“Appomattux Surrender” by Louis Mathieu Guillaume ©



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Country before party in 2020



Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Appomattox Courthouse meeting with Robert E. Lee was deliberately gracious. Grant opened by recalling their days in the battlefields together, as victors in the Mexican-American war. Their “talk” would be the first step on a long road to healing a bitterly-divided country.

We’re so excited you’ve made the decision to have a tough conversation. It may be hard, and it takes some preparation, but this election is going to be won with compassion, and many, many one-on-one conversations. This is the most important material you can study and learn this year. 

Let’s get down to basics. This isn’t about proving who’s right or wrong or starting an argument.

  • Study the categories and statements on this page so you know where to start.
  • Select a family member or friend you know you have something in common with. Ask that person if you can have an honest- to-goodness, face-to-face (or video chat) conversation on some political topics you’ve disagreed on in the past. Tell them you don’t want to argue, but just a chat to try and better understand each other.
  • Start discussing a topic you agree on to demonstrate it is absolutely possible for you to find common ground. Finding and expanding common ground is the name of the game. 
  • If possible, start by framing the point with something else you know he or she believes. For instance, if you know your grandmother ardently supports the police, let’s use the rule-of-law section. You can say something like “Grandma, do you think (or, ‘I know in the past you’ve said’) that if you have nothing to hide from the police, you have nothing to worry about? Well, Hillary had to testify for eight hours in front of Congress about Benghazi. And I think we can both agree that it was good they investigated that so thoroughly.” Then let them speak – don’t shut them down, but don’t go down a rabbit hole on Benghazi, either.
  • Don’t expect to change Grandma’s mind in one conversation, or have an expectation to “win.” 
  • Follow up with “I’d really like to understand why you don’t think that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about, doesn’t apply to our president, too? Even if the Mueller investigation was a witch hunt, why didn’t he just testify? Why did he threaten to fire anyone in his administration who did testify?” Then you can use some other statements and facts from the “authoritarian section” to have a deeper conversation.
  • After you’ve made some headway, ask Grandma to ‘watch just one more video’, and end the conversation by saying something like, “I really hope you’ll consider if Trump really does align with your values. I’d really like to keep talking about this as you think about it more.”


Listening is powerful. It doesn’t mean you agree. Just giving someone your full attention is a valuable gift. People rarely change their beliefs in a conversation, but people often expand understanding through conversation. Focus on learning and sharing rather than debating or convincing. To do so you can:

  • Ask thoughtful questions, inspired by honest curiosity
  • Try to understand, not convince or persuade
  • Share personal stories and experiences, not data points
  • Notice if there are areas of agreement
  • Assume good intentions and extend the benefit of the doubt
  • Thoughtfully end the conversation when you are triggered or tired
  • Share appreciation for having the conversation


  • Generous listening. Listen deeply, without an intention to respond, refute, or defend. Just listen.
  • Assume good intent. Give the person the benefit of the doubt.
  • Genuine curiosity. Show curiosity by asking questions and learning more about the person’s life experiences that have shaped his or her perspective.
  • Respectful engagement. Showing respect and kindness can diffuse a great deal of tension. And it’s often contagious.


Insults or name-calling. Using unflattering names or making derogatory remarks about people whom the other person cares about (including political leaders) are fighting words.

Overgeneralizing. Beware of using words like “you always” and “you never.” They are seldom true, and these words tend to feel aggressive.

Leading questions. Steer clear of asking questions designed to “trap” the person or lead them to a pre-determined answer you want to hear.

Talking more than listening. It is rare to make progress on understanding a different perspective while doing the majority of the talking.

Facts, figures, and data-points. Few things shut down a good conversation faster than cold, hard facts. They’re as much a non-starter as and alternative facts! Focus on concerns experiences rather than data.


Set the stage. Establish your interest in an enjoyable, productive conversation rather than a debate or argument.

Listen to values and desired outcomes. Most of us have core values that overlap (health, safety, prosperity). Identifying these can help strengthen the relationship.

Verify and acknowledge feelings. Ask about, and seek to understand what the other person is feeling about the topic. People may have very personal experiences that shape their perspectives. Be aware of these feelings and acknowledge them.

Use humor, if possible. Be willing to laugh at yourself when and where appropriate. Humor can lighten the mood and make the conversation enjoyable.

First-person language. Own your feelings and express them as “I felt ___(feeling) when you ___ (describe specific behavior and when it occurred). For example, “I felt frustrated when you said I was unrealistic this morning.”

Explore and reflect rather than disagree directly. For example, starting sentences with “I am wondering….” can be very productive if sincere.

Find common ground. Look for and acknowledge areas of agreement.

Use engaging language. See how often you can replace “but” with “and.”

Ask open-ended questions. This allows others to think out loud and may offer a better path for understanding their perspective.

Keep a light tone. When judgment creeps in, your tone will give you away! If this happens, own it, apologize and ask another question.


Families know where all the buttons are. What happens if they get pushed? Avoid responding when you know you are triggered and feel yourself being defensive or needing to be right. Sometimes, letting go of the conversation is the best course of action. A break for a short walk or new activity or change of subject can help restore stability. Try the following to change the direction of a conversation or mend a conversation that has turned destructive:

  • Let’s change the topic. Tell me, how is your garden (or other hobby)?
  • This is a heated conversation. Our relationship is more important to me.
  • I feel bad when we argue. Let’s stop for now.
  • I’m sorry we argued. I care about you.
  • Our relationship will always be more important to me than our differences.