Research: 5 ways to help media co-workers discuss polarising issues

By Katalina Deaven

Center for Media Engagement

Austin, Texas, USA

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Political divides are pushing co-workers, friends, and families apart — perhaps now more than ever. Putting aside differences to preserve work relationships can be a challenge, but there are opportunities to find common ground. 

As part of the Center for Media Engagement’s connective democracy initiative, we’re finding practical solutions to the problems of divisiveness that might be useful to media managers and HR leaders. Many of your employees are in the thick of these discussions as part of their jobs. Our research has revealed helpful strategies for approaching political discussions and explored the habits common among people who are able to overcome differences.

5 ways to talk to people with whom you disagree

We talked to Americans who live in communities with mixed political views to determine strategies they’ve used to connect with people with opposing viewpoints. The discussions led to five overarching approaches backed by real-life examples of how people put the strategies into action.

1. Focus on the people, not the politics.

The premise seems simple, but looking past politics can be difficult when people feel passionately about an issue. One method for finding common ground with someone you disagree with is to build a relationship before talking politics. Having that existing connection will help separate the person from the politics.

When diving into the tough topics, try not to take comments personally. Use your own experiences to help the other person see where you’re coming from. Even a hypothetical situation might help someone connect with a viewpoint they couldn’t previously understand. It comes down to being respectful of the other person’s views and realising their politics don’t define them.

2. Find common ground.

Before jumping into a discussion on a divisive issue, it’s helpful to bond over topics that are less polarising. Find beliefs you both share and keep those in focus as you tackle the tougher subjects.

During these conversations, be open to listening. Even though you might not agree, ask questions and try to understand where the person is coming from. Though you may be on opposing sides of an issue, there are likely places where your beliefs overlap.

Focusing on people and not their politics opens the door for meaningful conversation.
Focusing on people and not their politics opens the door for meaningful conversation.

3. Stick to the facts and avoid confrontation.

This strategy relies on leaving the emotion behind and presenting a factual argument. Stick to information that can be verified, and back your opinion up with evidence before throwing it into a conversation. Do your research and present information from reputable news sources. The key here is reputable — check multiple sources if you’re not sure.

Tone is also important in this approach. Limit emotion in the discussion and avoid confrontational language, as both of these can escalate an argument and take away from your point. If the conversation gets heated, try adding some humour or suggest taking a break.

4. Be an advocate, rather than an opponent.

We mentioned avoiding confrontational language when considering tone. This approach also suggests tailoring your tone to the specific person. Avoid words that might upset them and adapt your conversational style to their personality. Focus on making your point without making yourself an opponent by showing the strengths of your argument, rather than by picking apart the weaknesses of the other view.

5. Pick your battles.

Political conversations can be tough — don’t take on every topic. Try talking about local politics instead of national politics as a way of side-stepping the more hot-button issues.

Focus your discussion on policy instead of party. Though someone may identify with a political party, it doesn’t mean they agree with all of that party’s beliefs.

Habits of people who can find common ground

We explored several strategies people can use to talk to those with opposing views. But are there certain habits that make it easier for some people to connect?

We found that people who want to talk about political differences are less likely to have negative views of people from the opposing political party. They’re also less likely to be prejudiced against them.

This may only work up to a certain point, however. People who frequently discuss politics with neighbours they disagree with are less likely to have negative views of people from the opposing political party. They may, however, view that party with more prejudice. It could be that discussing politics only helps under certain circumstances. For example, if you generally don’t like your neighbours and also spend time arguing with them about politics, it could make your view of them worse. If you like and respect them, however, it might help the situation.

The approach may not be foolproof, but talking through your differences creates opportunities to learn and can, in some situations, help bring people together.

How self-compassion comes into play

We also looked at how self-compassion can play a role in the ability to form relationships with people with opposing views and considered two kinds of self-compassion:

  1. Self-kindness: being patient with one’s own flaws.
  2. Sense of common humanity: recognising that feeling down or that one’s own failings are common human experiences.

Having a high sense of common humanity made people feel like they had the skills to form relationships with people with whom they disagree. What we didn’t expect is that self-kindness can lead people to favour those who share their political beliefs over those who don’t. While self-compassion isn’t an overall indicator of being able to overcome differences, fostering a sense of common humanity may enable people to navigate societal differences more effectively.

The bottom line

Americans are growing further apart. While the outlook can sometimes feel bleak, our research shows there are many approaches to overcoming differences. The Center for Media Engagement’s work with connective democracy will continue to tackle the issue of societal divides and present practical solutions to help bring people together.

About Katalina Deaven

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