If All Else Fails, Talk About The Food: Tips For Navigating Partisan Politics At The Table

Nov 27, 2019

There have been no impeachment hearings during the holiday week, but people are still talking about it. And unless your family has a policy explicitly barring talk of politics or other divisive subjects, the topic is likely to come up around the Thanksgiving table. 

If that thought fills you with dread, relax. We're about to dish up some helpful tips for how to have civil discourse, so you can help avoid hurt feelings or possibly a food fight during the holidays. 

Martín Carcasson, director of the Colorado State University Center for Public Deliberation, joined KUNC's Colorado Edition to give his advice.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O'Toole: There are a lot of potential landmines this holiday: impeachment, the upcoming 2020 election, climate change, just to name a few. And that kind of conversation can be really stimulating, but it can also go off the rails really quickly. So what advice would you give for keeping dialogue civil? 

Martín Carcasson: I think the first thing I would say is to really go into it thinking about what you're trying to accomplish. If your goal is really to try to change people's minds that think a lot differently than you, I would probably recommend to re-think that. 

The more we know about social psychology and how divided we are, if your goal is to really debate and try to win people over, it's likely to probably backfire and go badly. So I think going into the conversation with some different goals, more of just focusing on creating more understanding, get a chance to talk about big issues, talk about values, but probably stay away from specific things that you're going to get into kind of fact wars and those, because those are probably not going to go very well. 

How would you recognize and stop a conversation before it goes too far? 

We're finding more and more, again going back to the social psychology, is the more we understand how our brain works, that gives us something to talk about. So I think one way, instead of trying to dive into the issues, just to get people to respond to that, to think about, to talk about polarization as the topic. There's actually a lot of common ground there. We're getting more and more from the polls that people are more and more frustrated with the inability to talk to each other, and talking past each other. 

So steering the conversation to that. How do we learn how to talk to each other? What do we need to do to be able to do that? I think might give you the chance to talk about some of those bigger issues, but framing them in a different way. Instead of figuring out what side is right or wrong or those types of things, it gives you a common task to work on, of how do we learn how to talk to each other again. 

Credit Brad Holt / CreativeCommons/Flickr

There are those who believe that if they just lay out the facts, they'll win people over to their side of the argument. What are your thoughts on that approach?

I think the social science is becoming more and more clear that facts don't change peoples minds, particularly in a polarized environment. That within a primarily adversarial frame — and obviously our national politics is a very basic adversarial frame — there (are) two teams, the red team and the blue team, and we know within that context facts don't work. 

Facts are used as ammunition if they fit your side, and you can dismiss them as "fake news" if they don't. And we actually, we've been learning more and more that in some ways, the stronger your facts are, the more they might backfire when you're trying to convince someone who thinks differently, because they're still going to be able to find some sort of flaw in the argument.

And really at the end of the conversation they'll just feel that they thought they had this great information, and even that was not good enough. So I think we need to get away from thinking the facts are going to do what we want them to do and win the day.

At the same time, we don't want to give up on facts. So that's a lot of the work that we do, how do we change the kind of conversations we have so that facts matter again. I just think that in the context of a couple of hours and a dinner over Thanksgiving, it's going to be really hard to change that broader kind of conversation. So I think aiming a little lower, and saying I'm not going to change people's minds, I'm just going to try to understand people. 

Do you have any tips for listening? 

We tend not to get trained to listen, and our natural inclination to listen, particularly with people that disagree with us is to look for flaws, or look for something to expose or jump on. And certainly that kind of listening is not going to lead to a very good conversation at Thanksgiving.

So really listening to understand, giving them the benefit of the doubt, trying to kind of understand what's important to them. Both is going to help the conversation, it's also pretty pragmatic. If you ultimately want to change their mind, really listening to where they're coming from, what's important to them, is going to be pretty critical for you to down the line really make the arguments that you need to make to make them think a bit differently.

And then what if we have a disagreement over whether green been casserole is good or bad. Where do you fall? 

I'm in the pro-green bean casserole kind of camp certainly.

Me too, maybe that's something we all can agree on. 

If all else fails, shift to the food, or what is the best pie, or something like that. 

Resources Martín recommends: 

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Nov. 27. Listen to the full episode here.