Talking Politics in the Days of Discord

by LesLee Bickford, Bright Morning Chief Strategy & Program Officer

At Bright Morning our tagline is “every conversation counts,” because we know how very true this is. When we approach conversations with intention, we can strengthen connections, and inspire and empower ourselves and others. 

Amid the seemingly constant discord in our country, I’ve been forced to reflect on the extent to which I’m making conversations count in my personal life. Last month I was visiting my hometown with extended family who span the political spectrum. My youngest cousin wanted to talk about Trump. More specifically, he wanted to ask everyone if they supported Trump and then make the case that if you didn’t, you didn’t love America. Our family is sharply divided on politics, so when he started trying to push his point, the reaction from almost everyone was to SHUT. IT. DOWN. There was a near universal opinion shared that “we do not talk about politics; it just makes everything so unpleasant.” 

I don’t think my family is unique in this way. My guess is that across America there are millions of people, especially white people, who come together with those they love and don’t engage in the not fun, often uncomfortable conversations about politics, race, inequities, white domination, etc. There are countless reasons why white people don’t have these conversations: believing that it’s not appropriate, feeling inadequate to take it on, not feeling an urgent need to because the most pressing issues aren’t impacting our daily lives. When I was younger and pushed conversations about inequity with my very conservative grandfather, my grandma used to tell me that I would be to blame if he had a heart attack. And she wasn’t joking. 

Every time these conversations pop up, I am flooded with so many reasons why I don’t want to have them. Sometimes I let those reasons crush my courage and I stay silent. I know at the root of all my “why not to” reasons is fear, and while fear is a legitimate emotion to feel, I also know I’m not really in danger. But I know our country is. I know immigrants are. I know people of color and Indigenous people are. I know LGBTQ people are. Their lives are more important than my comfort and harmony, and in addition, the evidence shows* that while it’s very challenging to change deeply held beliefs, the best chance we have at doing so is when we feel a sense of belonging with those we’re in conversation with. This knowledge has led me to deeply believe that the most courageous and pressing conversations can take place around the dinner table. Or the staff lounge. Or at happy hour. 

So, if you’re like me and want to make more conversations count, here are 7 ways to get moving: 

  1. Activate your courage and conviction.  
    • When have you been courageous in the past? What did that look and feel like? 
    • Why does it matter that you have this conversation? What’s at stake if you don’t? 
  2. Set your intention. 
    • How do you want to show up in this conversation? If someone was going to engage with you about a deeply held belief, how would you want them to show up? 
    • What will it look and feel like if you hold your intention throughout the conversation? 
  3. Visualize a (realistic) outcome: 
    • What do you hope to be true at the end of this conversation? What will that look, feel and sound like? 
  4. Pick and practice a few lines. 
    • What questions do you want to ask and learn about in your conversation? Two questions I have found helpful are, “What has led you to feel so strongly about X” and, “What do you fear might happen if X?” as I’ve learned that at the root of a lot of aggression is a fear of what might happen to the person or those they love. 
    • Another line I go to often is, “What would it mean if you were wrong? What would the consequences of that be?” This is personally how I think through many of my own decisions and deeply held beliefs.
  5. Identify triggers and how you’ll cope with being triggered. 
    • What are the specific things people say and do that set you off? Which strategies have you used in the past that help you stay calm? 
    • Many people use breathing or visualizing strategies when triggered. I count to 5. This gives me time to consider my next words and action and not react from  non-productive anger. 
  6. Have an out and know when to leave. 
    • If the situation becomes toxic (not to be confused with challenging or uncomfortable!), nothing good will come of it. Know what you will say to end the conversation. 
    • My go-to for these moments is, “I wanted to have this conversation to connect with you and so we could both learn from each other’s perspective. However, it seems like we’re really at an impasse here and this conversation is only driving us further apart. If you’re interested in re-engaging and learning from each other in the future, please let me know.” 
  7. Just do it. 
    • Accept that you might not ever feel 100% ready and that’s okay. Approach the conversations with an open heart and a desire to make a connection.

Let’s make every conversation count. Some will be transformational, while others will be big flops. What counts is that we’re finding our courage and striving (over and over again) to bring more connection and justice to the world. There’s no time to waste. 

* Interested in learning more about what the evidence says regarding changing minds? Read more here on why it’s so hard.

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.

Photo by Inés Castellano on Unsplash