The New Political 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

How to manage divisiveness in politics

Posted Nov 02, 2020

I work out with a trainer who has completely different political views than mine. From the beginning, we knew we had to tread lightly on political topics because we were so far apart from what the other thought. I have always been the kind of person who wants to hear another person’s point of view even if it doesn’t match my own. I asked him to tell me why he voted for and believed the things he did. And I told him why I voted my way and why I believed the things I did. Over time we had to stop talking about our views because there was nowhere to go with it. He wasn’t going to change me nor me him. 

This has drawn my trainer and me closer. There is much fondness and closeness in our friendship and appreciation for each other and respect for the other’s political point of view. And yet we totally disagree with most of it. 

Source: IStock by Getty Images; Credit: 3D_Generator

Do Ask and Do Tell

Personally, I like to listen to other’s views because I want to make sure I’m getting the whole picture. When people say we need to stop talking politics, I say “bullsh*t!” Sincerely listening to someone else’s point of view without strong reactivity holds the real possibility of my own growth. Of course, I can’t engage if this is done in an abusive way, but if I really make an effort, I might learn something I didn’t know before, both about their view and the person’s character or personality that can help me connect with them. I don’t have to like what they’re saying, but if I want to grow myself or have a relationship with them, I have to respectfully hear them even if I think they’re wrong. In truth, my experience has shown me that differences, when accepted, can make relationships better, richer, more empathetic, and lasting.

The Divided Country

Wow. Has there ever been a time in which we feel and are more disconnected as a country and in our relationships as we do now? Some examples are:

  • “How could you pay that person money when they vote completely different from you?”
  • Blocking them on social media.
  • Unfriending people who don’t agree with you.
  • Shaming people for not agreeing with you.

Don’t get me wrong. There are times we do have to do these things. 

  • If someone is unwilling to listen.
  • If they are contemptuous and talking down to you.
  • If someone is righteous and won’t see your point of view too, telling you that you are just simply wrong.
  • If someone is abusive.

Before going to these measures, which may be required, why not try to dialogue with them if it is possible? Between our politics and the pandemic, coming together feels like an impossible task. And it’s become so easy, it seems, to simply erase someone from your life that you used to like—block their calls, unfriend them on social media, dismiss them. 

But as a relationship therapist, I can tell you, maintaining such relationships is not impossible. In fact, all my relationship work is about differentiation—the ability to keep our connections despite our differences. Sometimes I think that it is the most important work I do as a therapist. 

Whether our political views or our personal lives are causing the rifts, there are valid ways to honor one another's differences and the love we have shared. But this won’t happen without some hard, internal work and striving for a higher level of maturity. 

What does it take? It’s rather simple, actually. It requires that we take off our own glasses and put on the other person’s, to try to see the world through their eyes.

How? My Imago Relationship Therapy training has helped me work with people around dialogues including difficult topics and has helped me do the same. 

What I hear you saying is?

First, you must make an appointment to talk to a person about a topic that is going to be difficult. Ask the person: “Is this a good time to talk about __________ (insert one sentence on the topic)? Are you willing?” If the answer is “Yes,” then there is a sender and receiver. The sender’s job is to use “I” statements and a tone of voice similar to asking someone to pass the salt and pepper at the dinner table. The receiver’s job is to listen and repeat back what they are saying. Not what you think they are saying, what they are actually saying, almost word for word.

Your task is to really listen to them. No interruptions, no finger-pointing, no stuffing them into the profile of them that you’ve created in your own mind. Just listen. 

When someone has said their piece, you say, “Let me repeat back to you what I heard you say,” and then with no interjections of your own views, restate what you heard as faithfully as you are able. Then ask, “Did I get it? Is there more?” This is not validating their viewpoint, rather it is validating them as someone with a viewpoint, and it demonstrates that you have actually heard them. In a real sense, it is honoring them as someone with whom you’re trying to regain a connection and that can go a long way.  

Then they must be willing to do the same for you. 

If this is to work, both have to agree upfront to not call the other an idiot, a bad person, contradict them, or otherwise hurl insults while they are describing their views. If either of you is unwilling to refrain from this, then it won’t work. Their viewpoint may make you feel uncomfortable, but your discomfort is not their fault, and vice versa. Remember, it’s possible to listen to the other’s views without collapsing into them or jump into attacking their views and immediately defend yours.

Validation of another’s point of view

Validation can be an essential tool here. Your job is to tell the person you are listening to how and why they make sense from their point of view. Not your point of view, theirs. This is most difficult for people because it feels like you are agreeing. It is not. I understand why my trainer believes what he believes as I listen to his point of view. And it makes sense to me that he believes what he does and I truly listen to how why he got there. I still don’t agree with him. 

Here are some important guidelines to follow when attempting this work: 

  • If all the other person wants to do is shame or tell me I’m wrong, it is time to stop.
  • If things become so heated and I am feeling flooded, it’s time to stop. 
  • Stopping in the moment doesn’t necessarily mean the exercise is over. You can always call a time out when things go a bit awry and come back to it later, hopefully within 24 hours. 

Remember the goals

First, your purpose for seeking differentiation is to save a relationship that is or was important to you. 

Second, it is to become a wiser person, maybe more compassionate and loving. You will change in the process.

Third, it is to become someone who can hold two or more opposing realities at once and not resort to defending or attacking one. It is the hallmark of a mature personality. 

I think that too often we are quick to close the door on relationships when we have differences. You’ve heard the old saying that when one door closes, another opens. This might be too much of an encouragement or an excuse to close the door on a relationship. However, remember, between the door we’re about to close and the one we hope will open, there is a hallway. 

It may better serve us to hang out there for a while before taking that leap.