Bruce Weinstein, Phd. Bloomberg Businessweek, January 2008. Available at http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/jan2008/ca20080115_994641.htm.

“The Etiquette of Talking Politics” by Anna Post. Available at http://annapost.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/02/the-etiquette-o.html

By Tom Gray
Source: Jamie and Maren Showkeir, co-principals, Henning-Showkeir & Associates Inc., www.henning-showkeir.com; Emily Post Institute, www.emilypost.com; Anna Post's blog, What Would Emily Post Do? http://annapost.typepad.com; "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted" by John R. Alford, Carolyn L. Funk and John R. Hibbing. American Political Science Review, May 2005, www.apsanet.org

Summary

  • Be mindful of the setting and the occasion.
  • Be curious, not argumentative.
  • Be ready to end a conversation that’s getting too heated.

“Who are you voting for?”

That question, when asked by a friend, relative or co-worker, can produce any number of outcomes. It can lead to a respectful and enlightening conversation that helps bring people together. It can also point in the opposite direction—toward a verbal brawl that leaves no one happy.

Talking politics doesn’t have to go that route, even when feelings are strong. But it takes some care to keep the dialogue civil. And there are at least a few settings in which it would be wise to leave political topics alone.

There is no one agreed-upon code of etiquette for talking politics. For instance, experts disagree (see “Resources” below) on whether political topics are appropriate for the workplace. But it’s clear that old social rules, such as not talking politics or religion at the dinner table, seem out of date. Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post, noted during the 2008 presidential campaign season that “talking politics is happening everywhere from boardrooms to family dinners.”  

Still, as Post and others have pointed out, people still need rules of some kind. Here are some tips for keeping political conversations civil:

Consider the context

Political speech is protected by the First Amendment, but it’s not free of social risk. It may be a divisive distraction at a workplace, and it may be out of tune with a wedding reception. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself a few questions about the people around you before bringing up a political topic:

  • How well do you know them?
  • Could you be mistaking a liberal for a conservative or vice versa?
  • If you’ve talked politics with them before, were they respectful or did they go for the jugular?
  • If the conversation goes sour, would that ruin someone else’s good time (or cost your company a sale, or break up a team)?

Having weighed these concerns, you should not be afraid to raise a political issue just because people will disagree. Airing of differences, if it’s done right, enriches everyone by exposing them to other points of view and pushing them to examine their own more closely. “Having as much collective wisdom as possible aired in a room is a good thing,” says Maren Showkeir, a leadership and organizational development consultant based in Phoenix, Ariz.      

Think about your motivation

You also need to ask questions of yourself and consider the following:

  • If you feel the urge to turn the conversation toward politics, what’s your goal?
  • If you’re secretly spoiling for a fight, you may well get one.
  • If you just want to vent your feelings about some issue or politician, be warned that those who disagree with you may feel just as strongly.
  • If you want to change someone’s mind, prepare to be frustrated. Deeply held convictions are not easily changed in the space of a conversation. You may even find yourself arguing against someone’s DNA. Research on the political views of identical twins suggests that a tendency to lean right or left may be at least partially inherited.

Be curious, not argumentative

You stand a better chance of having a constructive, friendly discussion if you approach it with the goal of learning. You do not need to make a secret of your own views, but you should be genuinely interested in understanding someone else’s point of view.

When you ask questions, they should be framed as true questions and not as argumentative statements. Don’t ask, “Whatever possessed you to vote for that guy?” Try something more like, “I’m interested in hearing your case for him.”

Can you ask such a question in a way that truly conveys respect and curiosity? Yes, says Showkeir who with her husband, Jamie Showkeir, has co-authored the book Authentic Conversations. Your intention will show, she says. If it is to “play ‘gotcha,’” the question will come out argumentative. If it is “truly curious,” that’s how the question will be heard. “If you want to be authentic, you have to make that choice before you engage in conversation,” she says.  

Know when to pull the plug

Sometimes there’s just no meeting of minds in a political conversation. You know you’ve reached that point when the same points are being repeated, only at higher volume.

Your own emotion may be a signal, says Jamie Showkeir. If you’re feeling frustrated or defensive, it’s probably time to bow out with a graceful line like these suggested by Anna Post:

  • “I guess we just don’t see eye to eye.”
  • “I’ll have to consider that.”
  • “For me, it’s private.”

You also may have to rule out certain topics with certain friends. Says Jamie Showkier: “There are some relationships where I have decided, after many conversations, that I just can’t talk about that subject with that person.”

Resources

Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment by Jamie and Maren Showkier (with foreword by Margaret J. Wheatley). Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.

“Civics and Civility,” Harvard Business Review. October 2004. Available at http://hbr.org.

“The Ethics of Talking Politics at Work,” by Bruce Weinstein, Phd. Bloomberg Businessweek, January 2008. Available at http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/jan2008/ca20080115_994641.htm.

“The Etiquette of Talking Politics” by Anna Post. Available at http://annapost.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/02/the-etiquette-o.html

By Tom Gray
Source: Jamie and Maren Showkeir, co-principals, Henning-Showkeir & Associates Inc., www.henning-showkeir.com; Emily Post Institute, www.emilypost.com; Anna Post's blog, What Would Emily Post Do? http://annapost.typepad.com; "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted" by John R. Alford, Carolyn L. Funk and John R. Hibbing. American Political Science Review, May 2005, www.apsanet.org

Summary

  • Be mindful of the setting and the occasion.
  • Be curious, not argumentative.
  • Be ready to end a conversation that’s getting too heated.

“Who are you voting for?”

That question, when asked by a friend, relative or co-worker, can produce any number of outcomes. It can lead to a respectful and enlightening conversation that helps bring people together. It can also point in the opposite direction—toward a verbal brawl that leaves no one happy.

Talking politics doesn’t have to go that route, even when feelings are strong. But it takes some care to keep the dialogue civil. And there are at least a few settings in which it would be wise to leave political topics alone.

There is no one agreed-upon code of etiquette for talking politics. For instance, experts disagree (see “Resources” below) on whether political topics are appropriate for the workplace. But it’s clear that old social rules, such as not talking politics or religion at the dinner table, seem out of date. Anna Post, the great-great-granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post, noted during the 2008 presidential campaign season that “talking politics is happening everywhere from boardrooms to family dinners.”  

Still, as Post and others have pointed out, people still need rules of some kind. Here are some tips for keeping political conversations civil:

Consider the context

Political speech is protected by the First Amendment, but it’s not free of social risk. It may be a divisive distraction at a workplace, and it may be out of tune with a wedding reception. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself a few questions about the people around you before bringing up a political topic:

  • How well do you know them?
  • Could you be mistaking a liberal for a conservative or vice versa?
  • If you’ve talked politics with them before, were they respectful or did they go for the jugular?
  • If the conversation goes sour, would that ruin someone else’s good time (or cost your company a sale, or break up a team)?

Having weighed these concerns, you should not be afraid to raise a political issue just because people will disagree. Airing of differences, if it’s done right, enriches everyone by exposing them to other points of view and pushing them to examine their own more closely. “Having as much collective wisdom as possible aired in a room is a good thing,” says Maren Showkeir, a leadership and organizational development consultant based in Phoenix, Ariz.      

Think about your motivation

You also need to ask questions of yourself and consider the following:

  • If you feel the urge to turn the conversation toward politics, what’s your goal?
  • If you’re secretly spoiling for a fight, you may well get one.
  • If you just want to vent your feelings about some issue or politician, be warned that those who disagree with you may feel just as strongly.
  • If you want to change someone’s mind, prepare to be frustrated. Deeply held convictions are not easily changed in the space of a conversation. You may even find yourself arguing against someone’s DNA. Research on the political views of identical twins suggests that a tendency to lean right or left may be at least partially inherited.

Be curious, not argumentative

You stand a better chance of having a constructive, friendly discussion if you approach it with the goal of learning. You do not need to make a secret of your own views, but you should be genuinely interested in understanding someone else’s point of view.

When you ask questions, they should be framed as true questions and not as argumentative statements. Don’t ask, “Whatever possessed you to vote for that guy?” Try something more like, “I’m interested in hearing your case for him.”

Can you ask such a question in a way that truly conveys respect and curiosity? Yes, says Showkeir who with her husband, Jamie Showkeir, has co-authored the book Authentic Conversations. Your intention will show, she says. If it is to “play ‘gotcha,’” the question will come out argumentative. If it is “truly curious,” that’s how the question will be heard. “If you want to be authentic, you have to make that choice before you engage in conversation,” she says.  

Know when to pull the plug

Sometimes there’s just no meeting of minds in a political conversation. You know you’ve reached that point when the same points are being repeated, only at higher volume.

Your own emotion may be a signal, says Jamie Showkeir. If you’re feeling frustrated or defensive, it’s probably time to bow out with a graceful line like these suggested by Anna Post:

  • “I guess we just don’t see eye to eye.”
  • “I’ll have to consider that.”
  • “For me, it’s private.”

You also may have to rule out certain topics with certain friends. Says Jamie Showkier: “There are some relationships where I have decided, after many conversations, that I just can’t talk about that subject with that person.”

Resources

Authentic Conversations: Moving from Manipulation to Truth and Commitment by Jamie and Maren Showkier (with foreword by Margaret J. Wheatley). Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008.

“Civics and Civility,” Harvard Business Review. October 2004. Available at http://hbr.org.

“The Ethics of Talking Politics at Work,” by Bruce Weinstein, Phd. Bloomberg Businessweek, January 2008. Available at http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/jan2008/ca20080115_994641.htm.

“The Etiquette of Talking Politics” by Anna Post. Available at http://annapost.typepad.com/my_weblog/2008/02/the-etiquette-o.html

By Tom Gray
Source: Jamie and Maren Showkeir, co-principals, Henning-Showkeir & Associates Inc., www.henning-showkeir.com; Emily Post Institute, www.emilypost.com; Anna Post's blog, What Would Emily Post Do? http://annapost.typepad.com; "Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted" by John R. Alford, Carolyn L. Funk and John R. Hibbing. American Political Science Review, May 2005, www.apsanet.org

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