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With the elections coming up, politics are a hot topic for conversation within families and friends. Unfortunately, with political parties being so different in policies, many families and friends struggle to discuss politics without taking offense. In my practice, I've had spouses, siblings, and even parents with their children have damaging arguments around these topics. I've seen on social media people unapologetically dismissing relationships due to differing political views. Politics have become more divisive than any other topic it seems today. In this post, I would like to discuss potential ways to communicate with loved ones to avoid conflict.
According to a study done in 2019, 47% of Republicans and 53% of Democrats found it stressful to talk about politics. I think it is safe to say since 2019, political contentiousness between parties has continued to worsen. I would be willing to suggest that the percentages from 2019 have gone up considerably in 2020. Since 2019, news media coverage has continued to politicize most, if not all situations, in our daily living. It's hard to even talk about anything today without there being a possible political undertone. Example: 'Hi guys, I had a runny nose today soo I thought I would wear a mask when we hang out.' Depending on your friends, this could equate to anything from a conspiracy theory explanation to a political party not doing enough to keep everyone safe. I think it is safe to say that talking about politics is both stressful and can be a difficult topic to avoid unless you avoid your family and friends all together. So instead of avoiding and continuing to self-quarantine until the dust settles from the election, you can utilize some tools that could help you maintain your relationships. I like to start with the basics, which for me is respect.
Show respect and create common ground. Often when communicating with a family member who holds differing political views, I see people make the mistake of associating them with stereotypes or generalizations they may have about the given opposing party. The key to avoiding this trap is by recognizing that the person is indeed your loved one or friend. Recognize your relationship with them often came before your political views. For most people, including myself, our political views are always changing. I know for me, my concern for policies have changed as I have aged. As a college student, tax policies did not matter to me as much as they concern me today. What is relevant during each election year massively changes. Most often, the type of relationship you have will not change over the next four years. You will still be a parent, sibling, spouse, or friend. Keeping this in perspective can help you overcome differing views. Your loved ones are still apart of you. All the memories you share with them are not void due to having differing political views. Focus on your relationship with the person, respect them, and don't associate them with the worst generalization that political parties make the opposing side out to be. Remember, they are not defined by their political view, but by who they are to you.
Don't take it personally! Remember that if someone does not agree with your political views or candidate does not mean it is an attack on you. Often, people will take offense to someone saying a negative comment about a candidate as if it was about them. Let the candidate's actions, policies, behavior, tweets, voting history, or whatever is up for discussion be the responsibility of the candidate, not your own. Supporting a candidate or political party does not need to mean you are committed to them as you would be in a marriage or a contract. Supporting a candidate or political party can simply mean you support their policies because they align with what is important to you. The reality is, most people disagree with their political party on different topics and do not support every policy. Even most, if not all, elected officials disagree within their party on differing issues. So the same is afforded to you and your loved ones.
Avoid confrontation; this can be simple in theory but can be difficult in practice. Here are some ways to help you. First, start by listening. Even if your loved one has differing views or perspectives does not mean you can not hear their perspective. Avoid using assumptions that they support movements, policies, and stances on something based on their political alignment. Ask for clarifications to understand the person better. Do not be condescending or passive-aggressive when listening, with non-verbals or grunts, but try to understand them. When communicating your personal political views, do so in a way that presents what you agree and disagree with regarding your political party or candidate. Doing this shows your acknowledgment of your personal views not being fully represented by a single person or system, revealing you are open to discuss things critically and openly.
Another key to avoiding conflict is knowing yourself and your audience. If you are a passionate individual with strong opinions, then I encourage you to avoid topics that would cause an angry response for yourself. Remembering your relationship is worth more to you than expressing your personal opinion that could damage the relationship. On the other end of the spectrum, you may be more passive about your views but know your loved ones are strongly opinionated. I would encourage you to avoid topics that may cause your loved ones to react strongly. Doing so does not make you less passionate about your views. It means you value the relationship with the individual. It is not worth the risk of causing unnecessary conflict. Ultimately, attempt to avoid conflict that would amount to damaging the relationship. Like mother says: 'if you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing at all.' If you are talking with a person who can have an open dialogue without them getting offended or you being offended, then the next can be helpful.
Create room for disagreement within your relationship. Remember that if you don't agree with your political party's or candidates' policies, then you can afford the same leniency with your loved ones. Often during a disagreement, the worst is pulled out of people due to emotions getting the best of them. I ask all the time when starting with a new couple for therapy, "do you guys fight dirty or fairly." Often, arguments in relationships are not the issue; it's how they argue with each other. The more room for disagreement within a relationship, the more likely it can overcome issues it faces. As the adage goes, iron sharpens iron. Let your loved ones help sharpen you through disagreement and constructive dialogue.
All of the above guidelines are mostly for communicating with someone who is not overly aggressive with their political views. By aggressive, I mean someone who is verbally belittling or even possibly physically aggressive. Unfortunately, this is an issue that needs to be discussed. I've listened to clients who had to deal with aggressive loved ones. Ultimately, when communicating with an aggressive person, with no potential positive outcome: I encourage setting clear boundaries on the topics that cause issues. Boundaries do not mean a wall and never speaking to them. What I mean by boundaries is still maintaining and engaging your loved ones while setting clear limits on communicating. This conversation may be uncomfortable but potentially necessary. I suggest something like this: 'I enjoy our relationship and know we are both passionate people. I think it would be best for our relationship to no longer discuss topics around politics so we can enjoy each other's company.' If the person pushes the boundary, you can respond with, 'I just don't feel like discussing those topics.' If they continue, then I would separate or leave for a moment. Communicate: 'I am stepping away for a moment because you are not respecting my wishes on not talking about politics.' Most people will not push you to the point of having to leave. But, on occasion, there are a few that will, and you need to have clear boundaries with them. I would rinse and repeat during interactions with that individual. I suggest extending breaks from communicating when boundaries are not honored. A break should not be excessively long and should be gauged on the severity of the person's reaction. If you are put in a situation that could cause physical harm to yourself or them, then I encourage you to not engage with the person until their or your emotions are in a better-managed place. Leave the situation until you guys cool off and before it becomes physical.
I hope these simple guidelines will help many families and loved ones overcome the divisiveness that politics can create for many people. Utilizing the following skills of being respectful, don't take it personally, avoid confrontation, and create room for disagreement can help maintain relationships where politics could be harmful. Doing this may preserve your relationships and help you move past political differences and this political season.
Until next time, live your best life today.
Aaron Martinez M.Ed. LPC
Study mentioned in post.