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How to talk to your political opponents

Imagine that you are having a heated political argument with a member of the “other” party over what the government should or should not do on various issues. You and your debate partner argue about what should be done about immigrants who want to come into the country. You argue about what should be done about the never-ending mass murder of people in schools, places of worship, and entertainment venues by killers using assault weapons. You argue about what should be done to improve employment and to improve the healthcare system. You argue about how to increase access to better schools and higher education. You and your partner care deeply about these issues and the debate about how to solve these issues goes on for quite a while. While you were arguing, another person was standing and watching. When there is a pause in the debate, this person comes over with a bewildered look, and asks “Why are you arguing so hard?” You and your debate partner both answer that these are important issues that need solutions and you are arguing about what are the best solutions. The newcomer says, “Why waste your time talking about those issues? They don’t really matter. Hakuna matata. Worry-free is my philosophy.”

Imagine how you would feel about this newcomer. Imagine how you would feel about your debate partner. I know how I would feel. I would be very annoyed at the newcomer, and would be thinking something like “what a jerk!” And I would suddenly appreciate and feel a connection with my debate partner: “At least he knows what is important in the world. He cares about what matters. We don’t agree right now about what to do about these issues, but we agree that they deserve close attention. We should talk more to see if we might find some more common ground and can identify some policies that we both agree would make sense to institute.”

This is an example of something that is fundamental to what makes us human. It illustrates how we might move beyond the political bubbles that are driving us apart. What makes us human is our motivation to share with others how we see the world, share what we experience as being real about the world—the motivation for shared reality. And shared reality begins with sharing with others what is happening in the world that deserves our attention, what is important in the world: it all begins with shared relevance. When we have shared relevance with others, we feel more connected to them and trust them more. In the above example, you and your debate partner share which political issues are worthy of attention and deserve an effort to find solutions. You don’t yet agree about what are the best solutions, but you feel connected because you do agree that they are important issues. In contrast, the newcomer does not share the opinion that these issues are important. This distances you from the newcomer. Between the two, your debate partner has become your partner.

Creating shared relevance is not the end of the story. But it is a beginning. To move beyond political bubbles it is not necessary to expect that a discussion will quickly lead to shared beliefs or shared solutions. This can take time. But it does matter if you can establish that certain issues are important, deserve close attention, and need solutions. Such shared relevance is the beginning of creating trust…even without initial agreement in feelings and beliefs. A classic case of this is the therapist-client relationship. Consider the following example:

A client begins the session by saying, “My wife doesn’t love me, and I feel lonely.” His therapist says, “You believe that your wife doesn’t love you. And you feel lonely.” The therapist is paying close attention to what the client says and simply repeats it. This is called mirroring because the therapist simply reflects back what the client is saying. Note that the therapist does not need to agree with the client’s belief or the client’s feelings in response to that belief. What the therapist is doing is communicating to the client that his belief about his wife’s feelings about him and how he feels about that is highly relevant to the therapist—so relevant it is worth the therapist’s close attention and worth repeating. By communicating this shared relevance, a closer and more trusting relationship is built between the therapist and the client.

Political debates are not an interaction between a therapist and a client. I am not recommending mirroring in political debates. But the motivational principle is the same: to build a closer and more trusting relationship, it begins with establishing shared relevance. This is one path to start to move beyond political bubbles.

Featured Image credit: Image by rawpixel via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Gambo hyellabula gundiri

    This thesis is a good for adoption .must especially for political target.

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