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How to talk politics with friends

Posted 10:25 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020

Political Science Professor Tim Dale shared "How to talk politics and keep friends" during a 2018 TEDxUWLaCrosse presentation. He shared this and more with UWL alumni and friends as part of the What's New Wednesdays series.

With intense political polarization, these tips can keep conversations friendly and productive  

Politics. It’s one of the three things we are told never to bring up in conversation. UW-La Crosse Political Science Professor Tim Dale disagrees.  

Talking politics is what keeps our democracy alive, he says. We need to deliberate about things important to us so we can learn from one another and ultimately create better policy. Dale argues that friendships can and should be preserved — even across the political divide. 

With holidays approaching and families connecting, we may wonder, “But how?” 

Watch Dale’s presentation on demand

How to talk politics  

Dale says talking politics productively boils down following several key principles. 

  • Reciprocity: In a conversation, we have the right to speak, but we also have the obligation to listen so others can be heard. Reciprocity in a conversation is being willing to listen just as others have listened to us. When talking politics, try laying out some ground rules and acknowledge that you want to hear what everyone has to say. All should have the same amount of time to speak. 
  • Generosity: We all know what it means to be generous. In a conversation this means giving people the benefit of the doubt and reading the best possible motives behind their argument. Conversations fail when people assume the worst possible motives. For instance, when someone argues that we don’t need a community pool, we shouldn’t assume their reason is not liking children.   
  • Mutual respect: This means listening to the arguments others make and giving the same respect as you would hope to receive in the conversation.  

What can I do during a political conversation to make it productive? 

  1. Actively listen instead of waiting for your chance to talk. 
  2. Attempt to understand why someone is making the argument they are.  
  3. Don't take arguments personally. 
  4. Don't make arguments personal. 
  5. Use these key phrases to understand someone’s reasoning and develop common ground.  
  • “I understand where you are coming from.”  
  • “I can see why you would believe that.”  
  • “I think we can agree on the basic premise that.” 

Are we more politically polarized in America than we’ve ever been? 

It may seem like this time in our history is more politically divided than any other, but Dale reminds us that political division is not new in our history. Americans lived through the Civil War, segregation, and mass protests during the Vietnam War — to name a few. One of Dale’s favorite stories of political division is from 1798 when U.S. Rep. Roger Griswold assaulted U.S. Rep. Matthew Lyon with a walking stick on the floor of the House of Representatives after Lyon was accused of spitting on him. Lyon grabbed a fire poker to fight back.  

Why is politics so divisive?  

Conflict can arise anywhere during our day from what to eat for dinner to where to set the thermostat. Yet those arguments seem trivial compared to politics. Dale says that’s because politics can have a lasting impact in our world in ways that things like thermostats and dinner menus can’t. Politics can change immigration, taxation and the role of government in our lives. Also, our political positions are formed from our opinions and values. They become part of our identity — or what makes us, us. When we talk about something that has the potential to make lasting change in the world and impacts our identity, we take more offense if someone disagrees. 

How is the media and misinformation impacting our political conversations? 

People are coming to conversations armed with arguments they’ve heard on their favorite media platform. This can make conversations more challenging, especially if people share conflicting facts. But this also makes political conversations all the more important. We need to temper our media consumption with conversation so we can have a broader view of the issue, explains Dale. It is also important for people to take the individual responsibility of getting news from multiple sources, so we are more informed of how the story is being communicated differently. If you find yourself wondering why the facts aren’t lining up in a conversation, try asking. Without being accusatory, you might say, “I’d be interested to find out where you learned this?” 

How do we handle political polarization on social media? 

Most people probably would agree that social media is not a good forum for political debates. It’s hard to establish principles of reciprocity, generosity and mutual respect on a social platform where people are showing up primarily to express opinions. Dale advises to direct political conversations off of social media with a simple note, like “we should chat about this idea sometime.” This will likely lead to a better result than drafting a 10-point Facebook post on why a friend is wrong. Behavior during in-person conversations is typically much more approachable, generous and respectful than on social media. 

Why do I feel so strongly about the 2020 presidential election? Elections have never been so important to me in the past.  

Dale says this sentiment is a reality for many. Joe Biden and Donald Trump earned the first and second most votes cast for any presidential candidate in U.S. history. Dale sees this inclination to participate in politics playing out in his political science classrooms. For 15 years he has struggled to get students to see why politics matters. He no longer needs to make that case. Students clearly see the importance of the election and their vote — regardless of their political affiliation. This is because people can see a distinct difference between the candidates and major issues are at stake from the handling of the pandemic to the environment to the strength of the economy.  

Watch: Tim Dale’s TEDx talk on “How to talk politics and keep friends” 

Dale featured on What’s New Wednesdays series 

The UW-La Crosse Alumni Association featured Tim Dale’s presentation on “How to Talk Politics and Keep Friends” as part of the What’s New Wednesdays virtual series in November. Once a month the Alumni Association features a different topic, engaging alumni around the world. Sessions are free but pre-registration required. 

“While I personally can’t wait until we can return to some type of face-to-face programming, these virtual options are keeping alumni connected to each other and to the UWL during the pandemic,” says Janie Morgan, executive director of the UWL Alumni Association. “Each month, we’ve seen an increase in total attendees, as well as the number of alums from different decades.” 

Next What’s New Wednesday 

Noon-1 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 16. Rotary Lights and UWL’s role in making the annual tradition special. 

(tentative upcoming in the series) 

  • January: Wine pairings just in time for Valentine’s Day  
  • February:  Campus/COVID update 
  • March:  Community Engagement – how you too can get involved 

Learn more.