Do you have a friend, family member or co-worker whose political convictions tend to run opposite your own?
If you do, you’re not alone. During this particularly contentious election season, it’s difficult to prevent political discussions from creeping into the office, restaurant or living room. How should we approach these seemingly inevitable conversations when participants strongly disagree about an issue or a candidate?
Author David Maxfield is vice president of research at VitalSmarts, a research and training company that has published a series of books, including Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. Maxfield was the lead researcher on a recently-completed study looking at how people can communicate more effectively about sensitive political topics.
On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Maxfield joined host Don Marsh to discuss the results of the study and to provide expert advice on handling “crucial conversations” during politically polarizing times.
What’s the key to having good political discussions? Safety. Maxfield explained that creating an environment where all participants feel safe enough to avoid slipping into defensive or unproductive behavior is the first step toward healthy dialogue.
His latest study, completed this month, relied on focus group data from over 3,000 participants. It found that communication skills had a greater impact on potentially troublesome interactions than simple agreement or disagreement between individuals.
Based on the findings of this study and the company’s previous work in Crucial Conversations, Maxfield offered three basic principles for talking about challenging topics.
1. Make rules and get permission.
This may sound unnatural or unrealistic at first, but Maxfield explained that it doesn’t have to be. At the onset of a conversation, simply saying, “I’m not trying to debate you, but I do want permission to share and hear conflicting opinions,” can help both individuals understand one another’s intentions.
2. Show respect.
Assuring others of your respect for them is another easy way to avoid unnecessary escalation. Saying, “I value you and your perspective, I want to hear from you and I don’t assume I’m right,” may seem straightforward, but Maxfield notes that it makes a significant difference in the quality of an interaction.
3. Focus on common ground.
Lastly, Maxfield says to look for ways to cut through the specifics of your disagreements to uncover the core values guiding your decision-making process. When you find similarities there, doors are opened to discussing what leads you to take different positions based on those same values.
Controversy in politics is not a new phenomenon. The particularly contentious nature of the 2016 elections, however, has perhaps created an ever greater need for communication skills to avoid polarization. The language used by political candidates often trickles into the language used in conversations among the general public, and Maxfield explained that this can create undue divides.
“They’re making comments that become really accessible and easy for us to repeat,” Maxfield said. “Some of them are so dramatic that they act as dis-inhibitors.”
By focusing on safety and employing the three principles he recommended, Maxfield said it is possible to avoid these disinhibitions and to have sincere dialogue with those of differing views.
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