Illustration by Shannon Alexander

A political disagreement expert's advice for the holidays

How are we going to avoid talking politics with our (few, socially distanced) relatives this holiday season? You don’t have to dodge it completely.

In fact, it may be better if you don’t, says Myiah Hutchens, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications who studies political disagreement. The science shows that despite how things may appear, “we’re not actually more polarized than we have been — we’re just angrier about it,” she says.

How can we bring back respectful discourse? We asked Hutchens for some pointers.  

I’m always the peacemaker between two warring factions. Any advice?

“Having somebody who can be that neutral party is often a good thing, especially if the two parties are not able to talk to each other because they aren't listening,” Hutchens says.

Help them truly hear each other by distilling what one has said and repeating it. For example: “’This is the key thing that I'm hearing you say, is that right?’ Then ask the other person, how do you respond to that? By doing that, you can take down the temperature, which can be helpful.”

Don't discourage the conversation or push them to agree to disagree, she says. Instead, try to get specific.

“Let’s actually talk about why we disagree. What is it that makes you think that way? What personal experience have you had that leads you to think this way versus the other way? That can help you have a productive discussion about it, rather than just saying, ‘Here's my talking-head soundbite.’”

That sounds scary. Can’t I just follow the old adage to avoid politics?

“I understand why that advice exists. But I do think that that has created some of the problems that we're in,” Hutchens says.

When we avoid discussions with those we’re close to and have shared experiences with, she explains, other voices fill the void.

“Instead, what we see are these exemplars in media of the extreme cases. That's not what most people are. Instead of actually talking to someone who's different from ourselves, we have this hyper-extreme version of what that person is in our head and we think that we shouldn't be talking to each other because they're totally unreasonable and think these crazy things,” she said. “Our lack of willingness to engage is making it worse.”

OK, fine, I’ll try. What should I keep in mind as I go into these discussions?

“Remember that we’re more similar than different. Our political identities are just one facet of who we are, and we likely share so much more with each other,” Hutchens said. “The vast majority of people have good intentions. Give people the benefit of the doubt.”

What ground rules can I set to keep things civil?

Ban name calling and parroting political pundits. “If you have heard your favorite talking heads saying it, you probably shouldn't repeat it,” she said.

Oh, and be aware of the role alcohol can play.

“People get more emotional when they’ve been drinking. Are you talking to them with a level head?” If not, maybe it’s not the right time to engage.

How do I convince my idealistic young relatives that they’re being unrealistic?


“There is enough time for the world to beat them down. Let them enjoy it. What harm does it do?”

So what is a reasonable goal for a political discussion?

“Go in listening and learning, looking for increased understanding. You aren't going to change each other's mind, and if that’s your goal, you’re going to be super frustrated. Political persuasion is pretty rare. It's not impossible, but it's rare. But if we can understand why they think the way they do, that's generally going to be beneficial.”

What mistakes can I avoid?  

“The biggest problem is we have these defensive reactions. We start having a disagreement and rather than listening to that person and thinking about what they're actually saying, we are practicing what we're going to say. When that happens, you aren't having a conversation, you're taking turns speaking. The whole point is trying to learn from the other person or understand why they think differently, and we totally lose that because we aren't paying attention to it.”

If you approach a potentially touchy discussion assuming you can find common ground, you might be pleasantly surprised.

“Remember that we’re more similar than different. Our political identities are just one facet of who we are, and we likely share so much more with each other. And remember that the vast majority of people have good intentions,” she said. “You probably have more in common than you think.”

Alisson Clark December 18, 2020