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Some things can be hard to talk about, and politics has become one of those things. The conversations can easily go wrong because many political issues are so close to our hearts.

The purpose of this article is to equip you with tools to avoid common pitfalls people walk into when they engage in political conversations.

Disclaimer: by no means am I telling you who, what, why, how you should vote, or even if you should exercise your right to vote. The purpose of this article is to share why political conversations often go wrong, and how to avoid these traps.

3 Traps: polarization, defensiveness, and the lesser of 2 evils

Trap #1: Polarization

Polarization is the divide into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs. We think in terms of elephant vs donkey, liberal vs conservative. Polarization says, “if I’m right, then someone must be wrong.” Someone has to win and someone has to lose. One of the reasons the nations feel polarized is because Americans are used to winning. When we feel like we’re losing our identity, we become unsportsmanlike and we no longer play fair. We feel our voices are not heard or allowed at the table, we feel devalued, neglected so it’s time to fight. To avoid the trap of polarization – even though we naturally think in black and white – we must remember that grey is a color too.

Trap #2 : Defensiveness

When we feel under attack we become defensive. The same is true when we are having political discussions. Defensiveness means putting a wall up to distance ourselves from our mistakes and to protect our character, what we believe is right, and our sense of pride in how we grew up. We close our minds to another person’s viewpoints or their feelings.

However, healthy political discussion should not be about attacking people – it’s about attacking the process of public policy and how it affects communities at large. Healthy debates will help us improve our communities and public policy – and who doesn’t want to improve? Move past your defensive instincts quickly by changing your mindset and seeing feedback as a gift. To avoid the pitfalls of defensiveness, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What image of yourself are you defending?
  2. Do you have beliefs about being right or wrong that causes you to be defensive?

Trap #3 : the lesser of 2 evils

Last but not least, one of the traps we fall into in political conversations is the lesser of 2 evils bias.

Bias is prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another – usually in a way considered to be unfair. Bias is a subjective way of thinking that tells only one side of a story which sometimes leads to inaccurate information or a false impression.

The lesser of 2 evils bias is the principle that when faced with selecting from 2 immoral options, the one which is least immoral should be chosen. People often feel paralyzed by this principle because it feels like you have to make a choice between 2 bad alternatives.

As a former vocational pastor, I often saw many faith-based voters or one-issue voters feel stuck because of this principle. For those of us that may be religious, we can often put a hierarchy on morality and what we think is important to God. Many times that hierarchy is based on our own personal or cultural biases. Even if we don’t like any political candidates, we may go with the person who aligns most with our hierarchy of values.

From a young age, our family, geographical region, theology, cultural background, and experiences all shape our viewpoints on what we consider to be the lesser of the 2 evils.

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Conscious Leadership: Above the line vs Below the Line

One resource that has been challenging me as I desire to grow in self-awareness around these conversations is a framework called Conscious Leadership. The author believes that leadership operates from two places: above the line or below the line.

  1. Above the line leadership is open, curious, and committed to learning.
  2. Below the line leadership is closed, defensive, and committed to being right. (Leading from below the line is not wrong- it is a common state of most people.)

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The same framework can be applied to many different scenarios including political discussions. We should become more self aware when we are thinking below the line and make the shift to above the line as a regular practice.

When you’re below the line your primary commitment is to being right. When you’re above the line your primary commitment is to learning and being curious. Thinking about the line helps us move from attacking people to attacking the process.

Conscious leadership is about committing to two things.

  1. A commitment to taking radical responsibility
  2. A commitment to learning through curiosity

Responsibility

Above The Line

I commit to taking full responsibility for the circumstances of my life, and my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being. I commit to support others to take full responsibility for their lives.
_______________________________________________________

Below The Line

I commit to blaming others and myself for what is wrong in the world. I commit to being a victim, villain, or a hero and taking more or less than 100% responsibility.

Curiosity

Above The Line

I commit to growing in self-awareness. I commit to regarding every interaction as an opportunity to learn. I commit to curiosity as a path to rapid learning.
_______________________________________________________

Below The Line

I commit to being right and to seeing this situation as something that is happening to me. I commit to being defensive especially when I am certain that I am RIGHT.

Every one of us enters political conversations with different emotions, conclusions, theologies, and experiences that have shaped our worldview. People who are committed to learning do their best not only to share their opinions, but make it safe for others to add meaning to the conversation.