In family settings, among friends and acquaintances, and in faith communities, disagreements about political issues sometimes emerge. The temptation is to defend our own position and settle into an “I’m right, you’re wrong” dichotomy, and tempers can ignite. As a consequence, we might tend to avoid potential areas of conflict for the sake of “keeping the peace.” But avoiding genuine dialogue and discussion cuts off opportunities for learning and growth.
These guidelines can be used to structure a conversation around a difficult political issue, whether in family/small group settings, or in larger settings.
Take a moment at the outset of the discussion to allow those present to center themselves, breathe deeply, and be present to their body, emotions, and thoughts. In a spontaneous and unplanned political discussion, this might be accomplished by breaking into a conversation in which tensions are rising: “Hold on a minute. We’re talking about some really important things, and we should do it in the most respectful way possible. Can we take just a second to slow down and make sure we’re really listening to each other?” In a planned discussion begin with a clear statement of the issue being considered and clarify the intent of the dialogue. Acknowledge that all involved in the discussion share a common ground: that the issue is important, there are various perspectives on the issue and that discussion and dialogue may lead to important understandings and creative outcomes. Invite a moment of silence or a prayer for guidance, openness and attentive listening.
Encourage everyone to listen to each other with their whole self: mind, senses, feelings, intuitions and imagination. Allow each person to speak without interruption, promote pauses between speakers to absorb what has been said, and try to assure that everyone in the group has an opportunity to speak and share their perspectives. Ask that everyone speak from their own experience and share personal stories that have shaped their perspective on the issue. Avoid generalizations, hypothetical questions or statements, and quoting your favorite pundits. Do share any facts, statistics, or data that may be important to the discussion but outside the group’s common knowledge, making sure to provide the source and why you think it may be relevant to the issue.
When each person has had the opportunity to share their perspective, dialogue may begin. Look for questions that go deeper into a person’s experience, rather than challenges to their conclusions. The group should not look for facile agreement, but recognize genuine differences, and attempt to clarify these differences. The emphasis here should not be on persuading or convincing, but on helping each person to fully consider his or her own position in relation to others.
It may be helpful, if there is a sharp difference or disagreement, to state the other person’s position in your own words: “are you saying that … ?”. Offer your summary in as neutral and compassionate a way as possible, and check in with the person whom you’re summarizing to make sure you are accurately reflecting their thoughts and feelings.
As you engage with those who differ from you, look for the emotional “core” of their perspective. Do not attempt to psychoanalyze, diagnose, or dismiss a person’s perspective based on the emotional content it contains, but try to connect to this part of their experience. As they speak, try to imagine what it may feel like for them to articulate this experience or idea. Do they seem nervous? Angry? Upset? Do not challenge these feelings; simply accept them.
As you notice your own feelings and emotions, do not try to dismiss them, but hold them lightly.
Make note of any changes in your feelings and emotions that may evidence changes in your perspective and new ways for you to think about the issue.
As the conversation comes to a close, thank the group for sharing their perspectives, for listening to each other, and for their honesty, integrity and openness. If appropriate, each person present may have the opportunity to identify something they learned, something that was new to them, or something they want to think more about.
“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” – Rainer Maria Rilke