Staying Civil: 10 Tips for Debating Politics with Friends and Family

The word “politics” has a variety of definitions depending on what area of life it is applied to.  For the most part, politics involve our core, centric beliefs about life, the government, and what we assume to be true.  It is certainly no wonder that the discussion of politics often can be heated and, at times, less than civil.  I can’t say I have always handled such discussions with grace, in fact, I have gotten belligerent on more than one occasion.  The problem is that most often it is friends and family we have these heated debates with.  It is one thing if one argues with a Facebook friends where escaping them is easy as clicking “delete.”  It is another story when the person you are arguing with is someone you have to see on a regular basis.  For the latter, I have formulated a list of tips I have not always followed but after close reflection I wish I had.

1.  Leave room for clarification.

Often in political debates, we tend to cut people off before they have had sufficient time to explain their viewpoints, or we lock in what people say in stone so that they have no wiggle room- especially when the opinion is potentially damning to the individual. Without allowing for clarification, we are seeking to manipulate the conversation to match our preconceived ideas of the other person rather than actually listening for comprehension.  

2.  Watch the tone of your voice.

In conversation, the tone of one’s voice can mean everything.  Often a debate can become heated because one of the people involved has adopted a harsh tone. Hateful tones can be demeaning to the other individual causing them to either disengage from the conversation or respond in kind by changing the tone of their voice as well.  At any rate, hateful tones can change the conversation into a negative experience fairly quickly.

3.  Watch your choice of words.

Word choice can be crucial in any debate. The best choice of words are the ones that get the point of an argument across without intentionally trying to offend the other individual.  I am not talking about being overly-politically correct but there are obvious word choices one would simply not use in conversation. Words that belittle the other individual, a revered political figure, or a topic of concern.  Also, slurs of all sorts and anything beyond the acceptable amount of swearing (for some folks there are no limits and for others swearing may not even be acceptable).   

4.  Respect other people’s viewpoints even if you don’t like them.

This may seem like a paradox but it is possible.  The point in any debate is an exchange of ideas.  We have to accept that even among those like us, it is inevitable that someone will have some viewpoint that is different.  If you truly want to convince this person to at least consider changing their viewpoints, you must respect their right to have their opinion however dumb you think it is.  If you put pressure on them to change their viewpoint chances are they won’t.

5.  Try not to interrupt.  Ask for time to talk if the other has been talking for a while.

Similar to allowing for clarification, not interrupting is another way to show respect during a debate.  Many people try to dominate a discussion by talking over other people so they don’t get a word in edge-wise.  In a civil discussion there is an event paced back-and-forth exchange of ideas where each participant receives an ample amount of time to talk.

6.  Avoid insulting the other person.  

This may seem like common sense, but when tensions are high this can be a dire strait a person may result to.  Often-times personal insults are used to delegitimize another person’s credibility.  This is known as an ad hominem which in Latin means “to the man.”  Personal insults almost never work and almost always result in hurt feelings.  Resulting to this measure can poison in relationship however dysfunctional it may be.

7.  Don’t assume the other party is evil.

This idea I derived from a TEDtalk where a lady explained how she grew up and then left the Westboro Baptist Church. Due to the patience of the people who engaged this woman on Twitter, she eventually came to leave the church.  It was because they understood that her views were due to her environment and not some innate lack of compassion that simply could not be changed.

8.  Avoid heated topics while in a state of elevated emotions.

I wise man once told me “take what you can take on your worst day.”  If you are already upset, don’t engage in a debate of politics.  Such a discussion requires you to be level-headed at all times.  If you are having a bad day, respectfully bow out until you are in a better mood.

9.  Declare early on if you are not interested in discussing politics.

Some folks like to test the waters to see if opyp can start a political debate.  A common way (and I am guilty of this) they do this is by sharing a Facebook post- either on the website or showing another person on their phones. Whichever a person tries to introduce a political conversation, if you are not interested then you need to be up front about it.  It is perfectly okay to say “I would rather not talk about this particular topic if you don’t mind.”  If they do not acquiesce, then politely remove yourself from the room if at all possible. 

10.  Agree to disagree.  Do NOT seek dominance.  

Many people see political debates as a battle to be won.  This often means that they will not stop until the other party submits by conceding their views, leaving the room, or getting upset.  Some people call this winning…I call it bullying.  You can’t force a change of opinion.  Not without invoking Stockholm Syndrome.  If you want someone to consider your viewpoints and give them due respect, the allow this person to disagree.  In the long run, this person may not ever agree with you but he or she may at least respect you.


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