9 Tips to Save Your Politically Divided Friendships

Techniques from couples’ therapy could save friendships that cross party lines.

Posted Apr 08, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills

KEY POINTS

  • The deeper the relationship, the more worthwhile it is to have meaningful conversations about core values.
  • Be willing to temporarily set aside political identifications and the desire to change someone's mind.
  • Challenge your assumptions and try your best to understand the other person's views. But remember that you're allowed to draw boundaries and stick to your morals.

The past few years, and perhaps especially the last one, have likely seen peak levels of family conflicts and friendship breakups over politics.

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. According to another poll, 80 percent of Republicans believe “the other side” has been taken over by socialists, and 80 percent of Democrats believe “the other side” has been taken over by racists.

Have you cut off friendships or become distant with family members because you just can’t agree with their position on highly debated political topics? Political disagreements can get messy, but if you want to maintain your friendships that span across the political aisle, these techniques from couples’ therapy could help you save them. 

 Lightspring/Shutterstock
Source: Lightspring/Shutterstock

1. Determine your overarching goal for the relationship.

Is this a close family member with whom you hope to have a relationship for decades to come? Is this a college acquaintance you’ll only interact with at your 10-year reunion?

What you do next will depend on whether this relationship is a priority. The general sentiment 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 climate change with your waiter.

The more important the relationship, the more worthwhile it is to be patient and flexible—to be willing to back away from intractable disagreements in order to preserve the relationship. If you only see your uncle once a year, and you value your relationship with him, be willing to drop the political 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” and stepping away from identifying with a side.

Neither of you is here as a Democrat or Republican. You’re both here as a genuinely curious friend or child or neighbor to discuss a specific issue, not debate party ideologies. 

3. Reimagine your goal.

Let go of the idea that you’re going to change someone’s mind. It will immediately make you (and your conversation partner) a much easier person to talk to.

Instead, make your goal 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.”

4. Don't use "why" as an accusation; use "tell me more" as an open-ended invitation.

A crucial part 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.”

But those questions are often delivered in a skeptical 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

A real open-ended question is a simple invitation: “Tell me more,” or “That’s an interesting point. Could you elaborate?” 

5. Assume that you’re making some assumptions.

We shouldn’t assume we know someone else’s thoughts and feelings, but we often don’t realize that we’re making assumptions!

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 take shortcuts like this. But in a high-emotion conversation, pause at every step and wonder what you might be assuming. It’s even great to say it out loud: “I might be assuming your beliefs about X here. Could you clarify what you think?”

6. Allow emotions; don’t only focus on facts.

The number-one tactic we try to use is also the tactic most likely to fail: countering emotions 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 mistakes in that thinking.

People are not perfectly rational. 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 about 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.

Avoid hanging onto “facts” too tightly in the conversation, and do allow emotions. 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.

7. Show that you understand, even if you disagree.

You don’t have to agree with someone’s opinion to understand what they mean. 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 it differs from your own. 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 “OK, it sounds like you’re saying... do I have that right?” Or “Let me make sure I know what you mean. Do you mean…?”

8. Forego 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 in one sitting. If you find the conversation getting heated, take a break and let the conversation turn to something else.

9. You’re allowed to draw lines on certain issues. You’re also allowed to draw boundaries in relationships.

These tips are mostly about preserving relationships and deepening connection by uncovering common ground. For example, you may both agree on the moral core 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.

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. Think back to the first tip here: figuring out the relationship goal. 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

If you decide the relationship has to come to an end, make sure you’re doing it because their core beliefs feel 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. We’re allowed to draw boundaries and focus on relationships that feed our souls, open our minds, and make us better people.

Medical Disclaimer: All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

A version of this post also appears on Quick and Dirty Tips.