Talking Mindfully About Politics

Talking Mindfully about Politics

(Photo used with permission by Lois Vinci)

“He who cannot put his thoughts on ice should not enter into the heat of dispute.”
                                                                     ― Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

I can’t remember a time when we’ve been more divided politically in this country.  In the past, I never felt that political differences threatened an important relationship in my life.  Sure, conversations about abortion or war surfaced heated emotions.  But we always respected one another and knew when to “agree to disagree.”  We were committed to maintaining the relationship.    Now, particularly as a result of the 2016 Presidential campaign, it seems that our relationships with people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum have become strained, at the least, or destroyed at its worst.  I’ve asked some of my retired friends what they have experienced in trying to talk about political differences with family and friends.  Without exception, they described conflict, hurt feelings and in some cases, estrangement.  At a time in my life when I finally have time to cultivate new friendships, I find this “cultural divide” to be very discouraging and disturbing.  I began to wonder if a commitment to mindfulness can provide any help when we talk about politics.  On a more personal level, can my mindfulness practice help me to let go of the negative emotions resulting from unpleasant political conversations and the resulting impact on my relationships?

The Buddha identified mindfulness, defined as non-judgmental, present-moment awareness, as an especially helpful path toward overcoming clinging and achieving enlightenment.  Mindfulness has four aspects – awareness of the body (sensation), feeling (emotion), mind (thoughts), and phenomena (other mental activity).  In essence, mindfulness is the opposite of clinging; that is, the chasing after pleasant experiences or avoiding unpleasant experiences.

The concept of “clinging” is really compelling to me, but I’ll address that another day.  Suffice it to say now that avoiding the potentially unpleasant experience of conflict over politics causes me to avoid stating my political opinion at all in many instances.  It appears that I’m not alone in my choice of an avoidance approach.  Recently, during the presidential campaign, I attended a fund-raising luncheon event.  I attempted to start a conversation with the person sitting next to me by saying, “What do you think about what Trump said last night about the disabled reporter?”  After a pause, my table mate said, “Here, (e.g. in this community, I guess) we consider talking about politics to be impolite.”  (Note to self – never ask anyone their opinion about a political event because it is impolite.) 

Yes, I’m being a bit facetious.  If we can’t talk about politics in 2016, what else is there?  You can’t turn on CNN or any other media outlet without hearing about politics.  If I want to practice mindfulness, I need to find a way to discuss politics in a way that will be non-judgmental and that will allow me to be fully aware of the other person.  And, I want to be fully present to the awareness of my own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and surrounding phenomena.  Mindfulness is hard, isn’t it?

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, trying to find some guidance on how to talk mindfully about politics.  The internet hasn’t been much help.  So, I’m turning to what I’ve learned from years of being a leadership coach and a college professor of management – conflict management.  There is a lot in the organizational and psychological literature about how to manage conflict.

Choosing a strategy for talking about politics depends on our goals for the conversation.  Do we think the conversation calls for a “pro-self” response or a “pro-social” response?  Pro-self responses maximize airing your personal views, often while minimizing others’ views.  Pro-social responses are characterized by a higher level of concern for others’ views than for your own.  There is a time and a place for each of the following strategies.

Avoidance:  A popular choice in politically charged conversations, you may want to choose this style in the following circumstances:

  • You are uncomfortable with the differences in viewpoint
  • You don’t want to deal with the other party
  • The cultural context is an important variable

Questions for reflection:  Why am I uncomfortable?  Why don’t I want to deal with the other party?  What is it about the cultural context?  Do I choose this strategy often?  Why?

Accommodation:  A good choice when you have a higher level of concern for the other person than for yourself in the conversation.  You accommodate the other person when you yield to their point of view. Variables that may support this strategy include:

  • You derive satisfaction from meeting the needs of the other party
  • You desire to maintain a stable, positive social relationship

Questions for reflection:  What do I get out of using this type of response?  Why is the other party’s viewpoint more important than my own?  How often do I choose this type of response?

Competition:  This “fighting” response maximizes your assertiveness and minimizes empathy for the other person.  It creates a winner and a loser and often includes argments, insults, or accusations.  You may choose this strategy when:

  • You want domination over the other party
  • You are willing to sacrifice the relationship for the benefits of “winning” the argument.

Questions for reflection:  What are the benefits and consequences of this type of response?  How important is this relationship to me?  How do I feel about myself when I talk this way? When am I willing to change my views?

Compromise:  This type of response promotes a “give and take” interaction.  By accepting some views of the other party, you may be encouraging others to do the same and meet you half-way.  This choice of response is useful when:

  • You want to be “heard” and you want to meet the needs of the other party
  • You value the relationship and you value fairness

Questions for reflection:  How much am I attached to my views?  What do I desire from this conversation?  How important is this relationship to me?

Collaboration:  This type of response promotes an elevated interest beyond the conversation itself.  Often characterized as “win-win,” collaboration is often employed when the parties see the conversation as a creative opportunity to achieve something important to both parties.

This choice of response is useful when:

  • Both parties are willing to invest time and effort to achieve an unforeseen outcome
  • Both parties desire an amicable solution that satisfies all parties
  • Both parties are highly assertive and highly empathetic

Questions for reflection:  What have I learned about myself and the other person?  What is the future of this relationship?  What enabled the success of this conversation?  Was this approach worth it for both of us?

Being mindful in our conversations about politics isn’t easy.  It requires a level of awareness and focus that overrides knee-jerk reactions.    Here’s a poem that clearly expresses the difficulty of interpersonal conflict:

Conflict Manifest by Ben Ziegler

I was going along, swimmingly
Buzzed by my world
And then it happened
To my surprise
My buzz wasn’t theirs
Conflict manifest

The dawn of conflict reveals itself
Out of the darkness
Blinded by its’ light
I look away
A defense
To our differences

In time, the eyes adjust
The heartbeat lessens
Confusion shifts to reality
A fork in the road takes shape
A choice to be made

Down one path; constructive actions
Perspective taking
Creating solutions
Expressing emotions
Reaching out

Down the other; destructive actions
Winning at all costs
Displaying anger
Demeaning others

Conflict manifest
Way back when, I used to hate it
Today, less so
After all, what is conflict
If not an opportunity
For self-awareness
And, to move forward
One step at a time

In the relationship games
Conflict is sure to shows its hand
With a certainty, of death and taxes
Given a choice
The question, as always
How to respond?

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