9 tips for talking about controversial topics without ruining relationships

Published November 3, 2021

Jerry V Walker III, PhD, Psychology

By Jerry V Walker III, PhD, Psychology

9 tips to talking politics without ruining relationships

Why are some topics light-hearted and easy to chat about, while others are loaded with emotion? And what can you do to have serious conversations without conflict?

To save effort, we continuously assume things about others. Your brain does this automatically, using mental shortcuts called cognitive heuristics, to make broad assumptions about people based on little information. These nine tips help you spot and avoid these assumptions to make your next conversation conflict-free.

1.    Choose the right time and place

Ideally, your environment should be neutral with easy exit points. One-on-one conversations are the best. Avoid talking politics at the dinner table because people can feel like others are ganging up on them. And avoid online disagreements – it’s so much easier to feel empathy for each other over the phone or face to face.

2.    Keep an open mind

Be open to new ideas or new information that may conflict with your viewpoints. A psychological tendency called confirmation bias means your brain is more critical of information that doesn’t support your views. You’re also more likely to accept information that supports your views.
Policies and ideas are nuanced. Enter the conversation without the goal of changing their mind, but of planting a seed instead. Changing belief systems is not a simple process and can take time.

3.    Avoid personal attacks or labeling

For simplicity, our brain likes to think in extremes about others. This is because of the fundamental attribution error – giving ourselves much more grace and understanding than we typically extend to others. If someone cuts you off in traffic, you might think they’re a jerk. If you cut someone else off, you might tell yourself it’s because you’re running late, you didn’t see them or you’re usually much more cautious.

Remember that others have nuanced opinions, just like you do. They’re not an unfeeling, unkind caricature that you might assume just because your brain loves simplicity.

4.    Listen and ask questions

Listen to understand, not to respond. Don’t just wait for your chance at a rebuttal. Truly offer the other person an opportunity to talk. Try to empathize and see where the other person is coming from.

Questions show that you care about and respect the other person. A great question to ask is how the person came to believe in the positions they support. Consider how their life experiences and current roles may inform their stance.

5.    Say thanks, then validate

Thank them for engaging in this conversation with you, and then validate their thinking. You can validate someone without agreeing with their position. Say things like, “I can see how you’ve come to believe these positions” or “I can understand why that’s important to you.”

6.    Ask permission to share your views

It’s helpful to ask if they’re willing to hear you out because some people won’t be receptive, and you’ll save time to know that right away. Plus, by asking permission, you’re getting their spoken agreement, so now they’re compelling themselves to listen to you. The idea of reciprocity – being kind to those who have been kind to us or returning a favor – will help them listen kindly to you to return the favor of you listening to them. 

7.    Share the why

Share what you believe and why. The why is important because it gives the other person a window into what’s important to you. You might explain how this affects you or people you care about or why it’s important to you personally.

8.    Reflect on your own bias

Consider that your sources of information may also be biased. Social media algorithms create echo chambers. Your newsfeeds on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms become polarized over time. If you like or comment on something that you agree with, you’ll see more of it. If you ignore or use an “angry” reaction to an article you don’t like, you’ll start seeing less of those.

And of course, the friends and things you choose to follow are more likely to match your preexisting views. All of this adds together to create the false appearance of a broader agreement. If you can recognize biased news sources, empathizing with others who disagree will be easier.

9.    Remember what you have in common

With a two-party system, it’s all too easy to label one party as “right” and the other “wrong” when, in reality, politics, ethics and social issues are often murky and complicated. By focusing on the ideas, not specific candidates or political parties, you can both avoid unfair generalizations.

Remember what you like about the person, your similarities aside from politics, or the things you both enjoy that bind you together. Look for opportunities to point out shared values or beliefs.