My sister and brother-in-law run marathons. No, wait, they are elite marathon-running machines. By next weekend, they will have run 150 marathons between them in just a few years, including Ironmans and ultramarathons, in 39 states and at least 7 countries. They lead training groups for Team to End AIDS and enjoy a loyal following of running enthusiasts and friends. So you can imagine my honor when they recently told me, “You could totally run a marathon, Cathy. You’re already more fit than a lot people who start training.”
For a moment I actually considered it, because wouldn’t that be so cool, to enter that elite circle? Then I quickly remembered: I. Hate. Running. …For now. But it got me thinking recently–talking politics may be like marathon training. Some people really like it and do it well (by ‘well’ I mean they are informed, articulate, respectful, and engaging with people from all points of view—their discourse is elevated). They resemble my sister and brother-in-law: athletes who consistently perform at the top of their training, with few or no injuries, leading others to follow in similar aspirations.
Other people, however, would sooner feed themselves through a wood chipper than strap on a pair of running shoes, or engage in political discussions.
Most of us are somewhere in the middle, I suspect. I can run a few miles with my trainer if she makes me–the conversation and scenery distract me and the time goes by faster. And I know I can slow down or take a rest if I have to–it’s safe. But I have many other preferred exercise activities. Could we consider talking politics as the elite marathoning of communication? It is so hard to do well!
When I think of long distance running my mouth goes dry. I get short of breath and my knees hurt already. I feel the incredible slog, one heavy step after another–not at all like what I imagine my family feels, bounding weightlessly like antelopes toward their next PR. I experience a version of the fight-or-flight response, a visceral sensation of threat: I’ll have blisters everywhere, I’ll never make it to the end, they’ll have to carry me, I’ll have a heart attack and die!
Maybe some people have a similar reaction to politics? I don’t know enough, it’s too complicated. It’s overwhelming, I’ll look ignorant, people will judge and shame me before I can even finish a thought. It’s all so emotional, I can’t handle that, it will only escalate into conflict, my relationships will all be at risk, I’ll lose all my friends!
As you may have read, I have been trying to get some conservative friends to engage face to face. I am genuinely curious about their points of view; I want to understand. I want to practice my skills—curiosity, openness, empathy, identifying shared interests, withholding judgment. Two invitations were initially met with a non-response. After a follow up call or two, I am scheduled to meet one set of friends for dinner this week, and the other said he was too busy. I feel like I’m dragging them out running when they would much rather play golf or go bowling.
I have realized: we don’t all have to keep up with every day’s new political freak shows. We don’t all need to be the debate champions of our particular ideology. Not everybody has to be a marathoner.
We all need exercise. The body is built to move. Regular physical activity, as we all know, reduces our risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Did you also know it can decrease depression, dementia, and even cancer? So pick your sport—just do some kind of movement every day!
Similarly, even if we don’t all talk politics, we all need effective communication skills, especially in the arenas of conflict resolution, negotiation, parenting (which encompasses them all), and the like. We are social beings—we only survive by cooperating and living well within our tribes, and by tribes living well among one another. That can only happen if we practice getting along.
So if you’re not a runner/marathoner, what do you do? What is your thing, how often do you engage, and what keeps you coming back? If you hate talking politics, how else are you already a great communicator?
Maybe you’re a natural at getting your toddler/tween/teen to see the wisdom of the rules and getting their buy-in to follow them.
Maybe you can always help your boss and coworker iron out their differences because you can understand both sides (are you in HR?).
Maybe you like to debate the merits of the Marvel Comic Universe vs. DC—and you could argue both sides because it’s just more interesting that way.
We all have areas where we shine, where we contribute to the tribe through words and actions.
I have picked up some tips along the way:
- Validate people’s feelings, even if you don’t agree with their position or behavior.
- Stay open to the 2% truth of an opposing philosophy or idea.
- Withhold judgment on the whole person even though they espouse an ideology you despise, at least until you know from multiple encounters that they have no shred of kindness or humanity in them.
- Look for what you have in common with people, and choose to focus there more than on how you differ.
So even if you’re not an elite running machine like my sister and brother-in-law, or you’re not your community’s foremost political pundit, know that your other training matters.
I may complete a marathon someday… Never say never. For now I’m happy to stick with my TRX, kettle bells, 7 minute and Betty Rocker workouts (once again, I have no financial interests in any of these businesses). I appreciate my family’s invitation to run, and I respectfully decline at this time. Similarly, I will try to be more mindful about inadvertently pressuring people to talk politics. It’s never meant to be adversarial, only a bid for connection—I’m looking for training buddies!
I don’t need everybody to talk politics. But I do need everybody to practice excellent communication, especially in political discourse.
We all need that.