Thanksgiving dinner. Eating is over, pontificating begins. Uncle Lou, drink in hand, is about to impart bizarre misinformation he found dropping down a rabbit hole.
He does this every Thanksgiving. His pomposity makes it appear, which is his unspoken intent, that every word coming out of his mouth is the truth. Style trumps substance with Uncle Lou, though. It’s all true just because he’s saying it.
Everyone is getting uncomfortable, unconsciously frowning, but thank God relief is on the way: dessert. Apple pie and ice cream and everyone’s smiling again.
So goes the trope, not the reality. A 2017 Harris poll found that 47% of Americans avoid discussing politics at all costs during the holidays.
If a heated debate erupts, 48% of people will try to change the subject, 43% will attempt to persuade everyone not to talk politics at the dinner table and 10% will just drink more.
Talking nice has become more difficult as our country has become more polarized.
People are listening less and shouting more. Most folks don’t enjoy confrontational conversations.
And yet, completely avoiding political discourse is not a path toward understanding, let alone compromise and mutual solutions. What to do? A little evolutionary psychology might help.
The human species in its current form, homo sapiens sapiens, has only been around for 300,000 years. For 99% of our existence, we have lived in small clans, 10-20 people.
Cooperation was paramount for survival. We had to get along and sharing the same belief system was fundamental. We are hardwired to be tribal.
Studies have found that we humans, because of our evolution as an extremely social animal, are afflicted with three cognitive shortcomings:
- Confirmation Bias: We tend to believe information, and the people that deliver it, when it confirms our own belief system. Conversely, we tend to ignore information (even if it is based on solid evidence) that contradicts our personal belief system.
- Motivated Reasoning: We accept what we want to believe with little self-questioning analysis, but scrutinize what we don’t want to believe, trying to find rationalizations for our own position.
- Cognitive Dissonance: humans struggle when trying to hold two opposing positions in their minds. This internal conflict is almost always resolved by siding with your tribe. Emotion, rather than evidence, underlies so many of our decisions.
Everyone from The Atlantic to the New York Times has written about how to have constructive political conversations. Here’s what I’ve learned, although I must admit I often don’t live up to these suggestions.
First, if you’re engaging in a political conversation in order to convince someone to change their minds, forget it.
This will only cause cognitive dissonance and push them deeper into their own worldview. People who are put on the defensive almost always double down on their convictions.
If you’re threatening their belief system, you’re threatening their tribe.
Don’t pre-judge what your fellow conversationalist will say. Enter the conversation with an open heart and a desire to listen. Listen, listen, listen.
If you don’t understand something, ask questions without inserting your opinion.
If something is said that you find untruthful, you have the obligation to say so, but how and when you say something matters. Rather than lunging instantly like a guard dog, let them finish their thought.
Then you can respond with something like, “From my perspective, I disagree with your position but I understand where you’re coming from.” If you’ve really been listening, you should know why they believe what they believe.
Then it’s your turn to speak. Explain your position clearly and humbly. Nobody likes a blowhard.
Being judgmental or condescending will inevitably enrage your fellow human. Be respectful.
Being pedantic is petty, being educational is insulting and relying on personal attacks, rather than cogent, evidence-based argument, is undignified. Personally insulting someone is a sure way to end the discussion.
When the conversation gets heated, don’t throw up your hands and walk away. Instead, be aware of yourself. Know that your buttons are being pushed, recognize the anxiety it may be causing, and consciously remain calm.
Finally, search for where your ideas and their ideas can meet. Try to remember we are all in this together. We all live on the same planet and must share the same resources, drink the same water, breathe the same air. We must find common ground to co-exist.
Jenkins is a Resident Scholar Wyoming Humanities