How to stay civil during a heated discussion

Don't give in to negativity

As the general election looms nearer, political arguments are getting nastier. But it's better to keep your cool with people who don't share your views, Olga Khazan writes for The Atlantic.

People are increasingly connecting their personal identity to their political affiliation—a trend that is driving people toward isolation, and in turn, hostility.

"People start seeing themselves or their political views as the main representation of their values, and what is right and wrong," says Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at University of California, Los Angeles. But hostility toward people who have different political opinions "deprives people of social connections and social support that they will need at some point," Maidenberg says. "It's very troubling."

When it comes to such impassioned topics as politics, it's hard for people to keep quiet.

"If someone was to say something about broccoli, you wouldn't feel sucked into the argument," says Anita Vangelisti, a communications professor at the University of Texas who researches interpersonal interactions. "But if someone gives you a strong view about something you care about, you tend to take on a defensive stance."

The best solution? Don't try to win arguments. That's not to say that you should never engage in heated discussions, but you should aim to deescalate conflict. Maidenberg and Vangelisti offer the following advice for keeping such discussions calm and civil:

  • If possible, physically remove yourself from the situation. Vangelisti recommends saying something along the lines of," I continue to disagree with you, but I'd prefer not to fight about it."
  • Can't get away? Keep asking the other person about his or her beliefs. That way, Vangelisti explains, "you can refocus the conversation on the person's feelings."
  • If the other person's facts are wrong, press him or her on this point. You could say, "I can see that you think that, given the sources of information that you have," Maidenberg says.
  • No matter what happens, don't give in to negativity. People tend to reflect each other's anger in a phenomenon known as negative affect reciprocity. But if you don't stoop to the other person's level, the conversation is immediately deescalated, Vangelisti says.

 (Khazan, The Atlantic, 8/29). 

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