Can a Friendship Survive Major Political Disagreement?
9 strategies for finding and keeping the peace
Posted March 13, 2017
A dear reader writes: “I have an idea for your next post: How to keep friends when they seem indifferent to authoritarianism .”
Given the aggravations and hurt feelings that abound on social media, this question could resonate with many people. Indeed, if you are deeply concerned about the current political situation in the U.S., you might look around and wonder about the friends who are seemingly apathetic, unmoved, or unsympathetic to your stance. And you might be thinking,
- If they aren’t speaking out, does this mean they are complicit?
- Is this like other times throughout history when good people averted their eyes and let bad things happen?
- Are our values and sensibilities too far apart to remain friends?
- Does keeping this friendship align with my values and priorities?
- How can I keep relating to someone I profoundly disagree with?
These worries are valid. And yet, political differences don’t have to drive a wedge into your relationships. If you want to keep friends, you can!
Here are some ideas to consider.
Be the boss of yourself. Remember that you don’t have control over what other people think or do. But you do have control over yourself. And you can determine what friendships to keep, what role you want to play in each one, and how you want to interact with people. The ball is in your court for setting the tone of all your relationships.
Be mindful in your relationships. Consciously consider what kinds of friendships you want with people who see the political situation differently from you. Will you be depressed about or accepting of your differences? Will you barrage them with your ideas or let them be? Will you seek conflict or common ground? Determine your intentions and then mindfully follow through.
See your friendships as two-way streets. Think about how you’d like your views to be treated by others (with respect, courtesy, and an open mind). Think about how you’d like to be seen by others (as competent and capable of self-determination). Then treat others accordingly… and you'll reap the benefits you sow.
Be curious. Be open to learning about others’ perspectives and be interested in why people think and behave the way they do. For instance, some people may be indifferent simply because they aren’t interested in politics. Some may feel helpless, "I voted; there's nothing more I can do." Others may be disengaged out of a sense of self-preservation, not being able to devote the time, energy, or financial resources to get involved. And others may actually be overwhelmed by the potential threats, and cope by putting their heads in the sand. And some may downplay any threats because they have faith in the pillars of our democracy rising to the occasion to set things right. And then there are those who side with the current administration, viewing change as “doing things better.” By being curious about how people are thinking and feeling, and why, you’ll find it easy to set aside judgment and thoughts of “unfriending.”
Accept that nobody knows what the future holds. Isn’t it interesting how different people will subscribe to different ideas? Some are frightened or pessimistic about the future. Others are hopeful or optimistic. Who’s right? Are you? Who knows? What you believe or fear or hope will happen is simply what you choose to imagine and project onto the future. The real truth is, “We don’t know where this is taking us, so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.” In the meantime, a good coping skill is to take one day at a time and trust the process as it unfolds. You can also contemplate the notion that these difficult times are bringing people together and inspiring a renewed activism .
Hold the view that everyone is doing the best they can. Everyone’s “best” is informed by their backstory and their constellation of strengths, weaknesses, sensitivities, blind spots, temperament, perspective, priorities, and developmental level. How do you know for sure that everyone is doing the best they can? You don’t. But when you assume they are, your relationships instantly get better.
Take your curiosity to the next level. Some of your friends may “seem indifferent” but how do you know for sure that’s what’s going on? Perhaps they are rooting for the resistance from afar. Perhaps they don’t want to divulge their activities, for fear of offending loved ones. Perhaps they are private about their political leanings—indeed some consider it rude to talk about sex, money, death, or politics. So why not approach these people and kindly ask (not confront) them “What do you think about what’s happening in our government?” You’d do well to simply listen (rather than argue or correct). Then, from what they tell you, you can get a sense of where to take the conversation. For instance, if they express fixed beliefs and dismiss fact-based evidence to the contrary, you’ll know they adhere to an ideology, and there’s no point to engaging them further. In that case, change the subject to common interests. Or perhaps they express that being involved is simply more than they can handle right now, and you can respectfully back off. Or maybe you’ll discover that they are open to your ideas, suggestions, encouragement, and support. Who knows? You may inspire action. Maybe you’ll unleash the next Paul Revere or Rosa Parks.
Practice compassion. Beware of demonizing those who are different from you as “other.” There’s enough of that going on without you adding to that energy. Instead, by treating others with compassion, you are embracing the belief that we are all connected by something rooted in goodness and love. Empathy is what cultivates compassion, and that includes being curious, open-minded, and considering reality from other people’s points of view (see above & below). By focusing on compassion, you also contribute to the energy that brings forth positive change.
Respect differences. Be willing to listen with an open mind, and consider the merits of other viewpoints. Practice humility, knowing that you don’t have all the answers. The ability to tolerate and learn from differences is essential to healthy friendships, a loving marriage, and a free society. If you can walk away from a political discussion where you settle on ways that you’re both right, you’ve not only saved your friendship, but you’ve also embodied what democracy stands for: Individual freedom of thought.