Over 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 social media
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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally published on GoodTherapy.