Talking about politics these days makes any average person, like me, cringe. While we’re at it why not debate religion too? Uh…no thanks. But trying to talk about politics with your own husband when you seem to see the world completely different is excruciating. I’m attempting to unfold this challenge to improve my relationship and maybe if we can figure it out, it’s possible to help others do the same.
Don’t worry folks, I won’t be making any arguments related to my political views. I only want to talk about “talking about politics” because that alone feels quite difficult and even dangerous these days. You could risk a friendship, your career, or maybe even your marriage if you’re on the opposing side of an argument with someone that controls something valuable in your life. How is it that in 2019 we still can’t get out of the, “us versus them” and “I’m right and you’re wrong” default? This is particularly concerning considering we have so much clarity on our past mistakes from history? You would think we’d have learned by now that division and polarization can only lead to pain and suffering. But apparently, we can’t help ourselves and there doesn’t seem to be enough empathy in the world to stop this diminishing cycle. We feel the need to pick a side and determine who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s better than, and who’s less than.
I am no expert on politics, I’m barely qualified to debate on any topic that’s in the headlines these days. Like most people I’m busy and my life is full so I have very little time to effectively investigate any topic outside of those that directly impact my family and career. But I do have my instincts that are informed by my experience and values. This is what I have to guide me on any complicated topic that presents itself in conversation. I also have Google and I’m certain this may cause more challenges than solutions. It gives me just enough of what I need to validate my assumptions. Isn’t it crazy how Google seems to confirm your opinion almost 100% of the time? Immediate access to information that’s presented to me based on my own search history which just continues to validate my own bias. This is dangerous, it typically reinforces my own argument and does little to challenge assumptions and present counter information. This technology advancement is amazing in our desire for immediate information but can be devastating in our search for truth and understanding.
Ok, so I think we all know there’s a problem and it only seems to be escalating as we approach the next election. The question is, what do we do about it and how do we stop the divide? This is a particularly important question for me because of my marriage. This divide has created some stress and anxiety for both of us. Tiptoeing around topics and news stories was already there but in 2016, when Trump won the election, my husband and decided to not talk about politics. We have always had a respect for one another that supersedes being “right” to avoid conflict and hard feelings, it just seemed easier to take it off the table. Here’s the problem, it is impossible. Not talking about current events and news and hard topics alienates you from connection and the opportunity to grow and learn. We have realized over the last couple of years that not talking about the hard stuff means we aren’t talking about much of anything at all. Of course, we manage a life together and the day to day tasks that consume that life so it hasn’t been that terribly hard to keep the peace. But as our kids get older it becomes more and more difficult not to talk about the topics that weigh heavy on our society, our friends and our family.
We were taught to not talk about politics or religion because we understood that these topics are sensitive, create tension, anxiety and uncomfortable conversations. Working in a corporate environment where you have to talk about the potential of crisis, like an active shooter or how to manage the lack of skilled talent in the market forces you into discussions about gun reform or immigration policies. As a leader in a work environment, it’s necessary to manage these discussions and also take into consideration that all of your employees have different views and perspectives on these topics. At work, it becomes critical to learn the skill of navigating difficult and uncomfortable conversations. But I am more aware than ever that this is also a key skill to learn in every facet of your life. Because if we can’t learn to share our ideas, discuss our disagreements and still manage to respect each other at home than where does that leave us? Lonely and disconnected is my guess. I also want to teach these skills to my children so they are prepared to be world citizens, productive employees, good friends, loving family members, and overall decent humans.
So, a few weeks ago I finally broke down and told my husband that this “not talking” wasn’t going to work. Not just because it was causing me frustration and disconnection but because I don’t want to raise my children in a home that avoids tough conversations. It was time to put the hard stuff back on the table. I want them to understand that it’s ok to disagree and it’s ok to challenge each other, respectfully. I also see this as an opportunity for my kids to see two adults, that they respect, in a disagreement where we are learning to listen, ask questions, and move on with life even when we don’t see eye to eye. What an amazing skill to teach them.
In theory, this was awesome until we had our first heated debate, privately in our bedroom, and both walked away frustrated. We started with a few easy ones like gun control, abortion, immigration, and misogyny, all at once of course. Well, we may have jumped into the deep end without our floaties but I’m ok with that. This is going to take practice and I’m doing my best to stop lecturing and to start asking questions and listening. I believe that Greg is also trying to be more open and curious. As I like to say we are for sure “doing the best that we can”. What we quickly realized is that we may need to start smaller and more daily, like topics that are coming up in the news. Greg is good at asking me, “have you heard about blah blah blah and what are your thoughts?” Serious kudos to him for this approach. I can feel myself starting to answer with all my words ready to fire but I’m trying to slow down and ask his thoughts as well. It is SO HARD, for both of us.
The role I play in my organization pushes me to think about people all the time and how to get the best outcomes from them. In many ways, I’m realizing that having a better strategy and plan at home is necessary for my family as well. One of the topics we are tackling at work is how to help our people be more anti-fragile. I know there’s a lot of talk about the younger generation being overly sensitive to the world around them so let me be clear that this is not another hit to Millennials or Gen Z. We all could use a dose of anti-fragility and if you don’t agree just bring up a sensitive topic next time you’re in mixed company and then watch people scatter, mentally and physically. This problem does not see, age, gender, color or political affiliation, we could all use some help in how to deal with difficult topics. At work, we’ve been partnering with an organization called Open Mind. Their understanding of human behavior and their simple approach to teaching a better way to engage people is refreshing. I can’t do them justice but one of my biggest takeaways is that it’s about helping people understand that discomfort does not have to feel unsafe or unproductive. It’s important that we keep talking about difficult topics and challenge each other along the way in order for us to come up with productive solutions. If we stop talking, in order to protect oursleves, then we stop making ourselves and others better while also trying to move forward. If we don’t get intentional about diversifying our connections we will surely be surrounded with people that agree with us all of the time. If you don’t see any issue with that then more power to you but I’m interested in progress within all areas of my life and I don’t think that’s possible when I’m limited to one perspective. Open mind has a very simple approach and I recommend it for sure. Personally, this has become about THREE basic skills, are you ready? 1. Ask more questions 2. Shut up and 3. Really listen. Sounds simple in theory but it’s advanced in execution I assure you.
Work has forced me to learn more about this topic of having difficult conversations but I’m an active case study at home as my husband and I try to navigate a better way to engage, support and learn from one another. Wanting a strong, supportive, and loving relationship is all the motivation I need to improve. I believe that if we are successful it will make us better together and benefit our kids. They will see that it’s possible to challenge and be challenged and it won’t break them. We are not fragile and if we learn to be respectful and compassionate in the process I actually think we can change the world, one conversation at a time.