How to Stay Cool During Hot Political Conversations

Three tips progressives can use now.

Karin Tamerius
May 23 · 7 min read
Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

Dear Karin,

How do I keep my cool in political conversations?

Once, when I was talking about the Affordable Care Act with an acquaintance, he kept insisting that people would lose their doctors. I told him that was a huge misconception, but he countered with a personal anecdote about a friend. I got so mad I made him leave my apartment.

Sincerely,

Rageful

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

Dear Rageful,

If you are a politically engaged American, chances are you ’ve lost your temper at one time or another during a conversation with someone you disagree with.

Emotion is an important part of political activism, especially when you are on the receiving end of oppression. Activists need anger to battle injustice, hope to persist in the face of adversity, love to unify for change, and urgency to take action. But our emotions can also lead us astray.

Emotion becomes a problem when it starts to get in the way of effective advocacy and it sounds like that’s what happened to you. If you’d been less frustrated and angry, perhaps you could have encouraged the person you were talking with to move a little in your direction. Instead, he probably left your apartment even more deeply opposed to the ACA and the progressive movement than he was before.

So, what to do?

Learning to maintain your cool in political conversations is a lifelong process that requires commitment and practice. In coming columns I will delve deeply into targeted skills you and others can use to keep emotions from running amok. In the meantime, however, here is some general guidance to help you get started.

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1. Build your tolerance.

The word “tolerance” has many different meanings. Within the progressive movement, we usually juxtapose it with enthnocentrism to refer to a willingness to be exposed to a diversity of people and cultures. Here, though, “build your tolerance” means increase your ability to be exposed to ideas different from your own without getting triggered.

The goal of tolerance-building is not to change your opinion — at an intellectual level you will still find ideas different from yours wrong, even abhorrent — but to get to a place where hearing the opposing opinion no longer causes such a strong negative emotional reaction that you respond in a counterproductive way.

“If your rage is so intense that you can’t think rationally or act strategically…then you aren’t going to be an effective force for change.” — Tweet this

Anger is a normal and healthy part of politics. However, not all anger is the same. If your rage is so intense that you can’t think rationally or act strategically as a result of an amygdala hijacking, then you aren’t going to be an effective force for change.

To build your tolerance for ideas you reject, I recommend informal, self-guided exposure therapy. Therapists often use this approach to treat people with incapacitating fear and anxiety responses to benign stimuli, such as those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and phobias.

Exposure therapy involves intentionally subjecting yourself to microdoses of an offending stimulus until you can tolerate it without getting emotionally destabilized. Then, you gradually increase your exposure to more and more challenging stimuli until you can tolerate just about anything.

The classic example of exposure therapy in clinical practice is treatment of people with arachnophobia. A patient may begin by doing something as innocuous as looking at a photo of a tiny spider, but over time they will gradually confront bigger and bigger emotional challenges until ultimately they are able to calmly hold a tarantula in their bare hand.

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In the political context, exposure therapy means intentionally subjecting yourself to different points of view until you can listen or — better yet — respond without getting emotionally flooded.

Chances are you won’t have trouble finding things that set you off. Whether you get triggered by pictures of Trump, conservative memes, pro-Trump Facebook posts, Fox News, or anti-Obama rants by conservative family members, the key is to start small and work your way up gradually.

How quickly you progress from your current state to high tolerance will depend on your particular nervous system and how often you practice. However, if you dedicate yourself, you should be able see tangible results in a matter of weeks.

© 2019. Karin Tamerius, MD.

2. Change your mindset.

A big mistake progressives make when talking with conservatives is assuming that if we just say the right thing, we will be able to change their minds. Accept now and forever that you do not have that power and you will save yourself and the conservatives you know a lot of grief.

“You can’t change someone else’s mind, but you can help them change their own.” — Tweet this

Yes, people change their minds. Yes, there are good reasons for doing so. But telling conservatives to change isn’t going to produce the transformation you’re looking for.

When you try to change someone else’s mind — whether by making reasoned arguments, citing facts, or calling them names — you inevitably generate counterproductive resistance.

Imagine your index fingers are trapped in a finger toy. The harder you pull, the harder the toy holds you in its grip. The solution is to give in and move your fingers into the toy, not out. Then you can gently escape the trap.

Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash

Having a political conversation with someone you disagree with works much the same way. The harder you pull trying to get the other person to change their mind, the harder they will pull back. Shift the dynamic by giving in a little and real change will become possible.

To give in, ask questions, listen to the answers, reflect back what you hear, and agree where possible. You’ll be surprised how willing people will be to come to you once you stop trying to force them. You can’t change someone else’s mind, but you can help them change their own.

Photo by Utsman Media on Unsplash

3. Set more realistic goals.

A big reason we lose our cool in political conversations is because we are trying to get the other person to capitulate. We want an “Ah hah!” moment where the other person suddenly “gets it” and acknowledges they were wrong.

“If you go into every discussion with conservatives expecting a conversion, you’re going to be angry and frustrated 99% of the time.” — Tweet this

People do change. Sometimes quite rapidly. But it’s almost never in the context of a single conversation. If you go into every political discussion with conservatives expecting a conversion, you’re going to be angry and frustrated 99% of the time.

So what to do instead?

Set an achievable but still important goal. In general, I feel good about a conversation with a conservative if by the end one or more of the following has happened:

I’ve debunked a negative stereotype about liberals

We’ve deepened our personal connection

They are willing to keep talking with me in the future

I learned something

They learned something

We agreed on something

These may seem like tiny victories — and in many ways they are — but you are incrementally laying the foundation for big change in the future. Keeping that in mind will put the conversation in perspective and give you the sense of accomplishment you need to maintain your equanimity and move forward.


Karin Tamerius, MD is a former psychiatrist and an expert in the intersection between psychology and politics. She is the founder of Smart Politics, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching progressives how to communicate more effectively with people across the political spectrum and the author of the Angry Uncle Bot in the New York Times.

To submit a question, go here or send an email to karin@joinsmart.org.

Progressively Speaking

Smart, practical information, analysis, and advice for progressives.

Karin Tamerius

Written by

Progressive activist & real human. She/her/hers. Trained in psychiatry & political psychology. Author of the Angry Uncle Bot for the NYT. karin@joinsmart.org

Progressively Speaking

Smart, practical information, analysis, and advice for progressives.