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How to disagree with your friends about politics and keep them too

In past elections, our front yards, t-shirts, car bumpers and water cooler conversations proudly campaigned for the presidential candidate of our choice. In 2016, most are afraid to utter the name of the person they plan to vote for on November 8.

Research by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, cofounders of VitalSmarts and the authors of the business bestseller Crucial Conversations, shows that for 9 out of 10 people surveyed, the 2016 election is more polarizing and more volatile than ever before. One in 3 has been attacked, insulted or called names for sharing their opinions; and 1 in 4 has had a political discussion hurt a relationship.

And yet, Grenny and Maxfield’s latest study of 3,688 potential voters reveals that you don’t have to go silent or become the victim of someone’s verbal tirade—even when your opinion is the polar opposite of theirs. In fact, whether you agree or disagree with another person matters much less than how you share your opinion. Specifically, those who used four simple skills were:

  • 5 times more likely to be seen as diplomatic
  • 4 times more likely to be seen as likeable
  • 3 times more likely to be seen as knowledgeable
  • 140 percent more persuasive
  • 140 percent more likely to stay in dialogue with others
  • 180 percent more likely to maintain relationships with others

On the other hand, those who did not use the four skills when sharing their opinion were labeled by observers as “abrasive”, “unlikeable”, and “ignorant”—and these labels held true even when the observers had the SAME opinion as the unskilled individual. That’s right—even when you agree, if you do so in a disagreeable way, you risk alienating friends and ruining relationships.

“This research challenges the misconception that the only safe place in a political season is with people who agree with you,” Maxfield says. “The data clearly demonstrates that even if you agree with people, but in a way that is defensive, posturing or aggressive, it decreases the likelihood they’ll respect you. But express your opinions skillfully and you can associate with anyone.”

Grenny says this data is also vital for the candidates who risk alienating both their supporters and opponents each time they’re passed the microphone.

“This data explains a significant vulnerability for Trump who has demonstrated great volatility in the way he shares his position,” Grenny says. “If he is not more careful and respectful with his opinions, he risks losing his supporters—something we’ve recently observed with his drop in the polls. Neither candidate can assume their supporters will stay loyal. Clinton and Trump are always just one aggressive verbal slip-up away from losing the respect of those who support them today.”

Grenny and Maxfield say the key to successful political discussions is to make it safe for others to not only hear you, but share their own ideas. They recommend four simple skills for making it safe to engage in the political dialogue that historically has been key to American Democracy.

Four simple skills for sharing your political opinion:

1. Focus on learning: Frame your conversation as a chance to learn from each other not to change each other’s minds. Simply being curious about another’s position is sufficient motivation to engage. But, if you harbor a hope of converting the other person you’ll be tempted to become manipulative or coercive. That may sound like:

  • “I know what I think about immigration, but I’m curious about why you feel so differently. Would you be open to sharing your position with me?”
  • “I’m having a hard time seeing the other side of the story. I’d love your help in expanding my perspective…”

2. Limit your intent and ask for permission: Explain that you aren’t trying to change the person’s mind or attack their position. Then ask for permission to talk about the sensitive topic. That may sound like:

  • “I’m not wanting a debate, and I’m not trying to change your mind. I just want to understand. I see this issue very differently. Would it be okay if I explained my perspective?”
  • “I’d also like to share my thoughts and get your reaction, if you’re interested.”
  • “I’m fine steering clear of it if you’re not ready to go there. Can I explain how I see it?”

3. Show respect: Respect is like air, if you take it away, it’s all people can think about. Others will not engage with you if they don’t feel respected by you. Set the stage by over-communicating your respect for the other person and his or her opinion:

  • “I value you and your perspective. I want to hear from you. I don’t assume I’m right.”
  • “I would like the benefit of your perspective.”
  • “What have you experienced or learned that led you to feel that way?”

4. Focus on common ground: Look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement. If or when the conversation takes a more dramatic turn, look for the greater principle governing both opinions and you’ll likely find a mutual purpose behind your convictions. Say things like:

  • “I want to find the goals we share, and then look at the issue with those goals in mind.”
  • “Sounds like for you this ties to lots of things that are also very important to me.”
  • “Can you help me understand why this matters so much to you?”

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