How to Talk Politics and Still Get Along

These days, it seems hard for us to have empathy for people who may disagree with our politics, viewpoints, and beliefs. In a lot of political situations, it seems like it’s “us against them.” So how can we increase our capacity for empathy and bridge that gap? And why should we have empathy for “the other”?

One good reason we should have empathy for the “other” is that, in order to accomplish something big, it really requires a cooperative environment, where everyone comes together and works together. That’s one point.

It’s also good to remember that sometimes we tend to exaggerate things. When there’s suffering, we exaggerate it. When there’s happiness, we exaggerate that as well. Sometimes we even exaggerate our achievements. This tendency prevents us from seeing things clearly.

So we need to be aware of our tendency to exaggerate things, and try to see clearly whether things are really as negative as we think they are. There has been research showing that we have a strong tendency to lean toward negative thoughts. So first of all, we have to be aware of that. We can look at our own mind and see what our preconceptions may be, and how they might be stopping us from seeing the whole picture, or learning something useful.

We also need to see that constructive disagreement is actually very beneficial. It’s like doing an assessment of how things are going––whether it’s in the realm of politics, or a spiritual path, we need to reassess again and again. Sometimes we get involved in a conversation on politics, where a lot of tension and disagreement comes up. That’s the time to look and see whether there’s any benefit to talking further, or not. Is this a time when you need to just let go? Or is there a way to move the conversation toward more openness and empathy?

That’s what dharma teachings say as well, that we need to continually reassess ourselves––how our practice is going, how our study is going.

So we need to see that disagreement can be constructive. Then it’s actually not a bad thing. There’s no way we all can agree on the same thing! Not even two partners agree all the time, as we know. So can you imagine if everyone agreed on the same things, in terms of politics or what-have you? That’s almost impossible, you know.

With a sense of healthy disagreement, we have to find a way to compromise and see what would be most beneficial for the country, for the people, for the world, for sentient beings.

The journey of life, of our all being together in samsara, is a journey of compromise. Even when you’re driving, you have to compromise with other drivers on the same road. We have to appreciate being on the road together. It’s not like the road belongs to you, you know.

It doesn’t matter whether we are conservative or liberal or what-have-you. We need to let go of those labels if we want to have a constructive dialogue. There has to be some sense of understanding each other, hearing each other, and trying to see what we can learn from each other. There’s usually wisdom in each person’s words, in their thought processes, if we’re open to it. If we’re not listening, if we don’t open our mind even a little, we’ll never hear anything new. The wisdom in each person’s words, in their thinking, will never reach us. If all these voices of wisdom could come together, we might see more harmony than conflict.

If we find ourselves in a political discussion and someone becomes really hostile, however, we can be skillful so that we don’t make matters worse.

It’s not always possible to transform a hostile situation into a constructive disagreement, where you can just agree to disagree. At times like that, you may simply need to let it go. But even though it may not be workable to continue the conversation in that moment, we can always come back later and try again. With time, the picture can always change. We may be able to come back to that person later and be able to experience some sense of kindness.

Creating a Cooperative Environment: An Exercise

When we’re seeking to change things for the better, we usually look to others to change.   If we look inside ourselves first, we begin to see how we might begin to create the positive conditions for cooperation and collaboration.

1. Think of the last person you disagreed with. You may have been at work, at school, at home, on the subway. Wherever the disagreement happened, bring that person to mind with empathy now. How do you think the situation might look from their point of view?

2. As you recall this disagreement, was there any exaggeration in your thoughts or reactions? If you step back and view the situation with a bit more distance, do you see it any differently?

3. Is there any possibility of a positive outcome related to this disagreement? Now that you have considered the other person’s point of view, and your own thoughts and reactions, is there anything you would like to say the next time you see or speak to them?

4. When you are listening to someone you disagree with, or who disagrees with you, what do you find most challenging? How do you usually deal with this challenge?

5. Every person has innate wisdom and value to contribute. Think of some ways you can listen for wisdom even when you disagree with someone. Plan to do this at your next opportunity. Taking a deep breath and not following judgmental thoughts or storylines often helps.