- Political arguments can have the power to ruin your relationships, or become intensely divisive.
- Jeanne Safer, a liberal psychotherapist, created the podcast “I Love You But I Hate You Politics” to help people find ways to discuss their political opinions without getting into bitter fights.
- Safer has been married to a conservative editor for almost 40 years, and she manages to avoid political arguments with her husband by using a few conversational strategies.
- Below are eight tips culled from her own experience, and her podcast guests, on how to discuss politics with friends and family – without ruining your relationships.
We’re in perilous times for political dialogue across the aisle.
Many people think it’s no longer even possible to have cordial political discussion. According to my patients, my podcast guests, and the 50 people I interviewed for my forthcoming book on the topic, far too many people – romantic partners, friends, family members – are engaging in bruising political arguments that accomplish nothing except irreparably harming their relationships.
A man familiar with my work wrote me that his sister-in-law had called off her engagement over a difference of opinion with her fiancé about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate hearing, and another man emailed me that he and his brother had unfriended each other on Facebook for the same reason.
But regardless of the wreckage we are seeing, often abetted by the partisan media and the internet, there is hope!
Take my relationship, for example. I’m a committed liberal psychotherapist and author. My husband, Rick Brookhiser, is a senior editor of the “National Review,” the leading journal of conservative opinion. We agree about almost nothing political, yet he and I have managed to remain civil for almost 40 years.
How did we accomplish this astonishing feat?
We’ve learned how to talk about politics, and what not to talk about – and we agree about almost everything else.
In the run-up to the midterm elections, political arguments have become even more acrid, and we desperately need help communicating with the many people in our lives who are on the other side. I’ve created a podcast called “I Love You But I HATE Your Politics,” where I interviewed 50 people in bipartisan couples of all sorts, and I showcase those who have figured out how to communicate about hot-button issues without mutually assured destruction, so that listeners can be inspired to try these techniques themselves. In the most recent episode – coming soon! – I interviewed my husband.
Below are some recommendations culled from what my guests have learned, from my own experience as a psychotherapist, and what I know from my own marriage. Here’s how to cultivate civility in political disputes.
1. Do not raise your voice
Your opponent will likely interpret even a slight increase in volume as shouting, and will stop listening as a result. Rational discussion will then become impossible.
When discussing politics with my husband, if I think before I speak, and make sure I’m not communicating in a tone that could be construed as contempt, dismissal, or outrage – which a raised voice does – he is more receptive and less defensive. Using this tactic, we were able to have a conversation about Roe v. Wade – my premier hot-button issue, which he believes should be overturned – that was civil and thoughtful. This hadn’t been possible years ago, before I understood that the tone and volume in which I expressed myself is more important than what I actually said.
2. Friends don’t let friends drink and discuss politics
It’s hard enough to react well in difficult conversations when you’re stone-cold sober, let alone when you’ve had a few drinks.
Two interview subjects of mine, a gay couple who are both supporters of President Donald Trump, were in the habit of getting into political arguments about Trump’s character after they had quite a few drinks. This inevitably led to yelling (see tactic number one, above), slammed doors, and, on one occasion, a smashed cell phone. Shortly thereafter they agreed to never mix alcohol and politics.
3. Never send an unsolicited partisan article from your side of a contentious issue to your mate, relative, or friend
Thrusting an unsolicited article on someone is an automatic turn-off, and will not get your point across.
The way to share partisan articles with your friend or partner is doing it like two of my podcast guests, Harry and Allan, did. Allan wrote a note to Harry, saying, “Harry, if I gave you an article expressing my viewpoint on something, would you read it? Of course, I’ll read something you send me as well.”
And he only did it once.
4. If the two of you can’t talk about a political issue, simply don’t talk about it
There are lots of people on your side that you can talk to instead of the person with whom you can’t have a civil conversation about the issue.
Make avoidance of destructive controversy a joint decision, and don’t violate the contract. Part of maturity is recognising that there are some issues that cannot be discussed without misery ensuing.
This isn’t just true about politics, it applies to other issues, as well – your partner’s mother, for example. You can still be true to your beliefs without foisting them on an unwilling audience.
There are plenty of other people who agree with you and who would be eager to discuss the very things that are taboo in your intimate relationship.
5. Do not start any political conversation with, ‘How can your side possibly think…?’
This is not a conversation-starter. It’s an indictment. You automatically turn off the other person by signalling that you abhor his or her stance, and you won’t have a rational or amicable discussion after delivering an insult.
6. Do not read your politically-divergent partner’s political posts on social media
You probably already know what you’ll find, and it will come back to haunt you.
Consider doing this as much of a taboo as reading the other person’s diary, even though online comments are public. People are pathologically uninhibited online. They tend to be more restrained and more receptive when they talk directly – so do that instead.
7. Never conduct a political argument via email or text
It may seem more convenient, but texts and email are easy to misinterpret, and offensively impersonal. If you really want to talk about something, call or arrange to meet in person.
8. This is the hardest and most important principle of all: Stop trying to change the other person’s mind, no matter how compelling it is to try
It is a universal fantasy that we can change other people, especially the ones we love. Thinking you can is a refusal to accept the limits of your influence over others. Giving up your desire to change someone – whether you’re trying to make an unresponsive person love you, or a politically-opposed person agree with you – might be difficult, but once you do, you will improve the quality of your communication.
Constant attempts to convert your opponent will likely only make your fights worse.
Using these same guidelines, my husband and I have found a way to talk about politics, and I’ve learned a great deal about how people outside my own perspective think and feel. This has been especially delightful during the Trump administration, because it is the first time we actually agree about a president: We both abhor his character.
Most of the time, though, we prefer to talk about topics other than politics, things that seem more fundamental and more fruitful to our relationship, like the books we’re writing and reading, our many shared interests in music and the arts, human nature, and psychology.
So now is an excellent time to strike a blow for civility in your home or office, and good practice for 2020. If you make an effort to live by these rules, your partner will appreciate them – and you might actually even begin to enjoy talking about politics.
Jeanne Safer, Phd has been a psychoanalyst and relationship specialist in private practice for 44 years. She is host of the podcast “I Love You, But I HATE Your Politics.” Her book of the same name will be published in April 2019 by St. Martins Press.