10 Jun 2024

Election Fever

The UK general election has brought political discussions to the fore. It is a time when political issues are uppermost in our minds and views, often very polarised, are being exchanged. Arguments are breaking out all over the country: it’s time to look at ways in which we can discuss politics in a civilised manner and avoid negative fallout.

At times like this we tend to divide into broad politically aligned tribes, or we may choose to step out of the maelstrom and join the “don’t know, don’t care” camp. Whatever your stance, it is worthwhile remembering never to make assumptions. It is so easy to find yourself in an echo chamber, where you are surrounded by like-minded people and the tendency is to deduce that people you meet socially or at work hold the same political beliefs as yourself. This is a dangerous presumption, which can very quickly plunge you into difficult waters. So, think before you speak, ask open-ended questions and try to establish where people stand on the spectrum. You may also be able to gauge how passionately they hold their beliefs and make a pragmatic decision not to engage in a fractious debate.

If you find yourself talking to someone who holds very different views, try your best to be open to different perspectives. It can help if you establish some common ground; you might, for example agree about the extent of a problem (eg the Health Service) and the need to address it. Even if you both have radically different views about how the problem should be approached at least you are starting from a mutually held position.

Here are some ways in which you can approach political arguments:

•Don’t ask emotionally loaded questions

It really helps if you don’t project two emotions when arguing: incredulity and contempt. When you find yourself profoundly disagreeing with someone, especially if you’re getting angry and emotional, it is really easy to lapse into questions like “Surely, you’re not stupid enough to believe x, y or z?”. Eradicate the emotion and turn the question into something much more neutral and open-ended: “what do you think of x, y or z?” or “I understand you believe x, y or z, but have you thought about…..?”

•Don’t interrupt or talk over other people

Nothing is more provocative than arguing with someone who refuses to give you the space to expound your ideas and repeatedly interrupts you. It is true that when discussions get heated, exchanges become more staccato and fragmentary, but the very least you can do is try to listen attentively to what is being said.

•Disarm with emollient responses

You might violently disagree with what is being said but flying off the handle with remarks like “that’s absolute rubbish!” or “How can you possibly say that?” will up the emotional tempo and make the argument much more volatile. Try using phrases like “you make a very interesting point” or “that’s a fascinating point of view, but I do have one major concern”. You are wrapping your disagreement in a positive response, which effectively defuses the other person’s defensiveness – arguers can become ever more entrenched in their positions if they feel their propositions are being shot down in flames.

•Ask intelligent questions

Demonstrate that you are really listening to the arguments by posing questions and drilling down into what has been said. Prefacing these questions with phrases like “Have you considered?” or “Have you thought about?” shows that you are really engaging with an opposing point of view, rather than just sitting, stony-faced, and waiting for your turn to re-state your case. You may well find that, if the questions are acute or challenging, they are met with an evasive response. Pointing this out (“I don’t think you’re really answered my question”) is a highly effective, and perfectly polite, way of needling the opposition.

•Don’t grandstand

It is tempting, when you feel that your view is being challenged or dismissed, to shut down the opposition by dominating the conversation, haranguing listeners with your viewpoint, monologuing, resisting all attempts to interrupt or intervene. This is not an argument, it is verbal assault and battery: it will persuade nobody to come round to your point of view and, on the contrary, might well consolidate opposition.

•Don’t tell lies to support your case

Fabricating figures or making exaggerated or unsupported claims to support your argument will come back to bite you. If you’re going to use facts and figures, verify their accuracy or you may find yourself called out or embarrassed by your credulity and failure to check information sources. Never make broad, unverifiable claims of the “Everybody knows that’s not true” variety.

•It shouldn’t be personal

If you get really provoked you might find yourself making personal attacks, perhaps by dismissing views held as typical of a person of a certain class, background, profession etc (“well someone like you would think that!”). You should never stoop to these tactics; political arguments should be about ideas and not about personalities and the discourse deteriorates when this fact is overlooked.

•Withdraw gracefully

Sometimes political arguments go round in circles and feel like they’re going nowhere. The participants become more stressed and volatile, personal insults fly, positions are endlessly and fruitlessly restated. Nobody is going to ‘win’ the argument and there comes a time when the best idea is to call a halt. A simple way of withdrawing is to say something like “Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree”, which will shut down the conversation courteously.

•Leave well alone

Not everybody is going to be jumping on the political bandwagon in the weeks ahead. You may hold passionate views, but you may well find yourself encountering people who are indifferent to politics, contemptuous of all politicians, or determined to keep their political views and allegiances to themselves. If you’re stonewalled, don’t berate non-participants for their non-engagement – it’s their prerogative. You will always find other people who are fired up and willing to enter the fray.


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