We all know never to discuss politics on the first date. The reason is a good one: It’s hard to find that soft spot in your heart when you feel you have to defend your basic beliefs about who you are and how you see the world. Of course, the advice is even more relevant today when trenchant political divides have resulted in friends cutting each other off on Facebook or your combative cousin and great-aunt threatening to boycott the family reunion.
Several months after the election, we’re seeing another divide: People are either more fired up over recent political developments. Or they’re totally exhausted and begging “Can we please talk about something else?”
But the topic is going to come up eventually, especially as you get to know someone. After a couple of dates, if you’re avoiding the topic on purpose, that’s unhealthy, too. The challenge is that many of us never learned how to have constructive conversations about our different viewpoints.
I talked to Karin Tamerius, a Bay Area psychiatrist who started a Facebook group that’s devoted to the topic of how to have helpful discussions with people who don’t share your beliefs. The tagline is: “Keep calm and keep talking.” Don’t let the name of the group fool you. (It’s called Social Media Approaches for Resisting Trump or SMART.) The focus is about staying civil with an emphasis on getting to know each other.
“Even if we have good conversational skills under normal circumstances, when we talk about politics, emotions tend to take over and drive discussions off the rails,” says Tamerius. “The goal is to be able to able to keep our emotions in check, so we can really listen to what the other person has to say, especially in a dating situation when a relationship is so new.”
Here are some tips on how to make it through the most charged conversation:
1) Bring up politics after you’ve developed a personal connection
If you’ve already developed a friendly rapport, you’ll have a good foundation to filter points of disagreement. “Build a relationship first,” she says. “We can’t have a civil conversation before we see each other as a human who’s equal and deserving of respect.” Also if you’ve already decided that you like someone and are looking for reasons to keep liking them, you’re less likely to see their political views as deal-breakers. You’ll be open to learning more about what’s behind them.
2) Don’t put stock in labels
That means not jumping to conclusions when you learn whether someone is a Republican or Democrat. Just like people are nuanced, so are their reasons why they identify with a political party or why they chose particular candidates. A better approach: Ask about their motivations behind the labels. “Try saying: ‘That’s really interesting. Would you mind sharing why you made that decision?’” says Tamerius.
3) Be curious, not judgmental
You’re not trying to change someone’s views. You’re just sharing yours and learning more about theirs. The best way to show that you don’t have an agenda is to casually mention something you heard in the news. “Make it detached and part of a natural conversation,” says Tamerius. “Then come back with lots of friendly questions. You’re showing interest in the person and where their beliefs come from. That creates connection.”
Steer clear of pointed questions, such as “Why would you believe that?” or “Do you know you’ve bought into fake news?”
“You don’t want the other person to feel attacked and defensive and start shutting down,” says Tamerius. “That’s a romance killer.”
Try these phrases: “I’m curious to know more about how you came to that conclusion” or “That’s interesting. I never thought about it like that. I’d love to learn more.”
4) Show off your conflict resolution skills
One of the most important reasons to have a political discussion early on in dating is to learn how your date handles hard conversations, period! Can they have an open-minded dialogue? Is it difficult for them to tolerate disagreement? Do they belittle or criticize you? “Do they listen or preach or are they genuinely interested in what you have to say?” says Tamerius.
At the same time, these conversations are a great opportunity for you to demonstrate your emotional muscle. You want to be the person with whom your date feels safe discussing anything.
5) Find the commonalities to grow closer
Perhaps you don’t agree with a certain policy. But you can probably acknowledge the concerns behind them, such as being worried about the economy or national security. “I can relate to that” is a powerful sentence.
“Your goal is find points of connection whenever they come up,” says Tamerius. “That’s just plain good empathy.”
That’s also good advice on how to spark romance.
About the Author:
Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate, and Salon.