Two men and two women in business attire walking down a street

Learning the art of being a good conversationalist is a rare, yet invaluable practice. Discussing new ideas, revisiting old ones and presenting a cause worth supporting keeps us connected and thriving and keeps life interesting. With grace and grit, respect and repose—good conversation is not only a brilliant social tool, but it is essential for our well-being.

I am guilty of having conversations with friends about politics, using social media sound-bites to make assumptions and conclusions about the topic in debate. The purpose of the debate feels less about curiosity and mutually constructive conversation and more about collecting as much support for my cause as possible for the sake of being “right.”

I asked a dear friend with years of experience in American politics and a wealth of wisdom in leadership what his best advice would be when discussing issues with ideological opponents—both in person and online. Here are some of his most valuable skills and approaches that he has gleaned throughout the years:

1. Educate yourself on the facts

New York State passed a bill last year in favor of full-term abortion if the child or mother’s health is severely at risk. Minutes after this bill was passed, responses were posted on social media. The more posts that went up, the more unclear the actual legislation became. Before engaging with the nitty-gritty of a new law, be sure that you are as informed as possible. These can be found via State Assembly notes online by state. (Search “state assembly notes” with the name of your state. For example, here is the California State Assembly.) 

2. Read the articles provided by the proponent

If someone advancing a particular argument has linked an article, then avoid nibbling at the click-bait. Take the time to read through the article thoroughly. It may be that there is more that unites you than divides you.

3. Respond to the person about the issue

Politics can and must be separated from personhood. Try to keep the topic solely on the issue at hand, having spent time developing your opinions, rather than making it personal.

4. Pick your battles

If there’s history of disagreement with your opponent and a tendency to divide or dehumanize when in debate, then it’s better to avoid the conversation entirely. As valid as your opinion may be, it’s better to just opt out. Relationship and connection are more valuable than winning a battle.

5. Level up in respectability and respectfulness

Regardless of the tone, language or words used in conversation, never allow poor levels of respectability from opponents to dictate your standard of respectfulness. This means that when the misdirection tactic is used or the personal insult is thrown, respond with more grace than grit and certainly with repose. This is the mark of a powerful conversationalist, the ability to present an informed opinion with respect to other opinions and respond, rather than react. Your respectful contribution to the conversation is an extension of who you are, not a reaction to how others behave.

6. Repay insult with affirmation

A simple, “Thank you for you considered thoughts,” “I appreciate your time,” or “I’m sorry you felt that way,” will temper the conversation well. Insult to insult will always increase the temperature of the conversation. Affirmation to insult can feel false, even insincere, but it is infinitely better than leveraging abuse back and forth. Kindness always wins.

Being a curious and informed political conversationalist will bring a welcomed change to what can be a terribly divisive, hurtful platform of communication. Dividing and de-humanizing aren’t the solution. I have realized the importance of remembering that there is a human on the other end of the discussion with a beating heart, a brilliant mind and a story that probably cost them blood, sweat and tears. This brings a new perspective to the conversation. 

The truth is we should never sacrifice loving the person in front of us for the sake of our opinions and beliefs, no matter what it is or who they are. 

What are your thoughts on being a conversationalist? How have you learned to maintain grace in debate?

Image by Ali Mitton, Darling Issue No. 21 

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