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What Difference Does Talking Politics with Opponents Make?


As Congress debates the role Donald Trump played in a Capitol invasion last month, some scholars are looking for ways to heal the pain of friends and families divided by politics.

Rachel Wahl has spent years studying conversations between people who disagree over political and social issues.  She did a book on police and communities demanding change, brought students together from a small evangelical college and a large secular university.

“I interviewed them first in 2017 and then had the opportunity to follow up with them again in 2020 to see how the dialogue sessions had gained in meaning, if at all, over time,” she explains.

The first thing she learned is that conversations rarely change minds.

“Only in one or two cases did people consider their actual positions.”

But often, after having a talk, people left with a better opinion of their political opponents.

“The people they had spoken to were not as crazy or malicious or ignorant as they had assumed they would be," she recalls. "This is I think is an often overlooked, significant outcome of talking with people we disagree with.”

And why does she say that?

“We are in a period in which our democracy is threatened by political violence.  It’s threatened by the sense that the other side might be so off base and bad that we believe vast conspiracy  theories against them.  We don’t believe election results, and so this sense that people on the other side may be making choices we disagree with but are thoughtful, good people one can relate to their motivation behind those choices --  I think is really important.”

So does she think we should all be striking up conversations with those who hold opposing views?  Wahl says absolutely not!

“I don’t think anyone should have to talk to anyone else.  These conversations are often highly emotionally taxing and difficult. I think somebody engaging in this conversation + out of a sense of duty – probably wouldn’t have a very good conversation.  A good conversation comes from curiosity.” 

If you are curious, Wahl says, start the conversation with a question.

19 –‘Can you help me understand why you think that?  Can you help me understand why you voted that way?  Can you help me understand why you support that?’ And then it takes a lot of restraint and listening to continue to probe, so questions like,  ‘What are you afraid would happen if X, Y, Z?  What do you hope would happen if X, Y, Z?’ To really try to understand the motivating fears, concerns and visions that might be there but not articulated.  That creates the conditions in which they become more receptive and open, because they feel listened to and are being asked questions that invite their own reflections.”

Just keep in mind, the goal is not to persuade but to understand.

“I think it’s really hard to do, because you feel irresponsible by not trying to persuade right away.  We feel like we have an obligation to try to convince this person to do the right thing and think the right thing, because we care about justice.  The problem is when we do that right away, we tend to raise people’s defenses.”

In the long run, she says, some people may come to share your views because of a conversation that led them to reflect more on their own beliefs.  In the meantime, Wahl says, we must depend on other methods to bend the arc of the moral universe: protests, lawsuits, political mobilization around campaigns and voting.  

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief