New Study Showxs It’s Never Been Riskier to Talk About Politics

As the primary elections for the 2016 U.S. presidential race come to a close, the media is buzzing about unprecedented contested elections and unexpected slug fests over the Democratic and Republican party nominations. And the drama doesn’t end with the news.

A new study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, cofounders of VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty Inc. company, and the authors of the business bestseller Crucial Conversations, shows that 9 out of 10 people feel the 2016 elections are more polarizing and controversial than the 2012 elections. In fact, 1 in 3 respondents report having been attacked, insulted, or called names, and 1 in 4 say they’ve had a political discussion hurt a relationship.

According to the online poll of 1,866 people, most of these heated political discussions take place in the following locations:

  • the “sanctuary” we call home (40 percent)
  • the community (31 percent)
  • the workplace (28 percent)
  • on social media (26 percent)

And for most, it’s so bad that they just avoid speaking up all together. In fact, 81 percent admit to trying to avoid political discussions at all costs; in general, people are far more restricted about who they talk politics with than they were in 2012. And the people they most avoid include: coworkers (79 percent),strangers (70 percent), and neighbors (56 percent)—that’s right, people would rather talk with a stranger than their own coworker about politics.

Interestingly, while the current political commentary seems to be anything but calm, respondents report that many of the topics that were “hot” four years ago are no longer controversial. People today see significantly fewer issues as polarizing than they did in 2012.

In 2016, the issues people have a hard time discussing include: foreign policy, gun control and terrorism. In 2012, people struggled to agree on issues like: same-sex marriage, economic recovery, taxes, healthcare, education and the role of the government. Surprisingly, not even immigration has become “hotter.”

So if the issues aren’t lighting everyone’s fire, then Grenny and Maxfield say it’s clear the candidates themselves are the toxic topic.

When the authors asked respondents to describe people who supported a candidate they didn’t like, the top ten most used adjectives included (in order): angry, uneducated, ignorant, uninformed, racist, white, narrow and blind.

“Consider that these are the words people used to describe another human being,” Grenny says. “It’s appalling to see the kind of ugly view we hold of others who simply have a different opinion and outlook on the world than we do. With this kind of tainted perspective, it’s no wonder we come into a politically oriented conversation itching for a fight.”

While the overall tone of the comments was very negative, the authors probed to find formulas from those who successfully discussed politics with someone who held a dramatically different opinion. When asked what they did that worked, respondents most often used words like: agree, listen, common, open, respect, think, and ask.

“The silver lining in this data is that people have it in them to listen and agree,” Maxfield says. “Even people who think their rivals are angry, uneducated, and ignorant can also reach agreement, respect and find common ground. You don’t have to agree with someone to respect them.”

And the authors urge people to continue to engage in healthy dialogue around political issues.

“Our society depends on this kind of respectful discussion,” Grenny says. “The essence of democracy is a contest of ideas. So if we can’t talk about politics amicably, we can’t make better decisions about our future.” 

The authors analyzed tactics used by subjects who reported holding successful political conversations and distilled the findings into four tips for talking politics with others—even those voting for the candidate you despise the most.

  1. Look for areas of agreement. Let the other person know you share common goals, even if your preferred tactics for achieving them differ.
  2. Avoid personal attacks. While you don’t have to agree with the other person’s view, you can still acknowledge that his or her view is valid, rather than “idiotic” or “evil.”
  3. Focus on facts and be tentative. Consider the source of your facts, and ask the other person to do the same. Ask two questions: Could the facts be biased? Could they be interpreted differently?
  4. Look for signs of disagreement. If the other person grows quiet or starts to become defensive, reinforce your respect for him or her and remind him or her of the broader purpose you both share.