Agree to Disagree: How to Productively Debate Political Perspectives

In today’s heated political climate, partisan tensions simmer even in the most innocuous of daily encounters. Strangers on the street exchange glares at the site of a political button on the other’s bag, while previously friendly co-workers begin shunning a colleague after catching a glimpse of a political article on their Facebook wall. Productive political debate has faltered in today’s culture of icy distaste – oddly, it now seems more normal to uncomfortably steer around conversations about current events than face the subject head-on.


Siege camps have been built around our political affiliations, and fraternization is subtextually but powerfully discouraged. But keeping a cold distance from those with differing political opinions is a poor strategy for resolving the ideological tensions running rampant in our country; how can we possibly come to compromises and share our views when even tentative forays into political discussion inevitably end in shouting matches?


We need to begin rethinking how we approach our political conversations, and create discussion spaces where differing perspectives are not only accepted, but encouraged. In order to do so, we need to restructure our conversations to ensure a productive, friendly exchange of ideas.

Those who engage in positive political discussions should keep the following conversational guidelines in mind.


Don’t leap to judgement.

As Celeste Headlee, a Georgia public broadcasting host, mentions in a TED talk on facilitating productive political conversations, “The purpose of listening is not to endorse, but to understand.” Sticking to preconceived judgements about someone based on their political affiliation will tank any hopes of a productive conversation.


Put your disagreements on the back burner long enough to hear what someone has to say, and don’t attempt to “educate” them on why your beliefs are worthier than theirs. Interject if you feel that you need to, but always do so with respect and courtesy, and never react with anger or condescension. The person you speak with will appreciate the courtesy, and likely be more open to your viewpoint when you offer it.


Stay in the conversation.

There’s no doubt about it: Political conversations get awkward. It may feel easier and more polite to duck out of an uncomfortable debate rather than actively disagree with someone. Given the chance, most people will avoid conflict – even if that conflict could potentially lead to a productive exchange of ideas. Stay in the conversation, and weather the discomfort and frustration. Pushing through the stilted first minute of talk can lead to an easier, and much more productive, political discussion.


Reframe your argument

According to research conducted by Stanford sociologist Robb Willer, conservatives and liberals tend to favor arguments based in differing moral values. Conservatives, for example, tend to back their beliefs with patriotic, loyal, and morally-based arguments. Liberals, in contrast, usually support their views with reasoning based on tenets of fairness and care.


Interestingly, Willer’s study found that liberals and conservatives alike tend not to think of reframing their arguments to suit their listeners’ perspectives. As Willer himself mentioned during a talk in early 2017: “when we go to persuade somebody on a political issue, we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe some sort of political position.” That said, Willer did find that those of opposing beliefs can be swayed by an argument from the other side – but only if that justification is framed to appeal to their own moral values.  


In short, Willer’s study suggests that we need to break out of our own experiences, and put ourselves in our conversational partner’s shoes. How would they see the topic at hand? How can you reframe your argument to appeal to their moral tenets?


Agree to disagree.

Make sure to walk away on a positive note, even if you can’t find anything to agree upon. A constructive conversation isn’t necessarily one where one side sways another’s beliefs. Rather, positive debate occurs when two sides come together and exchange ideas in a friendly, positive way. At the end of the day, bridging the gap between political affiliations and building a productive working relationship with those of differing viewpoints is far more important than “winning” a hostile debate.



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