Why talking politics is America’s most feared pastime

In 2020, we may gain a new president, but we’ll also lose more friends. A new survey by VitalSmarts, home of Crucial Conversations Training, shows an alarming and increasing trend of hurtful trash-talking politics among coworkers and friends.

Specifically, more than 55 percent report being in a political discussion where they were either the recipient or the initiator of verbal attacks, insults or name-calling – up from 41 percent who said the same thing in 2016.

The February study of 1060 adults shows the fallout of these violent discussions has also gotten more severe. Back in 2016, 42 percent said they’d had a political discussion hurt a relationship. Now, nearly 3 out of 4 people (71 percent) say a political discussion has hurt a relationship, and 1 in 4 (23 percent) say the relationship has never fully recovered. 

These toxic talks not only destroy friendships, but they also impact other key behaviors. As a result of a political discussion:

  • 69 percent lost respect for a person
  • 57 percent unfriended someone from social media
  • 38 percent avoided people in the hallway or social situations
  • 23 percent dropped a friend
  • 18 percent avoided holidays with some relatives
  • 17 percent declined party or dinner invitations

And if those results aren’t bad enough, some respondents reported they left a job, moved homes, or even got a divorce as a result of a political discussion! The data also explains why when it comes to talking politics, most people would simply rather not. Even in 2016, 71 percent said they’d rather avoid discussing politics altogether. And according to researchers, things are only going from bad to worse.

“In the past four years, families and friendships have been torn apart by political discussions,” said Joseph Grenny, author of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations. “Clearly, we lack the skills to seek mutual purposes or respectfully disagree. In fact, the data shows that while 61 percent had political discussions that went ‘surprisingly well’ four years ago, only 29 percent can make that same claim today. That is more than a 50 percent reduction in respectful and productive dialogue about our nation’s leadership.”

And yet, Grenny says it is possible to successfully discuss politics and keep your friends. Successful dialogue is less about whether or not you agree or disagree on issues or candidates, and more about how you actually share your opinion.

“Even if you agree with people, but do so in a way that is defensive, posturing or aggressive, it decreases the likelihood they’ll respect you or the outcome will be amiable,” says Grenny. “However, if you can express your opinion skillfully you can associate with anyone. Ultimately, the key to successful dialogue is to make it safe for others to not only hear you, but to share their own ideas.”

Grenny recommends four simple skills for making it safe to have crucial conversations about politics—skills that will help you strengthen rather than sever relationships.

Four Simple Skills for Sharing Your Political Opinion:

  1. Focus on Learning: Frame your conversation as a chance to learn from each other not to change each other’s minds. Simply being curious about another’s position is sufficient motivation to engage. But, if you harbor a hope of converting the other person you’ll be tempted to become manipulative or coercive. That may sound like:
    1. “I know what I think about immigration, but I’m curious about why you feel so differently. Would you be open to sharing your position with me?”
    2. “I’m having a hard time seeing the other side of the story. I’d love your help in expanding my perspective…”
  2. Limit your Intent and Ask for Permission: Explain that you aren’t trying to change the person’s mind or attack their position. Then ask for permission to talk about the sensitive topic. That may sound like:
    1. “I’m not wanting a debate, and I’m not trying to change your mind. I just want to understand. I see this issue very differently. Would it be okay if I explained my perspective?”
    2. “I’d also like to share my thoughts and get your reaction, if you’re interested.”
    3. “I’m fine steering clear of it if you’re not ready to go there. Can I explain how I see it?”
  3. Show Respect: Respect is like air, if you take it away, it’s all people can think about. Others will not engage with you if they don’t feel respected by you. Set the stage by over-communicating your respect for the other person and his or her opinion:
    1. “I value you and your perspective. I want to hear from you. I don’t assume I’m right.”
    2. “I would like the benefit of your perspective.”
    3. “What have you experienced or learned that led you to feel that way?”
  4. Focus on Common Ground: Look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement. If or when the conversation takes a more dramatic turn, look for the greater principle governing both opinions and you’ll likely find a mutual purpose behind your convictions. Say things like:
    1. “I want to find the goals we share, and then look at the issue with those goals in mind.”
    2. “Sounds like for you this ties to lots of things that are also very important to me.”
    3. “Can you help me understand why this matters so much to you?”