Nine out of 10 Americans believe the 2016 presidential election is the most "polarizing" and "volatile" ever, according to research that says you're not imagining it if you think you're seeing fewer campaign signs, bumper stickers and people willing to 'fess up about where they've thrown their support.
"We've been tracking for 12 years now how comfortable or uncomfortable people are talking with friends, loved ones and colleagues about their political opinions," said Joseph Grenny, co-author of the book "Crucial Conversations." "And people have never been more terrified than this year."
In fact, according to research released Wednesday by Grenny and David Maxfield, co-founders of leadership training company VitalSmarts, a third of those surveyed said they'd been "attacked, insulted or called names" for sharing opinions, while a fourth said a relationship suffered after a political discussion.
Nowhere are such conversations trickier than between family members and close friends. The Deseret News asked more than a dozen people who say their family argues about whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton would make a better president to comment for this story. Not one was willing to take the bait if their names were used.
That doesn't surprise Grenny. "Interestingly, the terror is less around the issues — in 2008 people were concerned about the recession or same-sex marriage or the economic recovery. But this year, it's about the candidate. People seem really reluctant to sort of come out and say, 'This is what I think.' If they do, they often do so in an incredibly combative way."
Even Grenny, a professional communicator, feels the heat. "I have found myself feeling more judgmental and condescending toward people who feel the opposite," he said. "We often tend to think people are idiots unless they agree with us."
Folks may engage in what he calls a "hit-and-run" conversation with acquaintances. Stakes are higher with enduring relationships like siblings or spouses.
Still, a subject as important as who will lead the country need not be taboo. Discussion is possible, but the research shows delivery matters more than one's position.
Grenny and Maxfield studied 3,688 would-be voters looking for those who were on the very extreme ends — polar opposites — of some current political issues, like immigration reform. They hoped to identify strategies to allow candid discussion of different viewpoints.
It's important, they noted, because spirited discussions are crucial to a successful democracy — or family. "They can actually bind us together and create rapport and respect, then we can shape our opinions based on this marketplace of ideas," said Grenny.
When it comes to families, political opinions sometimes break down differently according to gender or generation, as polls have historically shown. Several polls by groups like Morning Consult found that men overall are more likely than women to support Trump. But younger men are more apt to vote for Clinton. In fact, younger voters in general are more apt to vote for Clinton, recent polls show. There’s also a divide based on educational attainment.
So it's no surprise husbands and wives, siblings, even parents and older children are having some heated discussions. What happens will largely depend on who shows up at the polls. And for the first time, baby boomers and older generations are not expected to outnumber millennials and Gen Xers at polling places this November, at least according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis that looked back over nearly four decades using the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey data.
The study showed four strategies that cool conversations down:
— Express curiosity and genuine interest in learning why someone feels a certain way. "I'm curious about why you feel so differently," one might say. "Would you be open to sharing your position with me?"
"I try to get myself to a place of curiosity," said Grenny. "This is an intelligent person living in a decent and upstanding way, and yet they hold this position so contrary to my own I wonder why — rather than 'I know why. They're an imbecile.'"
— Ask for permission to discuss politics and make it clear you're not trying to "convert" someone to your view. "I'd also like to share my thoughts and get your reaction, if you're interested." Grenny said asking permission lets people opt into the discussion, fosters decent behavior and provides an exit if it gets uncomfortable.
— Be respectful. In background material, the researchers liken respect to air: "If you take it away, it's all people can think about." Try saying, "I would like the benefit of your perspective."
— Focus on the areas of agreement. They recommend something like, "Sounds like for you this ties to lots of things that are also very important to me."
Their research indicates those who practice the skills are five times more apt to be seen as diplomatic, four times more likely to be thought likeable and three times as likely to be considered knowledgeable. They are 140 percent more persuasive and able to continue discussions, as well as 180 percent more likely to maintain a good relationship while discussing politics.
Carrie Krawiec said that, growing up, her parents didn't discuss openly who they voted for. It was considered improper, said the licensed marriage and family therapist in Troy, Michigan. Now, political differences even play a role in why people consult her professionally, though not often.
Lots of things have created this political climate, she said, including social media, which carries both the chance to express oneself instantly and the onus of being a quick but potentially unreliable source of "facts, tidbits and gossip." Plus, some people form beliefs about a person based on their political views without considering how those views might make sense given experiences and values, or without acknowledging it's just one aspect of a person.
People seem to see political alignment as especially important among family and close friends, said Krawiec, who was not involved with the VitalSmarts research. "If you spend time teasing it out, you realize that doesn't make sense. Maybe your family is so strong because you do have different views."
Krawiec thinks people may worry that opposite votes simply silence one's voice. Everyone wants to be heard, she adds, though "loud and angry is no guarantee of that."
It's OK to disagree, said Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, licensed clinical professional counselor and Certified Imago Relationship Therapist in Baltimore, Maryland, who co-founded TheMarriageRestorationProject.com. "Maintaining close relationships during this politically divisive election season requires one to accept the possibility of dual realities, and that people don't need to think the same as we do, even if we disagree. In any relationship, for it to succeed, you need to be able to accept that another can have a different perspective and that their perspective is equally valid, even if you personally disagree with it. If you listen long enough, everyone makes sense! Being in relationship is not about being right or wrong, so it is indeed possible to maintain a close relationship even if you have differing political views."
Political conversations should be guided by some basic rules, Krawiec said: No put downs. No name calling or global statements like "You're selfish" or "You're racist." No yelling or swearing. The rules, by the way, she added, should be part of any conversation regardless of topic. "I'm not sure why we put those out there in political conversations more than in others."
If things get heated, she suggests dropping it, at least temporarily. And remember that people seldom agree on everything. "Even when it comes to something like religion, most of us really only align ourselves with a few points. .... Maybe break it down to a smaller part. This is someone who cares deeply about security. I can relate to that."
Grenny sees parallels between political and religious conversations, too, including a tendency to want to "evangelize" one's viewpoint and how much heat disagreement generates.
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