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  • Vanessa Barajas, MPH

Mindful Political Conversations

The latest January 6th hearing has sparked another national debate and with elections just around the corner, more political conversations with family, friends, and colleagues is definitely on the horizon. Often political conversations can feel like a fight rather than a discussion but what if we expanded mindfulness to our political conversations? That means taking a deep breath and practicing empathetic listening in the space between you and your political opposite. Ideally, both parties would agree to make the goal of the discussion to avoid viewing the other person as an enemy, to recognize issues are not binary, and to reach a greater understanding of the other person or the issue.

It’s challenging when someone brings up politics because there’s already judgment and labeling of which party is “good” and “bad”. In the U.S., we tend to have conversations that surround the idea that we have to choose a party and believe they have the right answers. We don’t consider the proportion of conservatives and liberals that we may need to truly resolve a problem. Can one ideology really address all of the problems we have and serve all of the variety of citizens in the country?

By talking about politics in a binary way we seem to be premising the entire foundation of the argument that one side is always right and one side is always wrong. Well, that’s impossible because of course Democrats get things wrong and of course Republicans get things wrong. As long as we continue to treat it as an either/or then we’re not having a conversation.

How can mindfulness support us in these conversations? Mindfulness is the capacity to know what’s happening in our own direct experience, and to observe it with openness, curiosity, and balance. What balanced mindfulness offers is the strength to slowly digest our own inner experience. We can build our capacity to be mindful of intense emotions, from anguish to rage and mindfulness also allows us to listen to and engage with others who hold different views.

Caroline Hopper is a managing director of the Citizenship & American Identity Program at the Aspen Institute, a Washington DC-headquartered nonpartisan, nonprofit educational organization. She says, “If you enter an exchange with the purpose of defeating the other person, you will be listening to what they are saying in order to refute their ideas. Facts become ammunition, rather than tools.” It’s not about being right in the conversation, it’s about a sense of discovery and going into a conversation not to prove your point but to find out something you didn’t know before.

If you are just waiting to respond to the other person as soon as they finish talking, you aren’t engaging productively. Be willing to actually listen to what the person in front of you is saying, whether you think you will agree or not. Empathetic listening can help make each person in the conversation feel heard and understood, while allowing good points to be brought up and examined in a thorough way.

This style of listening challenges the conversational partners to not judge what the other person is thinking or feeling, to accept whatever emotional response the person has as valid, and to allow the emotions to run their course without rushing them or suppressing them.

Another helpful technique when having these conversations is to prioritize relationships. Remind yourself to think of the other person as your family member, friend or colleague first, and aim to walk away from the engagement caring more about them than you care about their political opinion. Hopper says, “Pay attention to context. No belief is formed in a vacuum; our opinions are informed by all kinds of context, whether it’s lived experiences, information we have access to, or cultures we practice.”

What can you do to better converse about tricky topics?

  • If a combative conversation starts and emotions begin to rise, acknowledge that person’s right to feel how they feel and don’t judge them for it.

  • Let your conversational partner finish their thought. Regardless of how badly you want to interrupt or correct, doing so creates a tone of disrespect. This can turn your rational discussion into a fight without a thought.

  • Fact check your points and take strides to check your biases. Don’t get your information from just one source, double or triple check from sources that are reliable and nonpartisan.

In your next political conversation, make the conscious decision to avoid seeing those with opposing views as your enemy and try listening empathetically to them because they are human beings, too. It’s obvious that what we’re doing now is not only not working, but making things worse, so why not try a mindful approach to start reversing the tide?


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