America may feel like a nation split in two, and in some ways, it is. Just days after the election, a Gallup poll found that a record high 77 percent of the country believed that the country is divided on the most important values. Recent incidents like a Republican congressional candidate allegedly assaulting a journalist and tension at town hall meetings suggest more heated moments are still to come. Yet it’s possible to debate the issues without getting ugly.

View Every Interaction as Educational

“If you want to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you, you have to check your assumptions at the door,” says Lisa Cohen, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. When listening to someone who has opposing views, approach the conversation with the assumption that you can learn something from them.

Avoid Blocking

To cool hot debates, don’t counter an argument with adversarial phrases such as “I disagree” or “but.” “That’s dismissive,” says Susan Heitler, a Denver-based clinical psychologist who writes Psychology Today’s Resolution, Not Conflict blog.
Ninety-three percent of Republicans are more conservative than the median Democrat, while 94 percent of Democrats are more liberal than the median Republican – up from 64 percent and 70 percent, respectively, two decades ago, according to the Pew Research Center. Since most people are so firm in their beliefs, trying to convince others to change will just put them on the defensive. 

Stop Prepping Your Response

Just listen. Then reply. “I think a lot of times, especially on social media, people assume others have ill intent and the conversation just goes upside down, unfortunately,” says Edda Collins Coleman, co-founder and chief public affairs officer of All in Together, a non-partisan organization working to decrease gender gaps in political and civic engagement. One method for de-escalating tension during a curt social media exchange: ask a follow-up or clarifying question that demonstrates you’re attentive to what’s being said.

Foster Additive Dialogue

Use this technique from improv performers. Repeat a specific word or phrase used by the other person, then carry the conversation forward. Heitler recommends saying something along the lines of, “Yes, higher taxes are a serious concern for me as well, and at the same time…” or “The mistake the president made was surprising because that’s an area he knows a lot about.”

A calm exchange between Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and his constituents after a town hall meeting in Columbia, S.C.

Channel Your Inner SEAL (Yes, really)

Try the 4×4 method, a tactic Navy SEALs use to keep cool under pressure. Start by expelling air from your chest for a count of four, then inhaling through the nose for another four seconds before holding it for four more. Sometimes you just need to take a break from the politically charged exchange or step away from your mobile device, says Collins Coleman, who teaches the strategy at workshops.

Open with the Right Questions

“Ask what they believe in, and why, and what’s important to them,” says Cohen. Alternatively, try this opener: “I’ve always had a very different point of view, but help me understand how you see this.”

Check your tone

Keep it calm and friendly — even during debates about serious topics like immigration reform or anti-terrorism measures. “People’s ears open when they’re feeling relaxed,” says Heitler.

Give It Another Go

If a battle becomes so heated that one or both parties walk away, give it some time — several minutes, hours or even days. Then re-engage by offering an olive branch through a bit of agreement, with something like, “I was thinking about what you said on the Supreme Court, and I very much agree about…” Acknowledging a portion of what they said, with a non-threatening tone, could provide the opportunity for a fresh start, says Heitler.

Channel Your Emotions Into Action

Trade an explosive confrontation for political gain. Direct your passionate efforts towards influencing members of government. Use social media (keeping in mind the tips above!) or make an in-person visit to a lawmaker’s office (which might prove even more fruitful). Or check out new platforms like the left-leaning Daily Action and Wall-of-Us, which suggest ways that constituents can take action by contacting government reps about various issues.
Homepage photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images.