1. Ask open-ended, genuinely curious, nonjudgmental questions.
2. Listen to what people you disagree with say and deepen your understanding with follow-up inquiries.
3. Reflect back their perspective by summarizing their answers and noting underlying emotions.
4. Agree before disagreeing by naming ways in which you agree with their point of view.
5. Share your perspective by telling a story about a personal experience.
At the heart of the method is a simple idea: People cannot communicate effectively about politics when they feel threatened. Direct attacks – whether in the form of logical argument, evidence, or name-calling – trigger the sympathetic nervous system, limiting our capacity for reason, empathy, and self-reflection. To have productive conversations, we first need to make people feel safe.
Most political conversations founder because challenges to our beliefs trigger our sympathetic nervous system. The goal is ensuring people feel safe enough during political dialogues to avoid this. That way the rational part of their brains stays in control and they’re better able to hear, absorb and adapt to new information.
While it’s a powerful approach, it isn’t easy. It takes patience, tolerance and conscious engagement to get through all five steps. The method puts the burden for keeping the conversation calm on you: Not only must you not trigger the other person, but you must not get triggered yourself.
Given the challenge, it’s tempting to avoid political discussions in mixed company altogether. Why risk provoking your angry uncle when you can chat about pumpkin pie instead? The answer is that when we choose avoidance over engagement, we are sacrificing a critical opportunity and responsibility to facilitate social and political change.
Throughout American history, important strides were made because people dared to share their political views with relatives. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the antiwar movement, the gay rights movement, the struggle for marriage equality – all gained acceptance through difficult conversations among family members who initially disagreed vehemently with one another.
To improve political discourse, remember your goal isn’t to score points, vent or put people in their place; it’s to make a difference. And that means sharing your message in a way that people who disagree with you – including your angry uncle – can hear.