How to Communicate Your Boundaries While Talking Politics

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By Jill Baumgarner, MA

You know how it goes.

Something major happens in government, media, or on the global stage. Then, the next day (after a night of cable news and scrolling through Facebook headlines), you may find yourself with coworkers, or out for a drink with friends, or having dinner with your partner or another family member, when the political topic comes up and the conversation starts to get heated.

Passionate opinions fly, points of view clash, and tension spills over as you each try to make the other person see your side of things.

Sound familiar?  

We Don’t Talk Anymore: Why is it so hard to talk about politics without putdowns?

If there was ever a time when broaching a political discussion at the dinner table or at a social event was taboo, it is certainly a mindset that has been long forgotten. Today, topics of current news, politics, and religion are a pretty standard talking in many homes and social circles. While it’s true that the occasional friendly debate between family and good friends can be mentally stimulating, and even fun, discussions of politics have a reputation for quickly crossing the line from civil to contentious. Unfortunately, the evolution of social media and our recent elections seem to have struck, played, and frayed everyone’s political nerves.

Having a conversation about politics that is both passionate and civil is something many of us have little experience with, especially when the topics are close to home and emotions are running high. With social media sites acting as primary sources of news for many of us, controversial posts or hurtful comments by friends might be more prevalent in our newsfeeds. Due to the removed nature of posting a comment online, versus saying it in-person to someone directly, many of us have become more comfortable expressing our opinions about the current state of public affairs. While it’s important to stay true to yourself and your personal values, a lack of restraint when discussing controversial topics and opinions doesn’t always play well in the real world.

How Boundaries Help

All of this leads us to the need for boundaries. Boundaries are a must, especially when talking about politics or any sensitive subject. They go a long way in preserving relationships of all sorts, including those at work or relationships more intimate in nature.

A person’s emotional investment in a topic or area of life deserves respect. Not because you agree or support that point-of-view, but simply because we all want and need to operate freely and reach our own conclusions.

Boundaries that are clearly communicated, and held firmly, help preserve basic human dignity. This is important because we’ve seen too often, that respect tends to wither in the heat of passionate positions and in the absence of agreed-upon guidelines.

People can quickly resort to anger and relationship-damaging behavior if they don’t consider their individual limits and communicate them very clearly before jumping into political talking points.

How Can You Communicate Boundaries Effectively (before things go off the rails)?

Accept and Allow That It’s OK to Disagree.

Give yourself room to accept that your relationship allows for dual perspectives and realities.  In any relationship, it’s important that you quickly come to grips with this truth: You both have your own subjective reality and you both have equally valid perspectives.

Being in a relationship, with your partner or anyone else, is not about asserting how right you are  or wrong they are, but how much you value each other’s right to free thought, speech, and expression. Throughout your discussion, clearly state that you will listen and engage if your interaction is fair and reciprocal. When you sense you no longer have a voice, feel free to stop the discussion, walk away if you must, and share the reasons why. Agreeing that you disagree is certainly a more positive way to get back on track with your relationship with the other person, than continuing a fiery conversation that could damage your connection and friendship.

Respect Your Own Need to De-escalate and Drop Hot Topics Until Tempers Cool

Directly and firmly step away if the conversation becomes too heated. Dropping your political points for another discussion, or stepping out for a breath of fresh air, gives you the recognized ability to put on the brakes when you feel it’s necessary.

If you find your discussion partner is following you around the room trying to re-engage, you have the right to more obviously set a limit on the intensity of the conversation. Call a timeout, state that you can’t continue to have an escalated discussion with them and seek out a change of scenery to aid your peace of mind. If the relationship is important to you, tell them that the relationship means more to you than trying to win them over to your perspective.

Call Out Tendencies to Demonize, Degrade, or Dismiss Each Other

In the course of political conversations, you may realize that you and the other person in the discussion have extremely different worldviews, many different conclusions about where the world is headed, or very different ways of seeing the same politician. As bothered and irritated that may make you both, personal attacks as a result of your differences do too much relationship damage.

Don’t let boundary-breaking disrespect slide by unacknowledged. Especially without attempts to repair the relationship. Stopping to address name-calling, derogatory language, or put-downs lets your conversation partner know that passionate politics isn’t a pass for bullying and offensive behavior.

Insist on a Sense of Humor

The discussions you’re having are serious. The needs of the world, your country, and your community are great. For many, they are overwhelming. It can be easy to think that your ideas need to be heard and taken seriously. Your discussion partner likely feels the same way. You may also find that you continually reach a communication impasse.

Humor (not sarcasm or “hostile humor”) has a way of soothing tensions, relaxing that sense of “nose-to-nose” conflict, and re-opening your listening ears to each other.

Be the first to smile, make a humorous observation, or in some way interject a bit of fun into your exchange. This honors the conversation and both of your opinions, while still allowing you to communicate boundaries regarding tone and healthy perspectives.

Limits and Political Conversation Can Coexist… (if you’re careful and conscious)

Having different political views from your partner, family members, and co-workers co-worker, can be frustrating, even infuriating at times! When you feel strongly about certain social issues and governmental leadership, it can seem like the differences are too great to support worthwhile interaction.

Don’t give up on political conversations, just reconsider how you have them.

Learning to set boundaries from the outset can alleviate tension, promote confidence, and affirm the relationship, priming your minds for a less emotional conversation and a more thoughtful, engaged discussion.

Politics is only divisive if we allow it to be.

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Jill Baumgarner, MA, LPC Intern, works with couples and individuals at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin. For more ideas on productive communication and help navigating the political climate, please feel free to contact her at (512) 270-4883, ext. 108, or request an appointment with her on the RCC Austin Scheduling page.