With less than eight months to go until America elects its next president, people of all persuasions are being drawn into political conversations every day. Friends, family members, co-workers and even perfect strangers are party to (forgive the pun) discussions that make their blood boil, their hearts sink or their jaws drop.
Despite the time-held etiquette advice to stay away from talk of politics, sex and religion, I do believe it’s possible to have a political disagreement without being disagreeable. The following are my strategies for emerging from a piercing political conversation without collateral damage to anyone’s ego — or to your relationships.
1. Keep your thoughts sober
To avoid turning an otherwise civil conversation into a verbal slugfest, steer clear from alcohol, which will reduce your inhibitions and make misunderstandings and raised voices far more likely. Stay sober and toast to your civility once the conversation is through.
2. Try some classic background noise
Consider putting on some soft classical music as a backdrop to your conversation. This will help avoid awkward silences. Keeping the volume low will also mean you don’t have to shout to be heard. Let the strains of Beethoven provide a soothing soundtrack to your verbal minuet.
3. Captivate, but don't capture, your audience
Don’t take over a room (or a table) with a figurative ping-pong match. If this is a conversation that does not interest others, holding them hostage while the two of you trade volleys is not appropriate. Save the analysis for a time when the two of you can speak one-on-one.
4. Pay attention to your tone
If your discussion partner starts to raise his voice or get angry, resist the temptation to match his volume level. Keep your tone measured, calm and civilized. This will help prevent a rapid escalation of tempers.
5. Be a respectful listener
As much as you want to interrupt when you disagree with something you’ve just heard, resist the urge. Listen intently and make eye contact (and don’t roll your eyes.) Show respect to the other individual, and when your turn comes, request the same: “Please have the courtesy to hear me out, as I’ve done for you.”
6. Fact-check, but don't push
If your opponent starts spewing facts that sound incorrect, ask for the source: “I haven’t encountered that statistic before. Where did you discover it?” If she can’t produce a citation, agree to move on and revisit that particular point later. “Maybe you could look into that further and email me your source so I can consider it more fully?“
7. Remember that there are no miracles
Regardless of how well-researched your arguments might be, remember it’s highly unlikely the person opposite you is going to do a 180 — or even a 120. More than likely, you’ll both end up more convinced than ever about your own correctness. That being said, your inability to persuade someone else to switch views is not a failure on your part. In fact, if you carried on a conversation that proceeded with respect despite your opposing viewpoints, you achieved true success.
8. Keep the final sentiments positive
Avoid the temptation to get in the last word. Even something as seemingly diplomatic as “Let’s just agree to disagree” or “let’s just change the subject” puts you in the driver’s seat, because *you’re* deciding when to move on or terminate the dispute. Instead, consider something along the lines of, “Thank you for this conversation. I’m glad we had the chance to share opinions with one another."
Mister Manners, Thomas P. Farley, is an etiquette expert who works with individuals, corporations and universities to improve their agility and comfort in all aspects of common courtesy and professionalism. You can follow Thomas on Twitter @MisterManners.