I used to manage political campaigns in Florida, a truly competitive state when it comes to the number of Democrats vs. Republicans.
Dreaded was the moment when I would be asked what I do for a living because that was the point in the conversation where one of two things would happen: Either the person would “spot a friend across the room” or “suddenly have to use the restroom,” ending our conversation, or they would lean closer and say something to the effect of “I knew I liked you” or “fascinating, tell me more” and our relationship would be solidified.
Fifty-fifty. That was the risk that my conversation and new friend would evaporate as soon as I revealed my political orientation. Over and over again, I saw how divisive politics were when, just by claiming my political party aloud, I would lose friends.
How could I explain what I did for a living without alienating half of the people I met? I experimented with many different ways to say it. For the record, this was the winning way to do it:
Other person: So what is it that you do for work?
Me: I manage campaigns.
Other person: What kind of campaigns? Advertising? Political?
Other person: Do you mind sharing your political affiliation?
Me: Not at all. I will tell you, but you have to promise not to tell my dad. I’m a Democrat. He’s a Republican. I’ve only worked for Democrats. Every time I get a new job in politics he reminds me that I’m working for the wrong party…Everyone can see through the “I-stopped-my-lips-from-moving-but-all-I’m-doing-is-waiting-until-you-stop-talking-so-that-you-can-hear-how-my-POV-is-superior-to-yours” act.
I thought a lot about why that approach worked, and I uncovered a few simple rules to successfully discussing politics. Since making my discovery, I’ve had many enriching political conversations and have been able to keep political conversations in a safe zone where there’s no threat to the friendship. If you follow my rules, you’ll make sure not to lose any friends while talking politics either.
Rule #1: Don’t put politics first. Put relationships and people first. Make sure that others know that you value them and your relationship with them over agreeing on a political point of view.
Rule #2: Share. Open yourself up to being vulnerable and share who you are and how you see the world. Don’t say anything to get someone else to agree; say it to share. This in turn will make others feel comfortable sharing with you.
Rule #3: Be curious. When others have a different point of view from your own, approach it with curiosity. The point of political conversation is to learn. Persuasion is the opposite of curiosity — avoid it when talking politics with friends. Ask questions. What’s your take on this? How do you feel about it?
Rule #4: Listen. The biggest way to show respect and that the other person matters to you is to listen. But actually listen; don’t just pretend because everyone can see through the “I-stopped-my-lips-from-moving-but-all-I’m-doing-is-waiting-until-you-stop-talking-so-that-you-can-hear-how-my-POV-is-superior-to-yours” act. Yuck! Don’t be that person.
Rule #5: Declare respect for other’s point of view. A big part of being able to have an interesting, engaging conversation with someone with different views is valuing them. Expressly say that you respect points of view other than your own. Stay in the judgment-free zone.
No matter how tactfully you approach the conversation, some won’t have a willingness to talk politics. And you know what? That’s just fine. I’ve noticed that people who don’t want to have political conversations often are the ones who can’t do so without taking the conversation beyond the point of no return. And no political conversation is worth losing a friend.