Some people categorically refuse to discuss politics and religion. They call this a “rule.” It’s a good general practice for purely social occasions. But like most rules, it has exceptions, and the exceptions increase in troubled times.

In grade school, I learned that the give and take of political ideas among ordinary citizens underlies the very rationale of what makes a democracy or republic work. Back in the day, the idea was that, when people discussed the issues in their homes and alehouses after a day’s work, they gained more information, heard more opinions and rationales, than they could come up with on their own. They understood things better and reached better decisions about how to vote, etc.

For our political structure to survive and serve us well, we should talk politics—in a civilized manner. Today especially, there’s too much at stake to stick our heads in the sand. There’s too much to lose if we delay improving the political situation. Yet, that very situation, the rise of fear mongering, hate talk and propaganda, makes civilized political discourse harder than ever.

When someone fears me for what they think I believe, I instinctively begin to fear them in turn, and therefore, avoid trying to converse with them. If I do engage them while in the grip of fear, the tension and negative energy comes out in my tone of voice, facial expressions, and even my choice of words. This can drive the other person away, deeper into their own fearful avoidance.

As a communication trainer and consultant, I want to believe that anyone can learn to discuss politics in a civilized manner if we give them enough time, if we start with one tortoise step, then, proceed very slowly. But do we have that time to give?

With the seriousness of current political issues, time becomes more significant. We should consider how long it’s likely to take to achieve civil, reflective interaction with a given individual and adjust our efforts accordingly.

One could spend months, or even years, trying to achieve civil interaction with the relatively few liberals who made good on their “Bernie or Bust” promises. One could spend months, or even years, trying to achieve civil interaction with the relatively few conservatives who are positively enthusiastic about the current administration.

But the math doesn’t make sense. One would spend a lot of time, with low likelihood of success, trying to engage those at the far ends of the political spectrum, when (s)he could actually achieve more, and achieve it sooner, if (s)he spent her time and energy in more promising endeavors.

However, we can still maintain the potential for eventual civil discourse with those at the ends of the range without attempting that discourse at the present time. We can borrow from the physicians’ standard, “First do no harm” by practicing The Silver Rule: Minimize wrong-making. For now, that might mean avoiding political discussions and sticking with the tortoise steps toward simply showing them that we are good people.

Another way the math doesn’t make sense is spending time and energy repeating and rehashing things with people who already agree with us. At best, it makes no positive change, but only keeps us mired in fear, anger and frustration. At worst, it actually attracts more of the negative stuff we’re complaining about. [See “Politics and the Law of Attraction, Part I and Part II.]

In the next few posts in my “Bridges Across Politics series,” I’ll suggest approaches to people who are ready for more than those tortoise steps, but not already of one mind with us, people with whom the math makes sense to open political topics. So stay tuned!