This election cycle is providing great opportunities to practice keeping your cool during tough conversations — whether in person or on social media, no matter what side you're on.
If you have differing viewpoints, the political conversations you have with your friends and family are forms of negotiation. The goal in any negotiation is first, to get a good deal and second, to maintain or enhance your relationship while doing so.
A good deal in a discussion about Voldemort vs. Hillary Clinton might be to convince your counterpart to vote for your candidate. If that’s not an immediately realistic goal, a good deal might be understanding what’s most important to your counterpart and how that impacts their choice of candidate (or vice versa). As for maintaining or enhancing your relationship, that could be challenging in a political discussion this year.
For this reason, you might be tempted to avoid having the “Who are you voting for?” conversation with kooky Aunt Emily. I suggest considering it anyway. It would be great practice for any tough conversation — performance-review season is coming up. Plus, even if you don’t bring it up yourself, you could get drawn into a conversation unexpectedly.
Here are my three key strategies for winning hearts and minds in a tough conversation:
1. Set your intention before you speak.
What’s the outcome you’re hoping for? Are you speaking with someone undecided who you’d like to bring around to your view? Is it someone you already know you disagree with? Perhaps you're simply trying to understand what's motivating this person's viewpoints. Deciding what your goal is — and isn't — before you enter the discussion can help you set boundaries or bring a conversation back on track if it's starting to get argumentative.
In negotiating theory there’s a term called ZOPA — zone of possible agreement. If your hot-button issue is a woman’s right to choose and theirs is the right to own a firearm, those issues are outside the zone, and therefore discussing them is unlikely to move the conversation forward. A topic is in the zone if it's something you both can reach an agreement on, perhaps like reforming Obamacare. You can gently test the waters to see what topics you might overlap on by asking open-ended questions: "What do you think about taxes, Aunt Emily?" Understanding the areas where you're very far apart is important. If one of them comes up, you can be ready to change the subject to something in the zone that's more likely to make progress.
Taking a moment to pause before you speak, particularly if you are caught off guard, can make the difference between having a conversation and devolving into an argument. When I need a moment to collect my thoughts, I like to use the phrase “Let me reflect on that.” By not jumping right into a response, you give yourself the opportunity to reconnect with your intention and stay true to it, rather than getting sucked into an argument.
2. Make it about you.
If the reason an issue matters to you is personal, consider sharing it with your counterpart. This is an effective negotiating strategy because of the norm of reciprocity: When you share something, the other person is likely to do the same. Facts and figures alone aren’t enough. Reciting a litany of facts, while tempting, can actually make the other person more antagonistic. Speaking openly about a sensitive subject humanizes both you and the issue at stake.
Need some light-hearted inspiration? Watch Harry Potter convince his professor to divulge his deepest secret by sharing a story about his mother.
3. Know when — and how — to end it.
If you’re holding your breath for an "ah-ha" moment where the other party says, “Of course you’re right! I’ll change my vote,” you’ve got a long wait ahead. Remember, maintaining or enhancing your relationship is part of a successful negotiation. Creating space for your counterpart to save face is essential, particularly in cases where there’s a change of heart. Find a way to gracefully end the conversation without seeking a neat conclusion. It doesn’t hurt to have a change of subject ready, either: “Thanks for sharing your views with me, Aunt Emily. By the way, what are your plans for the holidays this year? Will I see you at Grandma’s again?” It takes time for people to embrace new perspectives, and it’s unlikely to happen immediately. Give them an opportunity to come around in their own time.
This post originally appeared in Women@Forbes, where Alexandra Dickinson is a contributor. She writes about how to use a negotiation mindset to achieve your goals.