How To Talk About Politics Without Yanking Your Hair Out

Photographed by Lauren Perlstein.
Update: This month's election results have revealed, among other things, that we are a nation divided on many points. Some of us are reeling, others cheering, and many are simply afraid and uncertain. One fact of which I'm fairly certain? It's gonna be a rough Thanksgiving. But the truth is, we are in dire need of a chance to sit down and talk to each other as humans. It might be a mess, but things are going to get messy. To help you navigate the dinner table, we're sharing this basic, three-step guide to talking politics with your people without losing your shit. This piece was originally published on October 19, before the final presidential debate. Back then, many of us would never have predicted the results to come. But no matter who won, it still would have been a tough time to talk politics with those closest to us. We are in dire need of dialogue, so let's give it a shot.

Welcome to this special Election 2016 edition of Unprofessional Advice: a column to help you handle problems of all kinds. With zero professional experience and a complete lack of credentials, I will take on your issues with compassion and humor (and I'll keep it anonymous, obvs). Got a question? Email me at
There’s an old adage that says one should never discuss religion or politics in certain circles. It’s not a bad rule, I guess, but for one fatal flaw: The taboo topics remain fixed, but no one seems clear on what those “certain circles” are. Some say don’t talk about them with friends, some say colleagues, and others say not to bring them up at the dinner table. True, it’s just an old saying, but listen closely and you’ll hear the real underlying message: Don’t talk about religion or politics with anyone, anywhere, ever. Amen. But no matter what side you’re on, we’re in this together. I’m going to take the radical stance that it’s time to start talking, openly, about politics — with anyone. It may seem easier to just shut up when your grandma brings up Clinton, or pretend your best friend isn’t saying what you think he’s saying about Trump. But do you actually leave those non-conversations feeling good? If so, congratulations. You get an A for Awkwardness. But the rest of us need to talk about this, because even though the election is over, now is when the conversation really begins. We have a new president-elect, and we still have to face the same friends, colleagues, and family members sitting around the dinner table (at Thanksgiving, no less). Bridges may burn. It happens. But before you get the matches, try talking politics using these three simple steps. As for religion? I got nothing.

I’m going to take the radical stance that it’s time to start talking, openly, about politics — with anyone.

1. Ask questions. Then listen to the answer until they’re done talking.
I have a close relative who loved Bernie and was not so into Hillary. He wanted her to win, but like a lot of people, he was “concerned” in a way that drove me up the wall. I used to ask him questions like, “Why are you so worried about her age? Bernie’s no spring chicken.” In other words, not really questions but provocations. Inevitably, we’d wind up in a dead-silent stalemate, then try to shift gears into talking about movies. At a certain point, I must have run out of movies — and energy for this routine. Because one day when he was worrying aloud about the way she “handled” her bout with pneumonia, I found myself asking, “Okay. What’s concerning you about this?” And then I let him talk. It was as if he were a balloon, dying to be popped. He talked and talked for a couple minutes straight, and I didn’t interrupt. Eventually, he finished, “I guess it’s just a scary time.” On that, we agreed. “Yeah, I hear you,” I said.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
We all just want to be heard. It’s not easy to listen to someone when you don’t quite agree — or when you deeply, fervently disagree. But when you can extend that courtesy, the balloon does pop and the tension decreases by half. If I may mix my metaphors, it’s as if you’re playing tug-of-war and one side just lets go. You can’t really sustain a fight after that. Now, not everyone deserves your attention. You don’t need to hear out every Tom, Dick, and Asshole on Twitter. But when it comes to your loved ones, give it a shot. Ask a neutral question, then listen to the whole damn answer — and be an active listener. Don’t interrupt, but let them know you’re hearing them (throw in some mmhmms, it’s as simple as that!). It will be hard, and your blood might boil, but I promise you that any discussion that comes after will be at least twice as easy because the magic works both ways. When someone feels heard, they are much more willing to listen.

Wrench yourself into their shoes for a moment and see where they’re coming from: What do they fear? What do they want — not on the surface but on a fundamental level?

2. Empathize your ass off.
Last year, I spent a day shadowing an anti-abortion activist named Emily, for a story. We’d drive to a school, I’d watch her deliver a presentation to a room of impressionable young women on the "holocaust" Planned Parenthood had inflicted upon their generation, and then we’d get back in the car and have to make chitchat. Going in, I imagined it would be near impossible to get through the day without screaming. But — and I’m slightly horrified to say this — it was incredibly easy. Emily had a secret weapon: hardcore empathy. “Always look for common ground — because there is. And it’s not something to be afraid of,” she told me. This was her tactic when dealing with everyone, whether a curious young person on the fence about abortion, or a furious protester screaming in her face. I don’t think it was simply her nature. I think she understood that empathy was the most necessary tool in conflict resolution, and the harder it was to be empathetic, the more she needed to try. That is how you win hearts and minds.

It’s not easy to listen to someone when you don’t quite agree — or when you deeply, fervently disagree.

Next time you find yourself in an argument (or politely sidestepping the argument you sense coming), first, try listening, and then try this: “I see what you mean.” Find something, anything, in what that person’s saying that you can get on board with. Wrench yourself into their shoes for a moment and see where they’re coming from: What do they fear? What do they want — not on the surface but on a fundamental level? I guarantee you’ll find something you can agree with, and if you can’t, try harder. Think of this as an experiment, and just see what happens. If you can find even a single detail to agree on, the entire dynamic will shift. In addition to saving your relationships, there’s a bonus prize here. Radical empathizing might feel like giving up, but it’s the opposite. I didn’t come around to Emily’s cause, but I left understanding it better than ever. And that understanding is far more powerful than blind anger.
Photographed by Davide Luciano.
3. Pick your battle, and fight with honor.
Even if you practice steps one and two perfectly, there are no guarantees that political difference won’t end a relationship. Some people are too enmeshed in their own fear and stress to engage like they normally would otherwise (but that’s usually temporary). With others, you might realize through all this listening and empathizing, that you just don’t want them in your life. That might be temporary, too, but maybe not. It's sad, yes, but sometimes inevitable. In these cases, you’re faced with a choice. What matters more: this relationship or this issue? It’s a big question, I know. So, once you make it, be ready to fight the good fight. When you know exactly what you’re fighting for, and why, then it becomes much easier to fight fair. (Easier, but not a cakewalk.) Be honest, no name-calling, and own when you are wrong. Make yourself heard loud and clear, and above all, know when it’s time to call it quits. Know this, too: When you’re fighting for a relationship, there are no winners and losers. The fight is only over when you both decide to stop fighting. So, if you’ve made your point and you still find yourself going in circles, there’s a simple way to end it: Be the first to give up.

Kelsey Miller is a features writer, the creator of The Anti-Diet Project, and the author of
Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got a Life. The views expressed here are her own.

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