How to Keep Politics from Ruining Your Friendships

Adult with long blonde hair in red shirt and jeans sits with back to other adult in jeans and blue shirt. Both have face in hands and irritated demeanorOver the past few years, as political discussions have become more divided and more laced with insults than agreements, we have begun to unintentionally entrench ourselves in groups that often sound the same, look the same, and have the same ideology as us. We read the things that cement our worldview—and when we read opposing views, it is usually so we can point out the inaccuracies, the things that need debunked, or even to poke fun.

Regardless of political stance, many of us have less tolerance for opposing viewpoints than ever before.

We have taken our cues on how to treat those who disagree with us from our politicians, who use negative campaigning and insults to get elected.

But there’s a difference: name-calling works in politics because it involves opponents who are seeking to lower the status of their competition. In friendship, the goals are different.

In friendship, we look for people with whom we can be honest. We want people to share our lives with, who challenge us to be better. We want people who help us feel heard and understood, and who make us feel good about our lives.

In counseling offices, there has been an influx of clientele from many demographics who are expressing fear for the world we are living in, the future of their children, and even their relationships with others in our current political reality. As one who specializes in relationships of all kinds, I see many people who feel isolated and lonely due to lost friendships, and even family strain, over disagreements in politics.

Some are able to find like-minded people on social media or in political service organizations. However, the constant “connection” of technology doesn’t repair holes in real-life relationships, and the desire to have constructive face-to-face conversations with others is still urgent—for our own well-being, but also for the well-being and future of our country.

It is normal to have strong opinions about certain topics. But it is also important that we open ourselves to new (and opposing) ideas, research, and experiences. This helps us to grow on multiple levels, and our relationships stay intact when we seek to understand instead of to prove ourselves right.

Take the Discussion Off of Social Media

First things first: If you are looking to change minds, you aren’t going to do it on social media. You can provide information and share it to your page and your groups, but in this politically charged climate, with the technology and access we have, most often your articles and opinions are read only by people who might agree.

Not only that, but people often allow themselves to become more vicious on social media than they would be in a real conversation, due to the distance and (sometimes) anonymity it provides.

Of course, there are limits. If someone espouses racist, sexist, violent, or otherwise harmful views, rather than engaging in a conversation, the question becomes whether (and why) that person was a friend to begin with.

When someone posts a political opinion that brings up intense emotions for you, rather than responding, ask yourself what you would like to gain in a conversation with that person and process what is happening within you. If your response to that reflection is that you’d like to prove them wrong, there may be some work you can do to get to a place where you can understand their perspective and learn from their experience. If it is someone you know and care about, you can start a private conversation with them to seek their openness to a respectful discussion face-to-face so you can learn more about the worldview and experiences that have led them to their position.

Of course, there are limits. If someone espouses racist, sexist, violent, or otherwise harmful views, rather than engaging in a conversation, the question becomes whether (and why) that person was a friend to begin with. These decisions should be made keeping in mind that the generalizations with which opposing sides have painted each other over the years are not usually accurate depictions of overall character.

Play Devil’s Advocate

In the spirit of learning from and understanding others, it can be helpful to seek an explanation for the opposing viewpoint.

In high school debate class, you’re often forced to argue for something you don’t believe in. While this exercise doesn’t often change a person’s mind, it can lead to more understanding and empathy for what the other side believes. Similarly, a small study at Virginia Tech recently showed how this practice can help us to understand those who disagree with us on our strongly held political beliefs.

It could be helpful to engage in this discussion internally: Do I know their viewpoint? Could I argue it for them? Do I understand why they believe the things they do, where their views come from, or what they may be afraid of?

If you can’t argue for them, positioning yourself to learn from their viewpoint could make the conversation much more constructive.

Allow Yourself to Be Ignorant

Ignorance is one of the things we accuse people of when they don’t consider our point. What we have lost track of is the fact we are all ignorant. It’s impossible to know everything about everything. And in our rapidly changing world, we wake up every day knowing less about what is happening than we did the day before.

Accepting your ignorance on a specific topic—especially a political one—is often a healthy posture when you’re seeking to understand someone else’s view. It moves you into a questioning and learning stance.

Pay attention to the places you don’t know the answers. If you’re spitting back something that you just read somewhere, you may have some blind spots on that topic. And that’s okay.

Seek Common Ground

There is always common ground, even if it’s hard to find. Americans can generally agree on a lot of things: People should be treated fairly. We appreciate freedom. We want our government to spend our tax dollars wisely.

It’s the deeper dives into how those things move forward that are where we end up stumbling into strong partisan debates.

Seeking common ground and building from there helps us to remember that we are speaking to other human beings. And conversations that dig into the vulnerable pieces of our experiences are the ways we grow—in our relationships and in our character.

If political differences are hurting your relationships, consider working with a counselor.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, therapist in Summerville, South Carolina

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ty

    Ty

    August 10th, 2018 at 6:45 AM

    My uncle calls African-Americans by several names. One starts with “N” and another starts with “C.” He also calls women by another name that also starts with “C.” He is gay friendly in that he calls a lot of men “F” and a lot of women “D” He especially hates Jews and says they got what’s coming to them. I could go on about he’s learned opinion on Muslims, Mexicans etc but you must get the point.
    He REALLY hates therapists and the science and business of mental health. I know this because I told him I went to a therapist. He got really red-in-the-face and called me a “F”. Please help me find the “middle-ground.”
    I could go on describing to you the origins of my relative’s white working class fury. They are extremely unhappy and kind of cowed by the “elites” who went to college all around them. They are violent and treat their children brutally ensuring yet another generation will live with an unquenchable hate. They seem like decent people when you get them one-on-one but they cheer on the KKK rallies like a football game. A demagogue has delivered a narrative that they can use to blame everyone except themselves for their misery. Where have we seen that before?
    It is very disingenuous to simply say we must all get along as if every political difference is exactly equal. The time I spent listening to and understanding my angry uncle could be much better spent working to bring about the changes I’d like to see.
    It is also disingenuous to simplistically say that we are all in an echo chamber and that is the cause for my lack of ability to understand white supremacy. The ability to exercise critical judgement is directly tied to education and native intelligence.
    We currently in yet another period of white backlash. There was one in the 60s and another in 50s (complete with public lynchings) another in the 1920s (massive KKK marches on DC) and another during reconstruction back to the beginnings of our country.
    As a therapist I would ask for you to help your clients understand but not engage.
    Help them understand the origins of their family’s hate so they see it in human terms.
    Help them understand that they are under no obligation to their birth family at all. None. Leave them if you need to.
    Help them understand their own triggers which can prove so useful for self knowledge and the requisite peace-of-mind.
    Then help them learn to find people who do make them happy.
    Help them see the life-changing value of on-going education. Understanding events in context calms the mind and leads to better life choices.

  • Brooke

    Brooke

    August 10th, 2018 at 5:14 PM

    Hi Ty! Thank you for this thoughtful comment! I would absolutely agree with you that there are definitely times that disagreement is beyond repair – as mentioned, racist, sexist, violent behavior are definitely on that list! I think seeking to understand experience and background is important, but an understanding of experience doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement. In this particular piece, the idea behind people that we had previously considered friends, and deciding to write them off as such due to a political comment, is going a little deeper into that relationship and understanding that sometimes we can move forward In both our relationships and personal growth if we seek to understand a differing perspective.

  • Ty

    Ty

    August 13th, 2018 at 12:00 PM

    Abandoning friends over one comment does require self-examination. But that is not what you wrote or at least it’s not clear. Sexism, racism and violence are not an aberration but have moved from the shadows to front and center. They have become the political platform of our current administration. What do you think we are all talking about? Keynesian economics? It has never been this clear. Help your clients escape their jail cell not redecorate it.

    PS: Years ago I went no-contact with my entire birth family so I walked the walk. Too many good people in world to waste time on the hate.

  • Louise

    Louise

    August 10th, 2018 at 4:56 PM

    It’s ok to have no tolerance for certain political views. It’s ok to not attempt to understand someone’s viewpoint when it is harming you. You are under no obligation to try and understand someone who votes for harmful policies and representatives. People do not always show us who they are and in this time a lot of people have become emboldened to share certain views and opinions openly now. It’s not your fault and it’s ok to remove people from your life. You do not have to attempt to understand them simply because you’ve allowed them into your life in the past. Do not play devil’s advocate and if someone in your life is doing this with you then they probably shouldn’t be in your life. Playing devil’s advocate is often something abusive people do. Don’t feign ignorance on a topic in order to try and understand someone’s opinion and if you are providing facts on a topic don’t assume you have a blind spot because someone’s OPINION doesn’t reflect those facts. Yes, in this difficult time, seek counseling if you are struggling, but seek someone who is going to understand where you are coming from and be supportive of how scared, confused, or angry you are feeling in this political environment without telling you that you need to try and understand the other side. If you’re from a marginalized group consider finding a therapist who practices from a multicultural perspective.

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