As we head toward the 2020 election, the buzz of political tension seems to be all around us — on the news, in our social media feeds, and in our day-to-day conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. Not surprisingly, we therapists are hearing more and more about clients’ struggles to communicate productively with those in their lives who have different political views. This is happening in partner relationships, within families, and in long-standing friendships. Successful “bipartisan relationships” are seemingly so rare that we feel surprised and intrigued by partnerships between, for example, George and Kelly Anne Conway, or Mary Matalin and James Carville. In my own family, I often marvel at the vast political chasms between siblings, cousins, and parent-child dyads.
As hard as it may be to make these across-the-political-spectrum relationships dynamics work, I am here to tell you that it can be done — and even more importantly, that the effort is worthwhile and even beneficial. Here are a few crucial ingredients to creating a successful relationship dynamic between two people with vastly different political perspectives.
- Curiosity: one of the most powerful experiences we have in relationships is being truly and deeply known, understood, and accepted for who we are. In order for that to happen, we must approach each other with genuine curiosity and interest, seeking to understand rather than to be understood. There really is something so powerful about having another person open themselves up to understanding us. Inviting another person to share their perspectives and experiences, and then responding in a way that invites further sharing and is not judgemental, creates opportunities for deep and meaningful sharing, connection, and growth.
- Willingness to listen: The kind of focused listening required to produce true understanding is not necessarily easy–or common. Let’s face it, if you’re going to sit down and debate the merits of Medicare For All with your uncle, you will be powerfully tempted to lean hard on your own perspective in an attempt to convince him that you’re right–and this means you will spend little time focused on his perspective and making him feel understood. Focused listening requires physical and emotional presence, putting aside distractions, and a willingness to reflect. This is something that we spend lots of time coaching clients on; reflective listening means that after each message, you take the time to repeat what you heard in your own words and confirm that the message you received is the same one the other person intended to send. If the answer is no, you both give it another try.
- Non-reactiveness: One of the surest ways to take a political conversation off track is to let your feelings and reactivity escalate to an unhealthy place, saying things that hurt or insult the other person. Once this starts to happen, it can be difficult to get a conversation back on track; instead, focus on preventing the escalation by recognizing your cues (pounding pulse? Sweaty hands?) that things are inching in that direction, and respectfully asking for and taking a break to de-escalate. Then, use the time-out to talk yourself back to a healthy, open, and productive place.
- Humility. In a fulsome conversation characterized by deep sharing and mutual understanding, a possible outcome is that one or the other person may find their perspective changing. Rather than clinging tightly to your beliefs, be willing to listen, learn, and admit when learning something new shifts your beliefs. Imagine saying, “you know, I’ve never thought about it that way, I didn’t know that piece of information, and I think you make a really important point. I’m reassessing my position.” If both people in a conversation can do that, they will not only make each other feel heard and understood, but also likely find overlap in their perspectives that they didn’t previously know existed.
- Respect. Above all, treat the other person with respect and kindness. It is possible to disagree with a loved one about an issue–even a weighty political issue–without allowing that difference to permeate the relationship more broadly or color one’s overall assessment of that person.
An important note: if you are struggling with communication in a close relationship with someone whose political perspectives are very different than your own, and enter into a conversation equipped with all of the above ingredients, you may find yourself feeling frustrated or hopeless if that effort and willingness do not seem to be mutual. Keep at it. Stay curious, willing, non-reactive, humble, and respectful — even if the other person does not. Come back and try again. Model the behavior you want from the other person, and see if they can’t meet you there.
At the end of the conversation, you can be two good people who love and respect each other, and allow space for different political views to exist. Your differences don’t have to define your relationship. If you are more invested in the other person than you are in the political beliefs on which you differ, remember that.
Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Bethesda and Sterling offices. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation with Lindsey.