Brexit and the psychology of political arguments

PUBLISHED: 14:49 25 July 2017 | UPDATED: 14:49 25 July 2017

(Cloudvisual)

(Cloudvisual)

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Let’s get talking

In the 1970s, for my final year of high school, I was an exchange student in the United States. The mother of the family I lived with was a registered Republican; she’d once run for mayor of the upstate New York town in which she lived. Her sister lived in Washington DC, was a registered Democrat and friendly with Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. The year was 1974 – when Republican President Nixon, threatened with impeachment over the Watergate scandal, finally resigned, after months of media pressure and government investigations. Even so, I never heard a cross political word between the two siblings, and it wasn’t because they didn’t discuss politics. They just did it differently – quietly, respectfully, with even a little humour.

These days, that sort of political robustness seems extraordinary. Think back a year and you’ll remember the hot-headed arguments breaking out in the weeks after the referendum. It’s not that we believed that everyone thought and acted the same way. But somehow, given the people who were selling the Brexit message, it seemed only sane to imagine that they would lose. When they didn’t the Remainers were angry, sad, and confused.

As I wrote in this paper at the time, “some people are “not talking about it” as their feelings of frustration and anger are so strong; cool conversation seems almost impossible.

However, research shows that withdrawal and festering resentment is not a great tactic in personal relationships as it leads to poor communication and, ultimately, unhappiness. A well-handled argument could clear the air, and be the first step on the long road back to agreeing to disagree.”

As we enter the Brexit talks, it’s a good time to consider how we’re getting along with each other. And what we can do to stop Brexit – whether it happens or not – from breaking down our relationships.

In the US, where the political disagreements have caused even greater enmity and mistrust between those who support the election of Donald Trump and those who don’t, the disagreements are even more impassioned. As social scientist and author David Maxfield wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “It’s always been risky to voice your political views and, in today’s polarised environment, it’s become practically taboo. Our recent study showed that one in three of us have been attacked, insulted, or called names for sharing our opinions; and one in four have had a political discussion permanently damage a relationship.”

Hadfield and his colleagues ran an experiment to see if they could cool down the rowing. They asked 3,688 people, from the two opposing sides, to listen to two videos of people having a political discussion. In one of them four simple skills were included in one conversation, in the other, the speaker was more aggressive. These skills (which I will come to) helped to diffuse the argument and the speakers were rated by the groups five times more likely to be seen as diplomatic and were 140% more persuasive.

They then asked subjects to watch a video of someone who strongly agreed with their point of view (one version with the actor using skills, the other without) – and asked them to judge the actor. These same labels held true even when the observers had the same opinion as the actor. “That’s right – even when you agree, how you share your view risks alienating friends and weakening relationships,” wrote Maxfield.

So, what are these four special skills you need to learn?

Focus on learning: being curious about another’s position is sufficient motivation to engage.

Ask for permission: ask the other person if you can explain your point of view

Show respect: start by over-communicating this, but always show respect

Focus on common ground: look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement.

Now, let’s get talking.

Louise Chunn is the founder of find a therapist platform welldoing.org, and former editor of Psychologies magazine

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