5 Tips for Talking to Elected Officials About Polarizing Topics

Imagine that you are a community-based organization that provides health care services that include migrant farmworkers, and you are hoping to get funding earmarked in the state budget for a new initiative. You have a meeting about it with your state senator, and she will have a lot of influence over whether or not your organization gets the funding.

However, your senator is strongly opposed to illegal immigration, and some of the people who the new initiative will serve are undocumented immigrants. How do you have the conversation in a way that is honest and transparent but that will help you get the funding you need and won’t alienate an important stakeholder?

For thousands of nonprofits and public sector agencies across the country, different versions of that kind of question can come up often. That’s especially true for organizations whose work intersects with politically polarizing topics like reproductive health or LGBTQ+ issues.

The cliche “tailor your message to your audience” is right, but it also isn’t very descriptive. How exactly do you do that?

While every conversation is different, here are five tips to keep in mind:

1. Look for common ground and shared values.

One of the best conversations I’ve ever had with a legislator was with someone I had almost nothing in common with ideologically, and it was about a contentious topic: fixing issues with the state’s child welfare system. I wasn’t confident the meeting would go well, but when he started asking questions it was clear how much he cared about kids. We talked about being dads, and about how our shared interest in child welfare was rooted in caring about children.

That shaped the rest of the conversation. As we got into the brass tacks of policies and programs, it made the rest of the meeting feel like we were on the same team trying to solve a hard problem together, instead of feeling like two adversaries with irreconcilable points of view, or like a salesman trying to make a pitch.

2. Answer the hard questions directly and focus on “why.”

When an elected official asks a question that seems likely to bring ideological differences to the surface, it can be tempting to hedge or sidestep the question, but usually you should answer the question directly and add context around why that’s the answer.

Every conversation is different. But if you’re asked, “Will this program serve illegal immigrants?” I would consider defaulting to an answer like, “Yes, a small percentage of the people served will likely be undocumented immigrants. The goal of this program is to reduce the rate of communicable diseases in our community, and those diseases can impact anyone, so for the program to succeed we need to make it available to anyone who needs it.”

3. Be concrete and use plain language.

Often, using plain and concrete language can help make it easier to keep conversations about the good work that you do from getting caught up in thorny politics.

For example, while advancing health equity remains enormously important for many health and human services organizations, the unfortunate reality is that the word “equity” has become more politicized among some people.

However, the tangible work being done to advance health equity is often much less politicized than the term itself is. The same elected official who may not be receptive to the sentence “our organization focuses on health equity” may be surprisingly receptive to, “our organization focuses on providing education and counseling for people with sickle cell disease, which is much more prevalent in the black community.”

4. Don’t forget the power of a story.

Elected officials are asked to engage on an extraordinarily wide array of topics, so they often have to make decisions on things that they aren’t that knowledgeable about. Because of that, stories can be a powerful tool for describing how a program or policy impacts real people.

A friend of mine often talks to legislators about child welfare issues, and she is very effective because she grounds the discussion in stories about individual people. If an elected official says, “tell me why we should fund this new program,” she avoids the temptation to respond from the ten-thousand-foot view of an administrator.

Instead, she’ll say: “Imagine an eight-year-old girl in your county named Ariel. She had to be placed in foster care because her mother has an opioid use disorder and can’t afford treatment. This program will help people like Ariel’s mother not only get the treatment they need to be reunited with their children, but get preventative treatment earlier to avoid Ariel needing to be removed from her care in the first place.”

5. Presume good intentions.

When you know that you disagree with an elected official’s political views, it can be easy to walk into a meeting expecting it to be adversarial, or even to feel like you’re going to have to fool them into supporting a good program. Those expectations are often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While politics can be nasty and divisive, the lion’s share of that is often around a handful of hot-button issues. Most elected officials run for office at least in part because they want to make a positive difference for their constituents, and most are trying to do what they view as the right thing. If you go into the conversation giving them the benefit of the doubt and seeing them as a potential ally, that can be a self-fulfilling prophecy too.

There are no silver bullets that guarantee an elected official will support your request or be persuaded to your point of view. But these tips can help make it more likely that you can have a productive conversation that builds trust and hopefully ends with a positive result.