Letting Go of the Labels: A Better Way to Talk Politics

Holding political campaign buttonsPrejudice, discrimination, racism, ageism, and sexism are all fueled by the use of labels. In the political arena, the words left, right, liberal, and conservative often function as polarizing and inflammatory labels. I believe the problems created by the use of such labels far outweigh any potential benefit.

Let’s consider an alternative.

If the main objectives of communication are to share, describe, inform, educate, or influence, then how does the use of labels such as liberal or conservative support this objective? In my experience, they don’t. These labels (sweeping generalizations, actually) serve to constrict, rather than expand, conversation. In practical usage, they often function to hide more information than they reveal. Used in conversation, they tend to distance individuals from one another. They foster less understanding between people rather than more.

During this lead-up to the U.S. presidential election, when millions of people are passionately engaged in political conversations, I suggest that instead of identifying ourselves with the blanket terms of “liberal” or “conservative” we instead focus on discussing specific topics and exploring specific political questions. In this way, we share what is important to each of us—we focus our discussions on what we care about and what we value. And rather than applying these same labels to others, we can take the time to ask other people what’s important to them, what they care about, what they value.

I believe this approach to communicating supports a richer conversation—detail-driven discussions that encourage the sharing of information and emotions rather than stifling it. Instead of getting mired in heated arguments—getting stuck on where an issue supposedly falls on the liberal-conservative continuum—why not instead explore any potential usefulness and practicality of the issue at hand?

The quality of the questions we ask influences the quality of the answers we get.

As many know, the questions we ask often influence the answers we get. The quality of the questions we ask influences the quality of the answers we get. Asking whether a person is “liberal” or “conservative” is a closed-ended question. As such, it provides low-quality, limited information. We can elicit higher-quality information by asking open-ended questions—questions that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Whether the topic of conversation is the legalization of marijuana, abortion, gun control, immigration, gay marriage, the national debt, terrorism, universal health care, or climate change, why not first explore our own beliefs and values and then those of others using open-ended questions?

The following open-ended questions can apply to most any issue:

  1. What do you believe?
  2. What matters to you most about this?
  3. Why?

Seriously. Try it. Chances are, your conversation will be more insightful and productive than it would have been had you approached the topic from a polarizing yes/no, black/white perspective.

I’ll bet if we took more time to ask ourselves and each other higher-order, open-ended questions, rather than relying on closed-ended questions and the shortcut of labels, we would discover much more common ground.

What do you think?

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  • Hildy

    February 17th, 2016 at 8:16 AM

    As much as I am very interested in political discussion it is almost a chore to talk about it with people who do not think the same things that you do. They always seem to want to make it an argument rather than an intellectual discourse and so you wonder what the point of doing that is? If everyone is going to get their feathers all ruffled then I will just choose to talk with those who are like minded. The others do not gnat me to be the one to try to change their minds.

  • Kelvin

    February 17th, 2016 at 11:51 AM

    There are some people even if you have the best argument ever they will not listen so I just don’t waste my breath on them.

  • Marley

    February 18th, 2016 at 9:27 AM

    I do not necessarily agree that the questions determine the answers. I do think that that could sometimes be true but then there are those who are always going to have their scripted responses and they are going to say what they will regardless of what is actually being asked of them. Those are the ones who frustrate me, they talk around in circles and still never quite get to the point.

  • Marc

    February 18th, 2016 at 10:36 AM

    If people would only talk these kinds of political discussions using their heads and not their hearts then I think that we could have a much more adult like repartee. But it is when people choose to let their emotions take control that we sort of lose control so to speak and we forget that this is actually something very important. Personally I think that people really enjoy arguing their points more than they enjoy rationally discussing them, but there is no way to change that.

  • wilson h

    February 18th, 2016 at 2:12 PM

    so you say that I am wrong thinking that everyone enjoys a good spirited political debate? ;)

  • Inez

    February 18th, 2016 at 4:09 PM

    Quite timely advice given the nastiness of this political sparring season!

  • MaryLou

    February 20th, 2016 at 5:19 AM

    Oh wow it is primary day here in SC and let me tell you thinks have gotten pretty ugly here. I won’t be sorry when all of the negativity is gone for a while.

  • Austin

    February 22nd, 2016 at 10:33 AM

    I really so hate when the election cycles roll around because the discourse can get just downright ugly. I don’t think that this is what our founding fathers would have had in mind. I am all up for an intellectual debate that does not involve name calling and bullying but it is like many of them this time are just looking for a fight to pick and they do not care who it is with or how many feelings will be hurt. That is the aspect of this that I do not like At All.

  • bill o

    February 22nd, 2016 at 3:31 PM

    If I just wait til November then it will all be over and we don’t have to argue- the deed will be done.

  • Mason

    February 23rd, 2016 at 10:18 AM

    The only time that I really struggle is when I know that someone is looking to pick a fight. I am not sure what it is about some people but it feels like they are determined to start something, and well, I am the type who then just wants to finish it. Not too adult, I agree but there are just those who always know the exact buttons to push to get a response.

  • Ada

    February 24th, 2016 at 11:18 AM

    I think that it is safe to say that I am over this batch already and am hopeful that 2020 will bring much better candidates on both sides :/

  • Ric

    February 25th, 2016 at 2:10 PM

    I have always tried to listen to those with different opinions than mine and try to take away even a little something from what they are saying. Sometimes I can and then there are other times that that does not work, but I at least give it an effort. It is simply not enough to say that someone is stupid just because we do not agree with one another politically.

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