Barely a day goes by that I don’t receive notes from readers asking how to discuss emotional issues rationally; politics in particular. One of the first tools I suggest it to ask questions. Don’t ask hostile questions; just honest, thoughtfully provocative ones. And always acknowledge the other person’s perspective first. If you don’t, then his or her adrenaline/issues will kick in too, and you’ll potentially have a mess on your hands.
Here’s an example: “I know you strongly believe that’s the right way to do it. I have some different thoughts. Would you like to hear them?” End with a question. It’s different from, “I don’t agree” which might be perfectly fine – and might be your best option, but asking the question is usually better. By asking a question, you put the person in the position of accountability. You might soften it by acknowledging his or her point-of-view first. And then really listen to the answer. If you’re already convinced you’re correct and nothing he or she says will change your mind, then look for what you believe or know to be mistaken assumptions in their answer.
Unfortunately, we often deal with people who don’t seem rational, or at least not receptive to changing their minds. When you believe or know that to be the case, your own adrenaline level might increase. Questions are effective in this kind of situation too. “Why do you think that? What evidence do you see for that? I found this contrary evidence; what do you think of that?” Doesn’t it make you feel calmer to put the accountability back on the other side? Though all this can be effective, reconsider the need for to change other people’s minds. If a person is not open to persuasion, or if your reasoning does not convince them, are you at peace with that? Why or why not? This is something to explore when you’re NOT in the heat of an adrenaline-pushing situation.
The more you are at peace with the fact that you will not change some people’s minds and that it’s actually not necessary for you to do so, the more serene and calm you’ll be when you confront mistaken or irrational people. “Oh, well. That’s how this person needs to look at it. Not my problem.”
When people fight about politics, they’re really trying to discuss philosophy. Most of our candidates are not very philosophical, so things tend to get personal. Yet philosophy is what really matters. It refers to ethics, and ethics is the subject most relevant to politics. That’s when I go back to questions. If someone wishes to fight about who should be president, for example, I would give myself the option to shift discussion to what the purpose of government should be. If the person says something like, “There should – or shouldn’t – be a social safety net. You can’t let people go without government benefits,” then I might ask, “Why do you say that? Why is that so?” Or if they say, “Taxes should – or should not – be higher,” or, “We should – or should not – embrace Islam, not build up the military.” No matter what side you take, allow the other person to defend his or her case.
A person making a claim should be obliged to prove that claim. Put them on the defensive, not through hostility but through reason. And if they become hostile, just withdraw from the conversation, serene in the knowledge it’s a waste of time. Keep in mind that when a person becomes hostile, he or she really is saying: “I don’t have an answer to your points and it makes me really, really mad.” I offer this suggestion not just with ethical or political arguments, but for anything. And the tool at work here, once again, is planning your strategy ahead of time and giving yourself options.
What most of us are after is serenity. And the epitome of serenity is a person who is able to stay calm even when another is irate or upset. So plan your conversational strategies ahead of time, and always ask questions.
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