Six Rules for Talking Politics

Tony Stubblebine
6 min readAug 3, 2016


I was inspired to write this by a friend who told me he was sometimes hesitant to share his political views.

I get why: there’s a theory of etiquette floating around that imposing your political views is impolite. This idea is embodied as the contentious family argument at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

But hold up. Is being political really all that bad?

Here’s a line from my Codex Vitae:

A person’s political views are their generous attempt to improve the world. By definition, a political person is a person trying to do good.

This is true, right? A political person is trying to express their view on how to make the world better and somehow that’s offensive?

I’m calling bullshit on the notion that sharing your politics is bad.

We should all be more political and be more open to each other’s politics. Here are some rules.

Rule #1: Don’t Be a Pawn

Here’s what I think is going on (at least partially) to make politics between citizens so contentious.

A different friend of mine, who works in political organizing in San Francisco, clued me into the real dynamic underneath the housing fight that is going on there.

The TLDR; is that housing has gotten really expensive in San Francisco and the city keeps voting down new housing initiatives. The result is that non-rich people are getting forced out of their homes. Who’s at fault?

The public debate often centers around rich tech people who are having no problem affording the city (well… not entirely true, even on six figure incomes SF is pricey). When a middle class (not poor, middle class!) person gets forced out, a tech person moves in. So tech is targeted as the villain!

But here’s what my friend clued me in to: tech people, totally oblivious to the issues, got setup as the villain by the actual villains: property owners.

Property owners have been funding the fight against new buildings because to protect their own property values. This is basic supply and demand. Holding supply down is making property values skyrocket. And because property owners were savvy and organized, they were able to leave tech holding the bag.

This is screwed up because tech would, for the most part, love more housing. When I said people in tech can afford San Francisco, what I meant is that they could afford to live with roommates if they were making at least six figures.

Anyway, this story is just to say that we are often pitted against each other and encouraged to be at war by people who make their money off of us. I’m a Democratic voter but I refuse to believe Republican people are bad people. I think Republican solutions are wrong more often than Democratic solutions, but I’m trying really, really hard to separate that from the people. And you should too.

So let’s start there: don’t hate other people just because someone told you to. Don’t be a pawn.

Rule #2. Take the positive connotation

There are two interpretations of an opposing political view.

One is: “This person is a moron who is out to destroy the world.”

That’s the negative connotation. You’ve permanently blocked yourself from learning anything from this person.

The positive connotation is: “This person is trying to fix a problem. What problem do they perceive? How does the solution they’re proposing help solve their perceived problem?”

Like in many situations, looking for the positive connotation opens up the middle ground.

Rule #3. Listen. All you have to do is listen.

One thing I learned in reviewing coaching data is that people can’t hear you until they feel like you’ve heard them.

You know when you’re optimizing something and you’re looking for 1 or 2% improvements? Well, when we looked at our coaching retention data, we found active listening to be responsible for a 300% difference in retention.

Active listening is fundamental in all communication. The other person has to think you’ve heard them before anything else can happen. BTW, it’s active, not silent, listening. You need to convince the other person that you listened.

So, let me show you an example. I asked someone recently what the deal was with Benghazi. This is a topic that I don’t understand — what’s the crime? Here’s the transcript.

What I want to point out is that all I did at the end was thank the person and in return he thanked me. I didn’t argue, I told them that I heard them. And that person softened right up.

Also, if I’m following Rule #2, this is a person who wishes four American service people were still alive. Nothing evil about that.

Rule #4. Find the undecideds

Most people you talk to are not your political opposition. Rather they have no or a weak opinions. These are the people you should be looking to influence with your politics.

If you find yourself in a heated argument, walk away. You can use the tactic from rule #3. Listen, repeat back and thank. (Then walk)

What you really want to find is someone who doesn’t yet have a strong opinion. Good news, those people are the norm. We’re all busy. Who really has time to do detailed research?

In fact, you’ll be doing most of your friends a favor by doing the hard work of informing them. That brings us to Rule #5.

Rule #5. Pick a few issues to be really, really informed about.

Most people have a sort of weak fear about Nuclear Energy. It’s maybe dangerous? Storage is hard? It’s expensive? It’s slow to build a plant?

If that’s your topic, then you just need to start collecting good answers and talking points. For example, here’s a great talking point about the danger. I had literally never considered how dangerous the status quo is until seeing this graphic:

Source: What are some policies that would improve millions of lives, but people still oppose?

It turns out that I had weak opinions about alternative energy and the well researched opinion behind that graphic effectively swayed me.

Your friends are in a similar boat for tons of issues that you care about. You can educate them just by doing the work.

Rule #6. Insist on being heard before engaging in debate.

Active listening goes both ways.

Having someone stress test your beliefs is great. You’ll either get sharper or change your mind.

But neither of those things will happen if you don’t think the person arguing with you understands your values and positions.

For example, and this might test several of the rules above if you don’t already agree, consider the case of a Republican trying to convince a Democrat that Hillary Clinton should be imprisoned for using a private email server.

Here are some things that the Republican might want to address early in the conversation:

  • Partisanship. What is the corresponding Democratic accusation about Republican leaders? I’ll tell you. It’s that America was tricked into an Iraq war that killed thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. So, if the Republican thinks Hillary should go to jail, they might want to acknowledge that the Democrat is going to think the corresponding punishment would be to launch Dick Cheney into the sun.
  • Bi-partisan application of principle. Who on the Republican side has also violated this principle and how would you consistently apply the punishment there.
  • Understanding of facts. The Republican should just ask and repeat back the Democrat’s understanding of the facts.
  • Understanding of issues. The Republican should ask and then repeat back what the Democrat thinks the potential issues are.

About here, after a spirited conversation about creative punishments for Republican transgressors, the Republican debater might raise an issue that the Democrat didn’t bring up on their own, along with the simple question, “What is your position on that?”

Does that seem like a lot of work? It is. But it’s also the exact amount of work that needs to happen in order to have a discussion that goes anywhere.

That’s it. Go be political in order to make all of our lives better!