7 Ways to Turn the Temperature Down on Political Arguments
Mary Ann Luna ate lunch every day with her best friend at work for 15 years. Their friendship gave them both a deep sense of camaraderie and belonging.
Until it all changed.
In 2016, Mary Ann’s longtime friend began to send her articles attacking Democrats. Mary Ann wasn’t particularly liberal herself, but she was alarmed by the angry tone of the articles. Worse still, if Mary Ann ever objected to her coworker’s perspective, she would get grilled by her friend, who would demand sources for the points she raised and scold her for listening to elite, dishonest media.
After the election, things never quite felt the same. But they resumed their lunches and tried for a friendship.
When the cycle began to repeat itself in 2020, a more permanent distance grew between them. In late November of 2020, Mary Ann sent her work friend a text: “I am sorry that your guy lost, but let’s leave politics out and just be friends.”
Mary Ann never heard back. The two stopped talking.
Can We Demilitarize Politics?
Chances are you’ve never experienced anything that extreme. But you’ve probably experienced something similar: an office growing tense because of political allegiances, a family meal going nuclear over a political debate, a friendship becoming distant because of partisan differences, a small group disintegrating over different takes on hot button issues.
Like all people, you have political beliefs and find yourself siding with this side or that. Yet, you know that some things matter a lot more than politics: things like friendship, family, and faith.
The Hebrew sages got it right: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
After all, who wants to live in a world characterized by disunity? It creates a chilling environment where people are afraid to say anything lest they trigger someone in the opposite party.
This begs the question: Is there a way to navigate a relationship with someone who is obsessed with politics?
You can help your friends and family by addressing the drama in the heat of the moment and after the dust settles. Here are seven ways to turn the temperature down on heated political debates.
7 Ways to Turn the Temperature Down
1. Watch out for anger.
Brain scientists who study anger have shown that when we get angry, our brains suppress higher reasoning functions. Put simply, the angrier we get, the more stupid we get.
Of course, you don’t need a brain scan to discover this: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29). If you find yourself getting angry, it’s probably time to shut up. If someone else is getting angry, don’t escalate. Instead, suggest that everyone take a breather and revisit the topic later.
2. Ask a 1-to-10 question.
Sometimes your friend or family member genuinely wants to have a dialogue about an important issue. They are open to having their mind changed. Other times, they just want a soapbox. To figure out which, ask them, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how certain are you that ____ is true?” If they answer between 8 and 10, they probably want a soapbox. Patiently endure and move on.
If they answer between 1 and 7, they might actually want a conversation. To move things forward, you can ask, “What would it take to change your mind on this topic?” If their answer isn’t unreasonable, you could love them by seeking mind-changing information.
3. View it as a learning experience.
Our certainty should be proportionate to our knowledge. Unfortunately, much of our political knowledge comes from clickbait headlines and news organizations that make money by stoking outrage.
For that reason alone, you should always doubt how well informed you are about any topic. Ask your friends questions that allow them to express their opinions. Even if you disagree, hold your tongue. You might learn something valuable about the topic or about why someone holds a particular perspective.
4. Interrogate any doubt.
Of course, it’s equally true that your friends may be speaking with more certainty than their knowledge justifies. If that’s the case, try asking: “What doubts or questions do you have about your perspective on this issue?” This will allow space for more thoughtful conversation, where you can share questions and seek answers constructively.
5. Emphasize shared identities.
Unfortunately, politics have become a team sport. Even more unfortunately, there are only two teams, and they are rivals. So, you must never forget what’s at stake for your politics-obsessed friend during a political argument: My team winning.
In the ancient world, ethnic strife worked the same way. So, when it threatened to tear apart the early church, the apostle Paul reminded people that they no longer played for their ethnic team. As Christians, they were actually on the same team: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).
Remind your friend of what you share (faith, employment, sports, experiences), and suggest that thing that’s more important than politics.
6. Leave the room or change the subject.
I know it can be awkward, but you can politely excuse yourself. Go to the bathroom. Get a drink. Check your email. Or you can try changing the subject: “That’s really interesting! Oh, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about….” If you do it enough times, most people get the message.
7. Confront anger with humility.
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
When someone gets heated, give them a gentle answer: “I care about important issues, just like you do. It’s easy for me to get carried away, and I’m sure you’ve seen it. But don’t you think these fights are doing more harm than good? What if we stopped talking about these topics or revisited them when we are both a bit more levelheaded?” You might be surprised how a humble, non-judgmental confrontation disarms a coworker.
It's true: partisan tribalism can drive a wedge between you and your friends, creating a toxic and disunified environment. Thankfully, Jesus gave us an example for rejecting tribalism and choosing unity.
This election season, make it a goal to keep first things first (relationships) and second things second (politics) by being willing to lose an argument to win a friendship.
Read more about the importance about prioritizing people and relationships over politics in the new book by Patrick Miller and Keith Simon, Truth over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant.