Communication Tips From English Majors: How to Successfully Navigate Conversations on Politics

No matter how you voted or how you're feeling about the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election, one thing is certain:

We need strong communicators now more than ever.

Whether you're trying to understand those who feel differently than you, trying to successfully communicate your own ideas, or just trying to figure out how to have a basic conversation with someone who feels differently than you, it can be hard. It can be hard to figure out the best way to communicate our feelings, ideas, and beliefs, and in many ways, learning how to do these things is what being an English major is all about!

From conversations at Thanksgiving with loved ones that turn political to Facebook comment sections that spiral out of control, communication is happening everywhere. We asked English majors for advice and tips on how to best communicate with those who may have differing opinions, and here's what they said: 


"Being open-minded, compassionate, and understanding will always put you in a better place to listen and understand why that person thinks differently than you."

"I avoid discussing politics with friends or family who I know will only try to shut down discussions or try to persuade me with logical fallacies. In those situations, I prefer to change the subject and hope they catch on that that discussion is going nowhere. In any case, it's best to assume nothing about what the other person believes or has experienced. Being open-minded, compassionate, and understanding will always put you in a better place to listen and understand why that person thinks differently than you. Doing so will also set a good example and a precedent for how you would like to be treated in that discussion. Don't resort to name-calling or logical fallacies to try to persuade them. And, if the conversation gets rude or nasty, call them out directly. Demand to be treated fairly and to have your ideas and beliefs respected as much as you have respected others. Many different forms of government and methods of governing exist; we should be open to hearing about the pros and cons of each. Being open-minded and hearing others out is the only way true democracy can be achieved. If we shut each other out, we all lose." -Morgan Hanzlik


"Love them where they are."

"Don't isolate them for the positions that are native to their time and place. People who grew up in Iowa during the 1960s might not be open to gay marriage. That doesn't mean they're monsters. Love them where they are. Only when someone feels accepted, as they are, will they be open to change." -Rick Wiedeman


"The willingness to be objective has allowed me to participate in conversations where I otherwise would not have been invited, so I think there's much to be said for objectivity."

"The only thing that has worked for me is remaining objective, presenting facts, and trying—to the extent that I am able—to keep the emotions out of it. When it comes to politics, sometimes this is easier said than done, but the only way anyone can really 'hear' me is for me to remain objective, especially in situations when most people would expect me to be. The willingness to be objective has allowed me to participate in conversations where I otherwise would not have been invited, so I think there's much to be said for objectivity. Also, when you remain objective, you're not forced to rely on ad hominem attacks, which weaken your position and demonstrates to the other person that you don't really have any facts to back up your claims, only feelings.

"I use this as an example because people often assume that knowing my race and my gender automatically means that they know my politics, and are often shocked at my ability to see multiple sides of an issue.

"I think this works best for one-on-one, in person communication, but it could possibly work on social media as well, if both parties are being truthful about their desire to seek understanding, as opposed to merely winning an argument." -Kameko Thomas


"Find a common issue you're both upset about."

"I find that Rogerian arguments work the best when you disagree with someone. Obama uses this method all the time and it works so well! But you have to be willing to listen to the other side. Here's a streamlined version of it:

  • Listen to the other side (that is, someone with whom you disagree with).
  • Find a common issue you're both upset about (let's say ISIL and how to deal with them. Everyone's upset with ISIL, I hope!).
  • Listen to what they say about that common issue.
  • Respond with: "I hear you saying that" and fill in the blank by fairly repeating what they said. Try to put it into your own words to make sure you understand them.
  • Continue by saying how you feel about it.
  • Say where you two agree (you'll agree with something, even if it's how you'd refer to the terrorist group)
  • Then say how your way may be better. :)

"What is happening? You're trying to persuade your friend/family member or whoever, but you're also looking for a sensible compromise. You are listening and inviting the person who disagree with you to listen to you. I'm writing from memory, so I invite you to look up Carl Rogers (who was a psychologist, I believe) and/or the Rogerian Argument." -DeMisty Bellinger-Delfeld


"Open a dialogue; don't fuel a controversy."

"Listen to understand. One of our biggest failings in the political sphere is sorting people's belief systems into broad categories and thinking we understand their positions based on those categories. As a result, in political discussions, we listen only so we can formulate our own responses, so that we can argue, not so that we can have an actual conversation. When you engage in discourse with someone with different beliefs, try to not come up with an answer to everything they say as they're saying it. Instead, ask yourself comprehension questions: what is the main point of their claim? What ideological systems are behind their viewpoint? What experiences could have caused this belief? You should also ask clarifying questions, such as 'Why do you hold this position' Restating their position in your own words, beginning with 'So you believe that..' or something of that nature will help both of you ensure that you understand what the other person is saying. Then, and only then, provide your own perspective. Open a dialogue; don't fuel a controversy." -Sabrina Hardy


"Listen."

"Ask open-ended questions. In person smile and be friendly. Listen." -Jennifer Beech


"In times of division like the present, keeping the lines of communication open between different political groups is of vital importance."

"It's important to keep your points firmly about the issues rather than generalising about the motives of those who disagree with you. It can be hard not to lash out or make personal remarks when you feel strongly about an issue, especially a moral one, but if people feel personally attacked or belittled they will be more likely to shut down and stop listening. The approach of keeping things calm and factual has always worked best for me—you're more likely convince people with a calm, logical and friendly approach than with angry tirades. In times of division like the present, keeping the lines of communication open between different political groups is of vital importance.

"For political discussions with family and friends, try to keep things in perspective; if you're close enough to be talking politics, it's likely you have a prior relationship with this person—and there are probably things you like about them aside from politics! This doesn't diminish the importance of your stance or the issue at hand; it's just good to remember that you can agree to disagree and still keep the relationship respectful and healthy." -Charlotte O'Farrell 

You can read Charlotte's interview on Dear English Major here.


"Once you learn about a person and see that person as a human being with relevant thought, emotions, and experiences, then we can have a civilized and sensitive conversation."

"I think sharing your own story or experience is helpful in at least getting someone to understand your side and empathize with you. At the end of the day, we are all human beings that are made up of different experiences, some of which are heartbreaking and people resonate and relate to that. This election has built up so much hate and anger in all of us that we forget that the other side has reasons and stories behind supporting a certain candidate. Once you learn about a person and see that person as a human being with relevant thought, emotions, and experiences, then we can have a civilized and sensitive conversation." -Ariel Barreras


"Avoid the personal attacks."

"Here's some advice from someone who is never afraid to attack a bad idea posted or celebrate a good one with the same vigor; just make sure you stick to the claim. Avoid the personal attacks. Maintain discipline and try to include evidence with any claim you make. Also, avoid other logical fallacies too, not just ad hominem. If you can do this, someone, even if it's not the person with whom you're arguing, is bound to learn something valuable. This takes practice and self-monitoring but it will save relationships." -Luke Fannin


"Recognizing that there are multiple perspectives on every issue is critical."

"Recognizing that there are multiple perspectives on every issue is critical. You don't have to agree with one side or even any of the 'sides' of a story, just be open to the fact that not everyone agrees, and that's not a bad thing at all. As long as people are respectful, some of the best discussions can come from differing opinions. Like you said, it's literally what being an English major is about. I always hated it when people assumed I thought a certain way in English class discussions and often had to play devils advocate either because I actually thought that way or because I really didn't, but knew other people in the room did. Brushing aside 'the other side' of an issue doesn't lead to critical thinking." -Erica Lambright


Political Discussions in the Office

"My thoughts can be found here: "Handling Political Discussions in the Office." -Bart Leahy

You can read Bart's interview on Dear English Major here


Do you have some advice? Share in the comments! 

Posted on November 20, 2016 and filed under Articles, Featured Articles.