It’s pretty hard to avoid the political discord in our country. There are new headlines every day, many of which are cringe-worthy or frightening.
Not so long ago I decided to have a conversation about politics with a dear friend who I’ve known my whole life. We were in first grade together in our little town of 75 people. He lives in Atlanta but we’ve seen each other in Minnesota or North Dakota a fair amount in the last few years—for celebrations like his mother’s birthday last August at my parent’s lake home; celebrating the last service at the church we all went to growing up which has now been turned into a hunting lodge; and in sad times like the funerals for my mother and brother who passed away so close to each other.
Is texting the same as conversing?
I knew we didn’t share the same political views but he was my friend! What could go wrong? Well, after a back and forth conversation via text, I had a restless night’s sleep and woke up in tears. I called my Dad later in the day and said, “Dad, everything’s okay but I’m going to start crying. I need your advice.” I was so afraid that I might have lost a friend over politics.
The next call I made a week or two later was to my friend and colleague, Jill Bremer, AICI CIP in Chicago. She’s an expert in corporate and personal image. She gives trainings to corporations on the topics of leadership, communication, and civility. I’ve admired her for years and years. I wanted and needed her professional advice.
Her advice was so powerful for me that I want to share some of the highlights with you in case you’re wondering how to talk to others about issues when you don’t share the same views. Her expertise brought me peace of mind and tools for next time. I hope they may help you, too.
“I think social media has played a huge role in harming relationships,” Jill said. There are a lot of people on the attack, using social media platforms as a bullhorn. She said, “You can’t win on Facebook. It’s too easy to leave hit and run comments. There’s no way to have a constructive conversation there. People make sweeping generalizations. It’s easy to get typecast.”
She explained the communication climate. She said, “The fuses are so short. The assumptions are so great. It’s like a bad marriage when it goes south and people don’t want to talk to each other.”
Tools for communicating in tense times
She had a book to recommend. It’s called Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High by Kerry Patterson. One of the techniques that she shares in workshops came from this book. It’s about starting a conversation with a contrasting statement. “Part of why people lash out is because they don’t feel safe,” Jill said. “So in a contrasting statement you state what you don’t want and then what you do want.”
An example: “The last thing I want is for us is to get confrontational. What I’m hoping is to spend a few minutes speaking about our views.”
I learned what I’d done wrong in my “conversation” with my friend. She said, “Stop talking digitally – in email or texts. There are going to be so many disconnects and misunderstandings. We don’t see the body language. You can’t hear the inflection of the voice. When it comes to texts, if they don’t text you back right away you could be reading into reasons why they aren’t. The phone is a step better but face-to-face is best.”
In terms of friendships, she said, “Find those old places again that you have with each other and rebuild from there. Right now our emotions are on our sleeves. It’s going to take time. We wish it would happen faster but it’s not.”
I’m happy to say that I took Jill’s advice. I brought our conversation back to our families, our history and sports. We’re good at all of that! I may try again to talk about politics. Jill said the most important thing is to speak for the sole reason of understanding the other. Great advice, Jill. Thank you so much!