Over the course of their 17-year friendship, Casey* and her close friend Jane* have shared a lot: choosing fabrics for prom dresses together, spontaneous weekend trips to Austin, breakfast tacos after long nights out. But one thing they've never shared is political views. Their difference in opinion didn’t challenge their friendship until Jane’s passion for a particular candidate turned abrasive, taking the notion of talking politics completely off the table.
“At first, I’d try to ignore it because I love [Jane] so much and didn’t want it to affect the way I feel about her. So I tried not to associate her with her politics — even though ultimately, what makes you who you are are the things that you believe and care about,” Casey says. “[Jane] would repeat verbatim the echo chamber of false ‘news’ around COVID-19. I got to a point where I was done. Why would I want to be friends with someone that believes these ridiculous things? That was in early August, and I haven’t talked to her since."
Casey’s reaction isn’t surprising — and given today’s political landscape, nor is it unique. “To feel this personal pain of not feeling supported in your identity or thinking you don’t have similar values is a devastating whiplash that a lot of people have been feeling,” recognizes Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, a psychologist who specializes in conflict management.
As election day inches closer (and along with it, select family gatherings and holiday celebrations), Americans from both ends of the political spectrum are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate relationships with friends and family members with differing (and increasingly polarizing) views. Following the 2016 election, a Rasmussen Reports poll found some 40% of Americans said the election had negatively affected their personal relationship with a friend or family member (up from 26% just days before the 2016 election). Some three years later, a Pew Research Center survey showed 50% of people characterize talking politics with people they disagree with as generally stressful and frustrating.
Cut to present day and there’s a lot to get worked up about: At stake with this year’s presidential election are critical decisions related to COVID-19, racial injustice, climate change, access to health care — and for many of us, some of our closest relationships, too. In a particularly volatile year in which the ideologies of each political party couldn’t feel more different, how can we talk about the election with friends and family without love lost — and let’s face it, a bit of sanity, too?
Goldman-Wetzler says trying to solve questions like this is barking up the wrong tree. Instead of asking, What can I do to see eye to eye with this person? people should be asking themsleves: What are the costs and benefits of keeping an adversarial conversation going and/or staying in the relationship?
“Think through the cost that you would pay by staying in a relationship versus the cost of walking away from a relationship and choose whichever cost is less,” Goldman-Wetzler suggests. She pinpoints a few things to consider when weighing things out: Are the feelings of frustration that can come from talking in circles with another person over political topics more or less of an emotional cost than suffering the feelings of sadness that can come with walking away from a relationship or putting it on ice?
Goldman-Wetzler knows this advice is unconventional but says thinking about conflict resolution in a new light can help direct us to more manageable outcomes. “Do we always need to assume that our job is to smooth things over and have a positive conversation or outcome?” she asks. “I would say let's question that assumption. I think it's okay during the election season to say, ‘You and I have different opinions on this and it's okay that we're not going to talk about this issue or we're not going to be talking every day like we used to do, right now.’”
Similarly, Dr. Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor and psychologist who specializes in grief and healing, suggests saving harried election-based communication for only those you love most. “I have a [protective] wall and I don't allow anyone to get to my spirit,” she says. “So I'm very selective on who's going to get my anger because once I'm angry, it’s too late: I've already given my power away and I’m bankrupt.”
Instead of engaging with button pushers, people on Facebook, or that uncle you only see twice a year, Eger, the author of The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life, suggests an elegant workaround: “It doesn't help to say ‘you're wrong and I'm right’ because it takes two to fight,” she says. Instead, simply say “thank you for your opinion” as a way of closing the conversation or transitioning into a new topic. Choosing to filter out triggering conversations helps preserve energy for people with whom you already have a strong emotional investment. Because no matter what your beliefs, talking through politics with love and care takes a lot of work — but it can be worth fighting for.
Just ask Taylor*, a marketing consultant who not only backs a different political candidate than her mother, but frequently doesn't even draw from the same silo of factual information when it comes to discussing political issues — something that’s become increasingly common as social media and search algorithms curate news.
This disconnect now leads to phone calls cut short by abrupt hang ups, overwhelming bewilderment, and even jarring physiological responses. (“When I used to argue with her about stuff in the last election, my body would shake because I'm so emotionally affected by it,” Taylor says.) Still, the marketing pro has thought about the costs and benefits of living with or without the conflict — and no matter how much she disagrees with her mom, it’s never enough to sever ties. That’s because Taylor is acutely aware of the emotional costs that comes with losing a family member: In the four short years since the last election, both Taylor’s father and sister have died. “Now, I only have my mom left. As passionate as I am about what I believe in, I just can't cut off my mom because of her beliefs,” Taylor says. At this stage, the two are closer than ever, despite opposing views.
For others, like Morgan*, a Southern California resident who works in local government, weighing the costs and benefits of staying in a conflict-rich and politically charged relationship may lead to freezing the relationship as a way of keeping it intact. While the constraints of COVID-19 have kept Morgan physically apart from her parents, the constituent has, in the past weeks leading up to the election, also opted out of phoning and texting them with little life updates because these conversations had a way of turning political, Morgan says.
Once estranged from family members for nearly four years after they had disapproved of Morgan marrying a man 42 years her senior, Morgan intimately knows the fallout and incredible pain that can come with continued, heated disagreements with family. “Now that we’ve been able to jump over that hurdle, it’s almost like I don’t want to poke the bear — it could erupt into another three-to-four years of anger and silence,” Morgan says.
So, for now, Morgan has chosen to minimize communication with family around election time. "It feels positive because it’s keeping both parties safe from saying things that we can’t take back,” Morgan says. “The relationship is too rocky and I don’t want to call them morons to their faces, so it has felt successful to have restrained calling and texting.”
Not everyone can or wants to dodge political conversations with loved ones, particularly when living under the same roof. For these situations, and those in which the costs of leaving or pausing the relationship outweigh those of keeping the relationship as is, experts suggest mitigating election talk with values-based, versus candidate-driven, conversations.
As part of his role as director of People’s Action, a consortium of nonprofits that address economic and racial inequality in America, George Goehl teaches others to engage in non-judgmental conversations when discussing hot-button issues. When conversations with loved ones morph into a matchup about the election, he suggests asking about the other person’s struggles instead of his or her preference of candidate or even hot take on an issue. Asking “What keeps you up at night?” or saying, “I want to understand what you’re up against” — and sharing a little bit of your own struggles, is like taking a shortcut past the tumultuous territory of bickering about candidates or policy and leads you right to the underlying values that connect the human experience instead. “It’s curiosity and vulnerability that creates new ground for the harder parts of the conversation,” Goehl says. What’s more, leading with compassion also tees the conversation up to bypass the kind of yelling and interrupting that we so often see with pundit-led discussions on cable news networks.
As a way of evoking common values, Goldman-Wetlzer suggests implementing what she calls an “incredibly powerful” tool that she frequently uses when teaching at Columbia University. (Be forewarned, it will take discipline.) To start, structure the discussion so each person is given a few minutes to present their side of an issue (yes, like in debate class). After both people have presented their viewpoint, they then take turns presenting the counter viewpoint while the non-speaker listens.
Should either party speak out of turn, Goldman-Wetzler suggests throwing up the time-out hand signal used in sports to keep negative energy from reeling. (Even in free-flowing conversations that go off the rails, she suggests calling a literal time out to reframe the tone of the conversation and energy in the room. “When people aren’t listening to each other, it can help to call a timeout and say something like, ‘this conversation has gotten more heated and is uncomfortable for me’ and/or ‘we've gotten off topic,'" she says.)
When the exercise is complete, each person has spoken both sides of the issue as convincingly as possible, regardless of which they truly believe in, and have heard the other person make convincing arguments as well. “Every single time I do this exercise, the main takeaway is there's more underlying values that we share than we realize,” Goldman-Wetzler says.
No matter how much more political discourse in America may splinter with the windup to and outcome of the 2020 election, there’s one thing we can mend with values-first conversations: the degree to which the divide is perceived. “It’s a great way to bring that underlying empathy or whatever the commonality is to the forefront,” Goldman-Wetlzer says. Come another Trump term or a Biden presidency, that’s something we all can use.
*Sources have requested the use of pseudonyms to protect their identities and those of their friends and family.