Here’s how you can keep political discord from sabotaging your mood, ruining relationships and sinking business prospects.

Everyone knows that talking about politics can be instantly polarizing. It’s one of those subjects we’re told to avoid, particularly when it comes to professional situations. But dodging these discussions can be difficult, especially when we’ve got Facebook, Twitter and 24 hour news and “everyone” is talking about it. So when clients, colleagues or friends start talking politics, try these approaches to deftly sidestep the temptation of confrontation.

People live in different worlds. As this WSJ article shows, people actually construct and live within different political realities. Their social media connections, media outlets, networks, family and friends and personal experiences all support these core political beliefs. Such beliefs are extremely difficult to dismantle. You won’t “convince” a person that they didn’t enjoy going to a rally and hearing “their” candidate speak. And why would you want to try? Instead, ask what the experience was like and compliment them on their activism and involvement. You don’t have to believe the rhetoric or switch parties.

Be curious. Instead of feeling angry that someone could support a view you find distasteful, look to understand it by asking open-ended questions.  Maybe it turns out that their family business is taking a hit because of a particular policy. Why would you expect them to vote against their own interests? For example, if you believe a particular environmental policy is good for the world as a whole, try to understand how a particular individual would be affected. Some people don’t want a wind farm in front of their house. Instead of engaging in a debate, try a simple, “I understand why you would think that way,” and move on. 

The Sports Analogy. For many people, their political affiliation is as powerful as their allegiance to a sports team. They may have invested years of time, donations and energy into their beliefs. Some take pride in coming from a long family history and root for their party just like their home team and want their candidate to “win.” Think you can talk someone out of their partisan views during your lunch break? Even with facts? Try talking a die-hard Boston Red Sox or Green Bay Packers fan out of their respective teams. Show them all the stats you like, but they won’t throw away their jersey or favorite hat. Remember the sage words of Dale Carnegie in his 1937 classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People. “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.”

Put it in perspective. The parties create a cult of personality around the candidates and pit them against each other in an epic showdown of “good vs evil.” It’s standard operating procedure. But the reality is usually not like the playbook. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were good friends in the Senate.  Abraham Lincoln was longtime buds with Alexander Stephens, vice president of the confederacy. George W. Bush and John Kerry were both members of the same “Skull and Bones” secret club. There are plenty of politicians who do battle in public but on weekends play golf together and have mutual interests. If political figures can get on well behind the scenes, there’s no reason the rest of us can’t, right? 

Avoid the negative noise. There’s a whole industry around political outrage. Writers get late night TV gigs and entrepreneurs hawk T-shirts, mugs and bobble heads. The big networks shovel cash at “experts” to bloviate and donations pour into coffers. Political social media hobbyists sink their time and effort into it. Because politics arouse such passions, people feel compelled to have an opinion and join the fray. People who are outrageous or larger than life tend to get noticed. But it doesn’t mean you have to play into it. The only person you can control is yourself. Turn it off.

None of this is really new. These days you will hear people say that “we’ve hit a new low” whether it’s the way campaigns are waged or the “qualities” of the candidates themselves. But this isn’t the case. Look up the election of 1828 that pitted Andrew Jackson against John Quincy Adams or the 1884 contest with Grover Cleveland vs. James Blaine. Read about the fiery words between Hamilton and Burr that resulted in their duel to the death. With some historical perspective you might think how folks from that time might consider our current environment to be quite civil by comparison. 

Take action. It’s easy to criticize our leaders from the couch. It’s easier to complain than to do something. It is likely that most of the people who try to engage you in political debate have never run for any office, not even their local school board. Many don’t even bother to vote. So the next time you feel compelled to criticize a candidate, consider Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

You don’t have to share an opinion. Instead of trying to inject your opinion into a discussion you can choose to adopt an air of mystery and focus on the other person. Pose questions like a journalist trying to understand their story. People are attracted to people who are interested in them. Talk to others with an open mind and a measure of respect, and you’ll win regardless of how any election turns out. 

Edward Klink

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Edward Klink

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