Originally published in the San Antonio Express-News, September 26, 2004
by Susan Ives

The first presidential election I remember is the one in 1960, when I was 8. I wore my Kennedy button proudly, spouting slogans such as “I’m for the Democrats because they stand up for the working man,” which was the sum total of my father’s political philosophy.

My brother, three years younger, wore a Nixon button, but he was a stupid little baby who didn’t know any better.

Our political discourse hasn’t progressed much since then.

Many of my friends lament that they don’t know how to discuss politics with their families. Not so much the passing partisan detail of whether their cars sport Bush/Cheney or Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers, but the deeper issues.

How does the nation decide to go to war? What is the proper balance between security and civil liberties? How do we care for the poor, the aged, the hungry, the sick, the dying? How do we educate our children? How should the tax burden be distributed? How do we balance growth and the environment?

Our families, neighbors and co-workers are accidental associations. We didn’t pick these people out of the crowd because we share the same values. We were thrown together because we were born of the same womb, work in adjoining cubicles or bought houses in the same neighborhood. We do not necessarily see eye to eye.

Folk wisdom says that you shouldn’t discuss politics around the dinner table, at the water cooler or over the back fence. In a way, this makes sense. Why risk a fight with people who will be sitting next to you at Thanksgiving dinner?

But if we can’t discuss these most important issues with the people we care about most, with whom do we talk about politics? Strangers?

The media — especially the broadcast media — have given us a warped example of how to discuss politics. They go for the memorable sound bite, the clever turn of phrase, the definitive put-down.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Within our families, work groups and neighborhoods we can write our own rules.

I asked some colleagues who are skilled at facilitating dialogues on difficult issues for their advice on how to discuss politics with family without having the discussion end in tantrums or tears.

The first step, they say, is to reframe the encounter. It’s not a debate. Your intent is not to persuade, win or prove that you are right. It is a discussion, your role is to listen and the goal is to understand the other’s point of view. And, it’s hoped, for the other person to understand yours.

People open up when they are listened to with respect. In a debate or an argument we often find ourselves leaning forward with impatience, waiting for our turn to speak. Or we butt in, not even letting the other person finish. In a discussion, we listen.

It’s hard to remain silent when you disagree. It helps to center yourself. Take a few deep breaths, count to three, practice being comfortable with companionable silence.

Draw out stories, make it personal. What is the most important issue for you in this campaign? Why is that important to you? Was there an experience in your life or something you saw, read or heard about that helped develop your opinion? If you were in charge, what would you do differently in that area? What do you think is going well today?

After listening, clarifying and understanding, use an “I statement” to express your point of view. Not, “you are a stupid little baby who doesn’t know any better” but rather “from my experience, I see it this way.”

Use respectful language, not only toward the person you are listening and speaking to, but also about public figures. If the other person gets carried away, rephrase their statement to bring it back to a less polarized plane.

Look for areas of agreement. We may disagree about school vouchers, for example, but we can probably agree that every child has a right to a quality education.

Open your own mind and heart to change. There is truth all along the political spectrum.

I’ve been practicing these techniques on my friends, and they work. Now, I just have to test them out on that stupid little baby who still has a Nixon button in his bureau drawer.

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