Opinion

It's tough to talk politics these days, but it helps to start by listening

Talking politics can be daunting, especially if you dislike confrontation. But it can also be illuminating. And you might be surprised by how much we actually have in common.

I'm naturally averse to confrontation but have found great value in hearing out others' points of view

Albertans show their support for various political parties in these file photos. How do we talk politics with people who hold different views than us? By listening, says Tamara Keller. (From left: CBC, CBC, Mike Ridewood/Canadian Press, Jason Franson/Canadian Press)


Editor's Note: Tamara Keller was a participant in a CBC focus group following our poll of 1,200 Albertans. We asked her to write for us, sharing her thoughts on politics in our province.


I live in Calgary. Have for 12 years.

My husband and I chose this city after discussing the pros and cons of various cities across Canada, as well as other places. It isn't perfect, but the pros outweighed the cons back then, and still do. It was a good move for us and we enjoy raising our family here.

One thing that has taken some getting used to, however, is the strong sense of political identity in Alberta.

Voting conservative is as Albertan as oil derricks and good steak. It's just something that you do here. Except, when you don't.  And if you don't, does that make you somehow less Albertan?

No, I don't think so.

I find, even if I'm on the left side of some things, we mostly all share the same common ground.

Engaging in political conversations

When I was young, I came to believe that you shouldn't talk politics.

As I've gotten older, a bit more confident, and perhaps even wiser, I've dipped my toe in the waters of political conversation. It's still relatively uncomfortable, particularly if I don't share a particular viewpoint. I dislike confrontation. But the curiosity of discovering what people are thinking and where they are coming from seems to be getting the better of me.

I find social media has enabled more political conversations than ever before. I've been learning a lot about my fellow Albertans online, and I don't even need to be an active participant — sometimes just watching from the sidelines, lurking, provides as much learning as anything.

While it can be difficult to sift through some of the conversations that occur — like the ongoing debates in our province over pipelines, the economy, leadership, social values — I find talking politics has helped me to understand and appreciate others' viewpoints, as well as evolve in my own views.

Pro-pipeline and anti-pipeline demonstrators held opposing rallies in downtown Calgary on May 9, 2018. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

I've come to realize that, despite initially differing viewpoints, asking questions and listening will often lead to finding common ground. This has helped me to recognize that, even when we disagree on the surface, often we can agree on at least some aspects of any given topic.

Some time back, I found myself at odds with someone else in my community. We had differing views, but took the time to discuss it. I realized some of her grievances were well founded.

What I had missed is that her concerns weren't things I had personally experienced, and so, I just wasn't aware of them. As we talked, I learned what shaped her views, and she mine.

What Albertans share

Though we may find ourselves supporting different political parties, different policies or different beliefs, we in Alberta aren't vastly different in what we want for ourselves, our families, our neighbours, our province or our country.

By and large, I think people tend to agree that things like education and health care are important. The economy is important. Caring for and protecting our vulnerable populations is important. Our environment, in all its variations, is important.

Where we tend to differ is how we'd prioritize those topics. And thus conflict arises on how we approach our province's priorities.

And yet, disagreement isn't a bad thing — when it's done respectfully.

Really, we can learn from listening to those who disagree with us. We hear different viewpoints and we can consider experiences we hadn't previously considered. There is also learning to be had in field testing our own arguments — seeing how well they stand up.

Disagreeing respectfully may seem like it's a dying art, but it doesn't have to be. 

How to disagree

In talking to people around me, I haven't met many who want to see Alberta, or any parts of Alberta, damaged or ruined. We want solutions.

This is true regardless of who we voted for or plan to vote for. But our own perceptions, values and experiences lead us to differing solutions. This creates conflict — a situation in which most people can feel that "the other guys" are ruining the province or the country.

In one online discussion I came across, a person disagreed with government support of low-income populations via things like soup kitchens or drop-in centres. Essentially, she didn't think as much government money should be funnelled to these types of initiatives. It is too easy online to label each other — to become hostile, and forget to listen.

And so, this woman and I talked.

I asked some questions and came to learn that it was not that she wanted zero dollars going to kitchens and shelters, or that she is opposed to feeding the poor. In fact, she was a regular volunteer at the Mustard Seed in Calgary.

People gather outside The Mustard Seed in downtown Calgary. The organization assists Albertans living in poverty and experiencing homelessness. (CBC)

What I learned is that she would prefer to see the government lower taxes, leaving more money in her pocket, so that she could spend it in charitable ways when and where she chooses.

We both want to feed the hungry; we just want to go about it in different ways.

We can go on to discuss the merits of both approaches, as they are fundamentally different, but the underlying belief that people shouldn't be left to starve is still there with both of us. And that's a starting point for a healthier discussion.

When we realize that fundamentally we aren't that different, we can move past judgment and focus more on debating the pros and cons of various approaches.  And, when we recognize that we want the same things, I think we are more likely to work together to accomplish those things. 

We should remember this as we approach next year's election.

At odds

I have met people who vote for the leader, others who vote for their local candidate, and some who have voted for the only name they recognized on the ballot.

Some people I have talked with have voted the same all their lives. Others are "voters without a party." Some vote based on an identity they associate with a party, others based on who their family or friends vote for. Some elections prompt more single-issue votes. People weigh their priorities, some even end up voting against their own interests in one area in support of other, higher priorities.

I've met all of these folks at one point or another, and I have been several of them, myself, over the course of my voting lifetime. As our priorities shift, our choice of party and leader can shift. And sometimes we can find ourselves at odds with our neighbours, our friends and our loved ones over particular issues.

And so, not every conversation we have will go well.

Not everyone is open to listening to what you or I have to say. Not everyone will be respectful of opposing viewpoints. Some days I engage, ask questions, seek to understand. Other days, I just scroll on by.

And in the case of people who make threats, call names, or are downright belligerent, I just block and move on, because life's too short. I don't know if that's the right or the best approach. It's hard to know someone's true motivations sometimes.

But still, we should try to listen.

The next election

We are headed into a couple of big elections in the next 18 months — an Alberta provincial election and a federal election. 

There will be many opportunities to engage in political discussions, both online and offline. As with all Albertans, whether or not I participate is likely to change day to day. But I do know that I will be listening, even if not actively participating.

I will be listening to hear what people are concerned about, why they're concerned and what they want to do about it. I will be thinking about what issues are important to me. I will be watching and listening to the candidates of all parties, reading their platforms and seeing how they measure up against my priorities.

And I will be trying to find common ground.

Because really, in the end, I don't think most of us are all that different.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at calgarytheroadahead@cbc.ca

About the Author

Tamara Keller

Alberta voter

Tamara Keller is a Calgary resident who participated in one of a series of focus groups organized by CBC News as part of its Road Ahead polling project, which aimed to get a deeper sense of what Albertans are thinking and how they are feeling.

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