A Guide to Civil Political Conversations

Politics: a loaded word that makes some cringe, others puff up and most retreat—including myself. Like the 65% of millennials who report a desire to avoid politics, I have invested time into avoiding the divisive, angry rhetoric often surrounding political discussions. At Hope College, I study peace and justice and have taken exactly one political science class. Yet, I find myself this semester in the middle of America’s politics: on Hope’s Washington D.C. semester, hosted by the Political Science Department. I’m learning that engaging in politics doesn’t have to be terrifying. So, to all my fellow avoiders, you can do it! College is a time to explore your beliefs, and political views are included in this safe space. With the conversation so divisive, it’s more important than ever to voice your own opinions. Here are some ideas to create that safe space for the political discussion:


Dialogue, not Debate


Often, talking about any political view turns into people shouting their views at each other, each side convinced of their own “right-ness”, both closing their ears to the other’s argument. This approach, where one enters a conversation with the intention to “convert” the other person to their beliefs, is painful for all involved. To save yourself from that fruitless end, entering political conversations with a dialogue mindset can be helpful. Instead of trying to convince an opponent, dialogue means that you are seeking to understand and be understood by the other person. A mindset of working towards the same goal—to be heard and understood— provides the foundations for good, difficult conversations. As Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” advises, “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.”


Get to the Core of Beliefs


If you (or anyone around you) are getting riled up about an issue, it’s likely that there are personal stories and faces coloring the issue at hand. Maybe your neighbor has been affected by gun violence, your sister is a member of the LGBTQ+ community or you’ve seen welfare misused. Experiences shape beliefs, and, therefore, emotions are often connected. Know where your beliefs lie and what’s molded them. What are the issues that fill you with passion? Why are you so willing to defend that cause? Knowing what triggers an emotional response in you, whether that be anger, joy etc, allows you to control unintentional (though unsavory) facial expressions or reactions in conversations. When conversing with someone else who holds strong beliefs, also try to understand the core of why they believe what they do. Ask about what has made them so passionate about the issue. What are their connected stories? Want to try the 200-level class on navigating difficult conversations? Validate the other person’s experiences and their perspectives. It doesn’t mean that you are agreeing with their view, just that you hear them. Comments like, “I can see how that impacted you,” or “Thank you for helping me understand your view better” can de-escalate emotional conversations. It’s natural to take things personally and assume the worst of the other person. However, people have reasons behind what they believe. Assume the best and get to the core.


Be Shapeable (to a Point)


We can’t know the whole story on an issue. Listening to people who hold opposite views as you can help bring light to the bigger picture. Often, there are deeper factors at play or stories you haven’t yet heard. Be open to hearing and assessing all of it. That doesn’t mean that you change your mind on your opinions, just that you have humility and confidence in your views to reevaluate them from time to time. However, we each need places to ground our beliefs. Know your unshakable convictions—the roots you can cling to. Like playdough, you can be shapeable without changing what your metaphorical dough is made of. Another point to note: your opinion matters, even when you don’t have all the facts. Given the current fault lines between political parties, the desire to either retreat or explode in the face of politics is tempting. Feelings and identities are hidden underneath any political conversation, making the terrain difficult to navigate. However, understanding this and seeking common ground can change destructive conversations into vital ones. There are many political groups on campus to be involved in, including Hope Republicans and Hope Democrats, that foster this healthy environment. Additionally, the communication department’s “Intergroup Dialogue” class provides foundations for navigating any difficult conversation. As we anticipate the upcoming presidential election, creating a culture at Hope for safe political conversations is more important than ever. Your voice matters.

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