Talking Politics (and Oxygen): How to Keep the Peace -- And Hell, Actually Communicate

Bad news, folks: Election Day did not erase the bitterness of partisan politics the way I fantasized it might. ("Just get us to November 6th!" I kept muttering, as if we were on the road to Oz -- instead of a long evening with Wolf Blitzer.) In fact, my Social Q's mailbox at the New York Times where I write an advice column for the Styles section, has become an even stronger magnet for the petty resentments and grand-mal seizures of folks whose political miscommunications, missed communications, and nasty communications are driving them straight up the wall.

Worse news: It's not likely to get much better as we enter the wall-to-wall holiday season -- in which greater contact with blood relations, booze, airports and credit card debt can reliably spike the blood pressures of the mildest among us.

So, here is the million dollar question: Is it even constructive to talk politics with folks who don't (and in all likelihood may never) agree with us?


Until we find a rational way to stake out our differing positions -- without shouting, finger-pointing, or disrespectfully doctored GIFs of the president -- we will never build consensus or move toward the compromises that everyone knows we're desperate for. (Also, in light of this fall's lousy TV line-up and the New York Jets abysmal season to date, what else are we going to talk about?)

So, it's decided: We are going to talk politics. But how do we engineer these conversations so they're productive and polite?

Well, it all boils down to oxygen. (Yep, you heard me: oxygen)

1. Listen.

When your brother-in-law (or neighbor or boss) starts voicing political opinions that make you want to interrupt immediately -- screaming out your objections or grinding his face into a sofa cushion, simply breathe deeply, inhaling and exhaling as you listen. Keep a cool expression on your face that gives away nothing, but more importantly, keep quiet.

Letting the other person have his say is critical for two reasons: It lets him know you respect him enough to hear him out, which creating a small mountain of goodwill. But more selfishly, it creates an equitable right for you to be heard in return. I'm not saying this will be easy. But if women can breathe through the body-wracking agony of delivering twins, you can surely breathe through your neighbor's interpretation of the fiscal cliff.

This does not require you to endure political rants or nasty personal attacks. (Even listening has its limits.) When the other guy becomes screechy or his arguments ad hominem, simply toss in a mild-mannered: "Indoor voice, please" or "Let's steer clear of name-calling." If that doesn't work, retreat. It takes two to tango -- at we've all learned from Dancing With the Stars. But most times, your quiet reminder will work, and the other guy will inch back toward civility.

2. First Agree, then Make Your Own Point.

So, now that you've listened like a champ, and let the other person make his point, what then? What else: More oxygen: Take another deep breath. Let your exhale wipe away as much smirk and snark and superiority as it can. Then find one (even miniscule) thing to agree with in what your neighbor just said -- even if it's a simple: "Well, we both agree that this is an important issue." Then make your counterpoint gently but firmly, open to further discussion, but no patsy.

If the other guy interrupts you, remind him calmly that you heard him out and would like the same respect from him.

Now, keep it up: breathing and listening, breathing and speaking. Who knows? You might actually get somewhere.

3. Don't Be Afraid to Take a Break.

If this tack fails, never fear: Simply turn up the oxygen. Don't be shy about excusing yourself for a quick walk around the block. Clear your head with some nice deep breaths. And let your oxygenated breath return your pounding heart rate to normal.

When you head back inside, consider round two. But if you take up this challenge, be even gentler and more respectful the second time around -- like Daniel Day Lewis in his Abraham Lincoln drag, with a voice as calm and sure as the one that began to heal a nation even more deeply divided (and less inclined to compromise) than the talking heads at MSNBC and Fox News.

Just breathe deep -- and good luck out there.