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Breathe And Stay Curious: My Self-Improvement Strategy For Talking Politics

Janna Malamud Smith attempts to pop the political filter bubble with mixed results. In this photo, Dolly the elephant squares off against Dottie the donkey. The scene took place in Lake George, New York, Aug. 24, 1972. (Bob Schutz/AP)
Janna Malamud Smith attempts to pop the political filter bubble with mixed results. In this photo, Dolly the elephant squares off against Dottie the donkey. The scene took place in Lake George, New York, Aug. 24, 1972. (Bob Schutz/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Are you able to have political conversations with people you really disagree with? I’m often not. I would like to be better at it. I’ve worked as a psychotherapist for a long time, and I pride myself on being able to listen and talk about most everything — in the office. As a citizen... not so much. All someone has to tell me is how Chris Christie has the kind of strength we need in a president, or assert that racism is no longer an important issue, and I either become too quiet, or I start sputtering like an overheated car radiator. I am not proud of my reflexes. I would like to be able to breathe and stay curious. But if the nerve is hit hard, all I want to do is plug my ears and go, “lalalalalalala.”

Several months ago, I created a self-improvement strategy. I have a newish hairdresser whom I like a lot. I’ll call him “Bob.” He’s a lovely person, really smart, and able. He is something of a news junkie ... and I have gradually discovered that we are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. So, as part of my effort at self-reform, I decided I would ask him his opinion about one current event each time we meet. Then I’d try to listen carefully to his response... and stay calm... and yet engaged.

I am not proud of my reflexes ... But if the nerve is hit hard, all I want to do is plug my ears and go, 'lalalalalalala.'

It went fine the first time. We talked about political issues behind the price of oil. I don’t remember exactly how we got there. But in five minutes we touched on Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Putin and much more. I was genuinely interested. There were places I could feel the tectonic plates of our views rubbing, but no earthquakes. On my way home, I patted myself on the back. Not so hard after all, huh?

Emboldened, when I went back five weeks later, I asked Bob what he thought about Donald Trump. Almost before he could start replying, I blurted that I found Trump’s views on immigrants appalling. He paused, gathered himself, and tried to answer my question. He said he thought Trump had a point about immigration. People patrolling the border, or those who had lots of “illegals” running through their backyards paint a pretty bad picture of how our current policies are going wrong.

I should have just focused on the meta-emotion he was describing — feeling threatened in your own home, which — a bit of common ground — no one wants to feel. Instead, too quickly — and unfairly — the messenger and the message, merged in my mind. And I argued... and then stopped myself. He concentrated back on my hair, and I asked him about his upcoming vacation. I realized that I hadn’t even let him finish before I’d bristled like a hedgehog. Not what I intended.

It makes me feel like such a part of the cosmic problem. How can I hope for a more peaceful world if I want to listen only to people with whom I agree?

As I’ve thought about the moment and described it to friends, I’ve received commiserative nods, but not many suggestions. I’m at a bit of a loss. It makes me feel like such a part of the cosmic problem. How can I hope for a more peaceful world if I want to listen only to people with whom I agree? Yet when politicians — in this case Trump — use bullying, derision, distortion, sensationalism and humiliation as ways to advance their interests, I feel so distressed, so quickly, I can’t find a reasonable way to respond until much later.

I plan to try again ... and I hope more practice will help. Maybe someday I’ll even be able to ask someone, “Tell me about Dick Cheney’s views of Obama,” and listen with curiosity as my interlocutor responds.

Or maybe I should just start growing out my hair.

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Janna Malamud Smith Cognoscenti contributor
Janna Malamud Smith is a psychotherapist and writer.

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