Politics drive family and friends apart now more than ever. How can we talk to each other about heated topics when we disagree? These strategies from couples therapy can help us create empathetic conversations that heal our political divides.
One thing I’ve heard a lot from listeners lately is how hard it's been to navigate politics in relationships. It seems that, for the past few years, and perhaps especially during the pandemic, there have been more family conflicts and friendship breakups over politics than ever.
According to a recent poll, 80% of Republicans believe 'the other side' has been taken over by socialists, and 80% of Democrats believe 'the other side' has been taken over by racists.
This isn’t just a feeling. According to the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of registered voters say that they have “just a few” or no friends who voted for the opposite-party candidate in the 2020 elections. Our feelings about people on the other side of the political divide are also quite extreme. According to another poll, 80% of Republicans believe “the other side” has been taken over by socialists, and 80% of Democrats believe “the other side” has been taken over by racists.
Privately, listeners have been emailing me to say that they’ve had to cut off friendships or become distant with family members because they simply can’t abide their position on immigration, or bathroom laws, or policing, or some other highly debated topic. Some are asking for advice on how to bridge divides, while others are asking how to cut people off.
To work on navigating these complicated dynamics, let’s borrow from couples’ therapy techniques.
1. Figure out what your overarching goal is in this relationship
Let’s start by taking a step back and considering your priorities in a particular relationship. Is this a close family member that you hope to have a relationship with for decades to come? Is this a college acquaintance you may never see again besides on social media? Is this an entire parenting friend group that provides your toddler with play dates?
The deeper the relationship, the more worthwhile it is to have meaningful conversations about core values.
What you do next will depend on these greater goals. The general calculus is: The deeper the relationship, the more worthwhile it is to have meaningful conversations about core values. So it might not be worth it to get into a soul-searching debate about abortion with your barista.
Also, the more important the relationship, the more worthwhile it is to be patient and flexible—meaning, don’t expect lightbulb moments, and be willing to back away from intractable disagreements in order to preserve the relationship. If you only see your grandmother once a year, and you value your relationship with her, be willing to take baby steps or drop the politics discussions altogether.
2. "Take off your jersey"
Once you’ve decided that having a political conversation is worthwhile for your relationship, you can mentally prepare before it starts.
One of my favorite tips is from Sarah Holland and Beth Silvers, co-authors of the book I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening). They suggest beginning a conversation about politics with a loved one by “taking off your jersey.” That means, be willing to step away from your identification with any political team.
You’re not here as a Democrat or Republican. You’re here as a genuinely curious friend, or daughter, or neighbor.
You’re not here as a Democrat or Republican. You’re here as a genuinely curious friend, or daughter, or neighbor. You’re not here to debate party platforms, but rather, a specific issue you care about. Extend the same benefit of the doubt to the other person. Don’t see them as a spokesperson for a political group, but rather, as someone you care about whose thoughts you want to understand.
3. Reimagine your goal for the conversation
Another thing you should do before starting a conversation is to drop your goal of changing someone's mind about a political stance. Yes, I do mean completely—let it go. Expect with full certainty that changing the other person's mind is not going to happen. It will immediately and magically make you (and your conversation partner) a much easier person to talk to.
Drop your goal of changing someone's mind about a political stance. Reimagine your goal as trying to understand why the other person feels the way they do
Reimagine your goal, instead, as trying to understand why the other person feels the way they do. Don’t cheat by sneaking in an addendum goal, such as, “Once I understand how they feel, I can talk them out of it by debunking their myths.”
No. Remember how we dropped the goal of convincing anyone to change their mind? I promise that if you secretly hold onto that goal, it will backfire and put you more at an impasse with your conversation partner.
4. Don’t use "why" as an accusation; use "tell me more" as an open-ended invitation
A big part of having genuine curiosity, and of wanting to understand someone else, is knowing how to ask open-ended questions. Sometimes, people think they’re doing this when they ask “why” and “how.”
These aren't questions at all; they're accusations that cut straight to the core of someone’s moral identity.
But those questions are often delivered in an incredulous tone: “How could you possibly think X?” or “Why would you support Y?” These aren't questions at all; they're accusations that cut straight to the core of someone’s moral identity. You might as well have asked “Why are you a monster?”
A real open-ended question is a simple invitation: “Tell me more.” Variations include “Say more about the X part,” or “Hmm, that’s interesting about the Y part. Could you elaborate?”
I challenge you to use an open-ended invitation three times in a row in your next conversation without offering any of your own opinions or saying “but” a single time. See how the tension relaxes in the room. Then notice what information and emotions you have now that you didn’t have before.
5. Assume that you’re making some assumptions
We all know that to assume is to “make an ass of U and me.” And we all know we shouldn’t assume we know someone’s thoughts and feelings. But we often don’t realize that we’re making assumptions!
It’s not your fault—our brains are wired to make shortcuts like this.
In fact, it’s safe to assume that we’re always making some assumptions about someone else’s political beliefs or motives. It’s not your fault—our brains are wired to make shortcuts like this. But in a high-stakes, high-emotion conversation, pause at every step and wonder what you might be assuming. It’s even great to say it out loud: “I’m realizing that I might be assuming your rationale about X here. Could you clarify about what you think?”
6. Allow emotions. They’re usually more sticky than facts
The number one tactic we try to use, and the tactic most likely to fail, is to counter emotion with facts. We think that surely, if we have facts on our side, they'll have no recourse but to be rational and come around. But there are two mistake in that thinking.
- People are not perfectly rational. We all have brains wired to be biased and swayed by emotions, which is why we play the lottery and think our own babies are cuter than others. To expect people to be rational is, in itself, irrational.
- You may not have the full facts on your side. You may genuinely believe that the statistics you quote and the research you know prove your case. But there may be other research you don’t know about, or a different and valid interpretation of the statistics you have. So I’m sorry to say this, but having facts does not make your argument bulletproof.
Having facts does not make your argument bulletproof.
The solution is to avoid hanging everything on “facts.” Do allow emotions, though. Emotions run high in political discussions, and they're usually driving our opinions whether you like it or not. Trying to understand your friend’s emotions about an election, for example, will build a much stronger bridge of understanding, especially in early conversations.
7. Demonstrate that you understand ... even if you don’t agree
You don’t have to agree with someone’s opinion to understand what they mean. And understanding is no small triumph. Think about how frustrating it is when someone keeps putting words in your mouth or twisting your meaning. Isn’t it the worst when someone doesn’t even try to see your rationale?
Isn’t it the worst when someone doesn’t even try to see your rationale?
The most valuable thing you can contribute to the conversation, and to the relationship, is to really try to understand the other’s train of thought, even if you don’t agree. Then, it’s important to follow through by demonstrating that you’re trying to understand. In addition to asking open-ended questions, you can also do this by reflecting back what you think you heard them say. Try something along the lines of “Okay, it sounds like you’re saying... Is that right?” Or “Let me make sure I know what you mean. Do you mean…?”
8. Let go of the need for closing arguments
Remember how we’re not trying to change minds? That means we don’t need to chase a conversation all the way down the rabbit hole all in one sitting. Give the conversation a good amount of air time. Then, once there’s any level of empathy, understanding, or common ground, highlight that positive piece and let the conversation turn to something else.
Your conversation partner will also appreciate not having to defend a rebuttal, which will make them more open to listening to your perspective next time.
To do this, you may have to hold your tongue and completely forgo presenting your side of the “debate.” That’s okay! Patience will pay off in the long run.
This ending-on-a-good-note strategy will not only help to preserve your relationship, but it will also give everyone much-needed room to breathe and time to steep in what’s been expressed. Your conversation partner will also appreciate not having to defend a rebuttal, which will make them more open to listening to your perspective next time.
9. You’re allowed to draw lines on certain issues. You’re also allowed to draw boundaries in relationships
Today’s tips are mostly about preserving relationships and deepening connection by uncovering common ground. For example, people on opposite sides of an issue often agree on the fundamental moral core but disagree on how to solve the problem. For example, you may both agree that poverty is a problem, but disagree on whether taxpayer-funded social programs are a good solution. Using empathy and curiosity to communicate can help you clarify this.
Sometimes we fundamentally disagree about a core moral principle.
But it’s also important to acknowledge that, sometimes, we fundamentally disagree about a core moral principle. For example, you may hold marriage equality to be sacred while your friend may hold traditional religious definitions of marriage to be sacred. And there may be no way around this disagreement.
After curiosity and empathy have brought the conversation to this core disagreement, you're allowed to politely but firmly draw a line. In this moment, you are brought full circle back to my first tip: Figure out your overarching goal in this relationship. Based on this assessment, you may decide to lovingly agree to disagree, or you may decide that the relationship is not worth keeping when you have such an immovable disagreement about a fundamental problem.
When to end a relationship over political disagreements
When you make the difficult decision to cut someone off, make sure you’re doing so because one of their core beliefs feels wrong to you on a deep, existential level and not just because they’re "on the other team." Don't write someone off because they voted for the other candidate or party. But do pay attention to their moral principles.
For example, a good reason for me to cut someone off might be that they don’t believe women should have the same rights as men. You might tell yourself: This isn’t just some party platform; this is a stance I don’t have the energy to argue against held by a person I don’t need to be friends with. So for my own mental health, I decline to worry about keeping this relationship. If I must have some relationship with this person, I can choose to step down an intimacy level or two.
You’re allowed to draw your own boundaries—this is important for your well-being. We need relationships that feed our souls, open our intellectual horizons, and make us better people. One way to build these is to use today's tips when you're talking about controversial topics. And one way to protect yourself is to know when to let go.