How to Depolarize Our Political Conversations

“I know it is conventional to say we Americans are radically divided, polarized. But this is not more true than its opposite—in essential ways we share false assumptions and flawed conclusions that are never effectively examined because they are indeed shared.” – Marilynne Robinson

This past week I started reading Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, in an effort to begin “depolarizing” myself. Her writing provides a refreshing break from the polemics of our current political landscape, where everything is framed in terms of Us vs. Them, Right vs. Left, Good vs. Evil. While this polarized way of thinking was thrilling for a time, I am beginning to see just how self-defeating it is. When we view those on the “other side” as lost souls to be converted, we create an environment that, paradoxically, makes such conversion almost impossible. In fact, it has the exact opposite effect of what we intend – resulting in both parties walking away feeling more divided, more self-justified, and more confident in their original viewpoint.

This is probably not new information to any of you who have spent any time on social media. And yet, if you’re anything like me, you continue to have these polarized conversations even though you “know” they aren’t fruitful. There are many possible scapegoats for this phenomenon – media bias, Facebook, politicians, “the system.” But pointing the finger is not going to solve the problem. Ultimately, it is up to me and you to find a different way to relate to one another. No one else is going to do it for us. No one else is coming to our rescue.

Before I offer an alternative, it’s important to identify what exactly is wrong with our current way of talking about politics. The problem is not that it leads to conflict – I would suggest that the conflict is present whether we acknowledge it or not, and that conflict, when engaged in a healthy way, leads to growth and maturity. The problem is that it doesn’t work. It simply does not accomplish what we want it to accomplish. We think, If only I could present them with this piece of information, they would change their thinking. We think, If only I could yell louder than the other voices in their lives, they will come around. But these are flawed conclusions, and if you have made any earnest attempt in this direction, you know this to be true.

Let me be clear about what I’m NOT saying. I’m NOT saying that we shouldn’t talk about politics, or that any topic that creates conflict should be banned. This would only contribute to the distance between us, and would result in increasingly inauthentic relationships where we are able to share less and less of ourselves. Instead, I’m suggesting that we find a new way to have these conversations – a way that leads to deeper connection instead of greater division, and that allows us to enlarge our perspective instead of doubling down on what we already believe. So if you are weary of the current polemics, and want to try something different, I invite you to consider the following “Guiding Principles of Depolarization.”

Guiding Principle #1: Let go of your need to change their vote.

Wait – isn’t that the whole point of having the conversation?? If changing their vote isn’t the goal, why bother?? Stay with me. This principle does NOT mean that you need to let go of your passion about the issues. It does NOT mean that you need to be apathetic, or not care about what the other person thinks. It does NOT mean that you don’t WANT the other person to see (and possibly adopt) your point of view. So what does it mean? It means that my primary aim in having the conversation is to understand your perspective and to be understood, rather than persuading you to think differently. I want to deeply listen as you share about what you believe and how you came to those beliefs. And then I want to share what I believe, but with the goal of being understood, rather than the goal of changing you.

Why is this so important? Because my deep-seated need to change your view is the very thing that causes the polarization. If my goal is to change your view, and your goal is to change mine, our goals are diametrically opposed to one another. We are playing a zero sum game that only one of us can win, which means we are in competition with one another. Furthermore, when someone is attacking our view, we feel fundamentally unsafe. That’s why we get defensive and close ourselves off to new ideas. When all our energy is spent fortifying our position to protect against further attack, no energy is left to consider a different perspective. This cannot and will not lead to growth and maturity. It only serves to entrench us more deeply in our current ways of thinking, which are inevitably riddled with blind spots.

If we let go of this need to “win,” the entire dynamic of the conversation changes. Instead of two opponents with contradictory goals, we are working together toward the shared goal of mutual understanding. And in fact, it is only when we make this shift that we create an environment where change is actually possible. Why is this? Because for change to be possible, we need to feel safe enough to explore new ways of thinking. We feel safe when we feel like the person sitting across from us respects our intellect and character, and doesn’t have an agenda beyond understanding where we’re coming from. It is only under these circumstances that we can be honest about our doubts, because we’re not afraid of revealing vulnerabilities and losing ground. And being honest about our doubts is necessary if we are going to break new ideological ground.

Furthermore, when we can engage with the person across from us as a human being who we want to understand rather than as a problem to be fixed, the relationship is strengthened. And this – a deep, meaningful, authentic relationship – is the primary way that change happens. Every significant paradigm shift that I’ve undergone in my life has happened as a result of such a relationship. My guess is that this is the case for most of us.

So if you want the people around you to vote differently, stop trying to change their vote.

Guiding Principle #2: Engage with the person in front of you.

Have you ever been in a conversation where you felt invisible? The other person is making an argument against your beliefs, only…they don’t actually know what you believe. They are making assumptions, many of which are wrong, and then having a whole conversation with this imaginary version of you. (Of course, it’s much easier to win a debate against an imaginary opponent, because you can practice ahead of time!) I know that I have been guilty of this, and for that I repent. It is extremely frustrating, and ultimately serves no one.

So please, don’t tell someone what they believe, and don’t assume that you know. Ask. Let me say that again. ASK. Use your words and form a question. “What did you think about _____________?” “What is your opinion of _________________?” “What do you believe about _________?” Don’t ask leading, manipulative questions, e.g. “Don’t you think it’s hypocritical that ______________?” Ask open questions that start with “What?” or “How?” Ask questions that you genuinely want to know the answer to, and then LISTEN to the response. Ask follow up questions to clarify and deepen your understanding. “You said _______. What do you mean by that?” “That’s really interesting! How did you come to that view?” Curiosity is key. You have to actually want to know the answers to the questions you ask. If you don’t, you won’t listen. You’ll just pounce on the first thing that comes out of their mouth that gives you ammo for your next attack.

Polarization requires believing that there are only two ways of thinking, and that one way is “right” and the other way is “wrong.” In reality, the number of possible perspectives is infinite. And none of them is 100% right or 100% wrong. The idea that there are “two sides” benefits media outlets (who profit off of our allegiance), advertisers (who profit off of our addiction), and politicians (who don’t have to worry about scrutiny if they’re on “my” team). This way of thinking does not benefit you or me, and it certainly doesn’t benefit our relationships.

When we are stuck in this way of thinking, we simply cannot see the person in front of us, with all their nuance and complexity. Instead, we reduce them to a stereotype, and then argue with that stereotype. If we would allow them to break free of the box we want to put them in, we would learn something. This is how growth happens. This is how relationships change us for the better.

Guiding Principle #3: Define yourself apart from your preferred party.

When we identify ourselves too strongly with a particular political party, a funny thing happens – we defend policies that we don’t actually believe in. I’ve done this many times. I start the conversation passionately advocating for a cause I genuinely care about, only to find myself an-hour-and-27-topics later making a case for something that I don’t even care about. Why? Because when our goal is to change someone’s vote, we can’t allow for any weaknesses in our party’s platform. If we leave an issue undefended, how will we convince them to come on board? This is, of course, absurd. The person sitting across from you is all too aware of the weaknesses of your side. If you can be honest and acknowledge that you see those weaknesses too, you’ll at least gain some credibility and avoid accusations of hypocrisy.

Because our polarized positions are so deeply entrenched, you may need to make time for honest reflection outside of contentious conversations in order to figure out what you actually believe about certain issues. This is extra work, but it will save you countless hours of meaningless debate over topics you don’t actually want to defend. This is the crucial work of depolarization.

Bonus Tip: Don’t consume media that causes you to FEAR, HATE, and/or DISDAIN an entire group of people.

It may be entertaining and it may scratch that “I’m right” itch, but it is simultaneously corroding your soul. If a particular media outlet is consistently trying to stir up fear, hatred, or disdain toward an entire group of people – Republicans/Democrats, white/black, police/protesters – run the other direction!

I realize that there is a lot at stake in our upcoming election, and I certainly don’t want to trivialize the differences between us. But I think Marilynne Robinson is right when she says that the bigger problem is the false assumptions that we share, and that are therefore left unexamined. It is a false assumption that it is either “your way” or “my way.” It is a false assumption that victory comes only by winning converts to one party or the other. It is a false assumption that we are playing a zero sum game.

What if the way we play the game is as important as the outcome? What if the way we behave in conversation with one another is actively shaping the character of our country? What if we believed that empathy and honesty and integrity were more important than winning at all costs?

How would that change things for you? For us? For our country?

Reflections Questions:

  1. What stands out to you in this post? Which guiding principle feels most challenging?
  2. In what relationships/contexts do your conversations feel most polarized? Why do you think this is?
  3. List out all the different sources of media that you regularly consume. How do you think it is impacting you? (i.e. How does it impact the way you view the world? How does it impact the way you relate to people who have different perspectives? How does it impact your emotional and physical health?)