Being Conscious of Harmful Habits Leads to More Meaningful Political Conversations
By Lisa K. Swallow – Co-Founder and Executive Director, Crossing Party Lines
As the co-founder and executive director of Crossing Party Lines (CPL), a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing toxic polarization through education, training, and conversation, I’ve had a front-row seat to over 350 political conversations. I’ve seen the skeletons in our cultural closets that keep us from understanding one another—the dirty little secrets no one wants to admit to.
All too often, we dive into political conversations without stopping to ask why. We don’t take time to figure out what we hope to achieve by talking to someone with differing viewpoints. We focus on what we want to say rather than truly listening to what the other person is trying to communicate. Most of us believe success in a political conversation is defined as “winning” the argument.
Below, we’ll explore three dirty little secrets I’ve uncovered through my work at CPL. Understanding these phenomena can help us have more meaningful conversations, appreciate different ways of seeing the world, and become more open-minded and tolerant individuals.
Dirty Little Secret #1
We don’t really want to hear people’s political views. We want to prove them wrong.
In most conversations about politics, we tend to focus less on what the other person is saying and more on what we want to say. We listen not with the intent to learn but for an opening to speak, a hole in their logic, or a fact they got wrong or failed to consider.
At CPL, we see this play out when people—especially first-timers—start talking as soon as the other person pauses to take a breath. Sometimes they interrupt or talk over others without letting the speaker make their point. First-timers rarely say things like “Thank you for sharing,” “That’s interesting,” or “I hear you, but I disagree.” Too often, their response has nothing to do with what the other person has just said; they simply rush to tell us whatever they came to say.
Dirty Little Secret #2
We assume we understand people’s viewpoints before we’ve even heard their reasoning.
And why wouldn’t we think that? We are bombarded by political pundits on TV and the internet who tell us supposedly everything we need to know about the issues and give us the inside scoop on how people on the other side think. It’s easy to feel like we’ve seen it all on social media, where radicals from both sides broadcast their views.
The belief that we already know how the other person thinks leads us to use phrases like “you want” or “you think”—as if we could read our conversation partner’s minds. It gives us the false impression that the best way to prepare for political conversations is to arm ourselves with arguments to counter the views we expect to hear. It sets us up to defend rather than to seek to understand.
What we fail to acknowledge is that the other person’s views, like our own, are more complex than what we see or hear on social media, TV, or the internet. At best, those sources of information can only provide a bullet-point summary of what they believe. They can’t provide the reasoning that goes into those positions. At worst, those sources dehumanize the other side, ignoring individual differences and presenting their views in the most negative light. It’s no wonder that while many of us believe we know what folks on the other side think, few of us believe the other side understands our own views.
How can we ever get anywhere in politics if the other side doesn’t want to hear our views and believes they already know what we are going to say? What can we tell them that they don’t think they already know? How can we get them to truly listen?
Let’s ask people who do want to hear our views. People who come to CPL regularly have told us the conversations we offer are their only opportunities to hear a real person’s take on the issues and move beyond the oversimplified and misinformed narratives that are all too common in our political landscape. They appreciate having their minds opened, even if not changed, and come because they know people will present their views, not defend them. In other words, they want to hear personal perspectives and why someone’s views make sense to them as an individual.
Dirty Little Secret #3
Most of us don’t really know why our views make sense to us.
Our views on any issue are rooted in our experiences. They are shaped by our fears and concerns. They are supported by our values and beliefs. For most of us, our political views are so much a part of us that we accept them as right and true. We rarely ask ourselves questions that will help us understand why we came to the conclusions we did or question our gut when something just feels “right.”
Yet, understanding how our lived experiences inform our views helps us communicate in a way that ultimately leads to more meaningful conversations. Sharing our hopes, dreams, and fears provides an opportunity to connect on a personal level rather than simply trying to prove each other wrong. Furthermore, sharing our concerns and fears can shed light on experiences that people on the other side may not have considered. In other words, by sharing the personal experiences that have influenced our beliefs, we can better understand opposing views not through the lens of oversimplified and hostile narratives, but through a human being.
Rethinking Success in Political Conversations
When we host these conversations, people truly listen. At one CPL discussion about gun control, one of our members shared her experience as a survivor of gun violence. A gun owner responded, “That sort of thing should never happen—not to you or to anyone. As a gun owner, I am ashamed that another gun owner would behave that way. I want to apologize to you on behalf of all gun owners.” When we tell our personal stories, people care.
And that’s not all. Taking time to understand our beliefs enriches our own understanding of politics. It not only helps us realize how silly it is to feel threatened by someone else’s views, but it also encourages us to reexamine our own beliefs, thus making it easier for us to listen to and learn from others.
Isn’t that what success in talking politics is all about? Me listening to you, you listening to me, and each of us knowing that even if we still don’t agree, we have at least been understood?
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Lisa K. Swallow
Lisa K. Swallow is the co-founder and executive director of Crossing Party Lines, a national nonprofit creating an open dialogue between Americans with dissimilar ideologies. She has developed a series of workshops teaching the concepts, skills, and techniques for having civil, respectful conversations with people who view the world differently and currently offers coaching and training for difficult conversations. See her books on the subject: No One Was Listening and Yes, You CAN Talk Politics.