How to avoid relationship-killing political arguments

Argument at Occupy Wall Street 2011

Occupy Wall Street 2011

At Messaging Matters, we have spent more than four years trying to help people engage in and win political arguments and policy battles, for example, by identifying loaded talking points and phony phrases used by conservatives. However, we keep hearing from friends who have seen relationships, friendships and even family ties come to an unpleasant end due to political arguments. Often, these arguments take place in social media like Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes, the argument and subsequent ending of the relationship happens in just a few minutes, after several angry message exchanges. But what if you value your friendships and relationships, and don’t want to lose them over political differences? Here are several tips that you can use to preserve your relationships — and your sanity — in these politically charged, social media-fed times:

1. Just walk away — Don’t take the bait. Here’s an example that happened to me: I was part of a group get-together, seated at a long table at a restaurant. After many minutes of pleasant conversations, one person in the group piped up and told a conservative-biased political story, no doubt heard on Fox News. It was one of those anti-government culture war anecdotes that Fox cherry-picks out of the tens of thousands of possible news stories each day, along the lines of “did you hear about the public school that canceled the annual Christmas pageant?” No one at the table responded. I could have strongly disagreed and would have had plenty to say, but this fun gathering didn’t seem like the right forum for such a political debate. So I politely excused myself and left the table to check my emails and text messages. When I returned, the subject was forgotten and the group had moved on to more fun things. When you remember that you are person of conviction, one other person’s opinion makes no difference to you, and therefore you do not always need to refute what they say on the spot.

If this happens when you are online, it’s even easier virtually just to walk away, either by ignoring their message or comment, or leaving the particular website or forum for the time being.

2. Use humor — One type of humorous response that is particularly suited to an obnoxious or disagreeable political comment is the “agree and amplify” method. This is when you take the other person’s comment, agree with it, and then add on some absurd, over-the-top, obviously false comment of your own, followed by a smile. For example, if the other person says or writes, “I know Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Socialist,” you can say, “yes, and I hear he’s a Martian too.” Marco Rubio‘s supporters did this to great effect recently, after the New York Times published a story about Rubio’s driving record — see the Twitter #RubioCrimeSpree hashtag.

This humor tactic will likely interrupt the other person’s thinking and speech pattern, and cause them either to (a) just give you a dumbfounded look; (b) laugh along with you, knowing that you know that what they said isn’t backed up by facts; (c) say “no, really” and keep on with their remarks, in which case you can try another humorous agree and amplify; or (d) drop the subject and move on. At minimum, you’ll feel good after making your joke.

3. Play dumb — If someone you know who disagrees with you politically tries to start a political argument by asking, “What do you think of ….,” you can answer “gee, I hadn’t really thought of that” or “I haven’t focused on that particular subject.” If the person goes on to recite his or her views, don’t engage on the subject, but rather, reply with terms such as “that’s interesting,” “indeed” or “is that so?” If you two are together in person, you can also nod your head and say “hmmm.” Eventually, the other person will likely become bored with the one-sided conversation thread, and it will move on to other topics.

4. Change the subject — For example, if the other person says, “What do you think of that awful decision by the Supreme Court upholding the Affordable Care Act?” you can say “I don’t know, I’ve been so focused on “Game of Thrones” that I can’t possibly think of that other stuff.”

Obviously, there will be times when you want to engage in political discussions with folks who you know disagree with you. If so, in this day and age, it won’t be hard to find a willing partner or available forum in which to engage them. Just be careful if you want to speak to them ever again.

Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons license.




2 Responses to How to avoid relationship-killing political arguments
  1. Joe Santorsa (@Marnus3)
    July 14, 2015 | 8:21 am

    Funny, but this happened to me last night. A cousin saw a jab I took at Scott Walker and came back with the “Obama needs a teleprompter” routine. I then agreed Obama was really dumb, not like those smart republicans, then posted a collage of the GOP “intelligentsia” with their teleprompters.

  2. Messaging Matters
    July 14, 2015 | 9:09 am

    Exactly, Joe! The “Obama needs a teleprompter” attack really is low-hanging fruit and ripe for a humorous reposte. BTW what was the result?

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