I recently shared my outlook on the upcoming presidential election, our national discord, the possibility of a drawn-out election process with even more division afterwards, and the responsibility of Christians to point others to Christ in the midst of it all. (If you missed it, check out Part 1 and Part 2.)
This is particularly crucial when the division hits close to home.
We talk about “ramping up to the election,” but because of early voting the election is well underway. (As I write this, we’ve already logged nearly one-third of the number of total votes cast in 2016!) And the conflict is inescapable. We can turn off the blistering TV ads, and log off of flaming social media—but what happens when the rhetoric is hot within our own home, family, close colleagues, or circle of friends?
How can we handle political differences in a way that protects our closest relationships?
Realize: The issue isn’t going away and we will need to deal with it at some point.
It is tempting to try to avoid talking about politics at all. Yet since it will probably continue to be “out there” as an issue, we need to recognize that certain topics will come up among those who may not share our opinions and beliefs.
Taking a “pause” from conversation isn’t always a bad thing. And COVID-19’s physical distancing may have already created a sort of “time-out” between extended family members who are politically at odds with each other. But that won’t last forever, and we can’t pretend that current events don’t exist.
Especially among those we love, if something is important to us and to them, we owe it to each other to be available for conversation—even if it is uncomfortable.
Keep a long-term, relationship-focused perspective.
Here’s one key factor: no matter how upset others (or you) get when interacting about politics, keep a long-term-relationship perspective, and stay calm. You can be frustrated or grieved that your loved one seems so wrong (or blind, or difficult, or harsh, or deluded). But don’t get caught up in the moment in such a way that you will then add regret to those feelings. Resist the trap. Ask yourself: is this discussion worth a fractured relationship?
I have seen very few conversations that are so vital that they are worth that. Especially since I have almost never seen conversations that lead to the other person slapping their forehead and going, “Oh my gosh, you are so right, Uncle Frank! I hadn’t thought of it that way, and I’m changing my opinion and my vote.”
So if the other person—or you—is unlikely to have a fundamental change of mind about politics, let’s always at least keep the priority for the fundamental relationship front and center.
Don’t add fuel. Listen, instead.
Here’s another reason to stay calm, reasonable and kind—even if you view a friend or family member as doing the opposite. If the person acts like a growling political adversary, and you feel like they’re implying you’re an idiot and wrong, then blowing up or getting exercised will probably serve as the “proof” they’re looking for.
That will only add fuel to a hot fire. What cools it off is listening. Even if (especially if) you vehemently disagree.
Keep in mind that the reason it can be hard to have calm discussions about politics is that it brings up emotional, weighty issues. Political beliefs are tied up with other values that are far more important to people than any one political outcome. That is the case for you, too, after all. The passion means that what is underneath the surface is incredibly important to each of you.
Now, “passion” is never an excuse for the other person being actually abusive. In that case, holding to boundaries is the kindest thing you can do. (“Uncle Frank, I just can’t handle it when your voice rises so much; it makes me feel anxious and insecure. Let’s pick this back up at the family brunch on Saturday, okay?”)
So what do you do? Switch to listening. But listen for something very specific . . .
Listen to why something matters to them, rather than to the details of the something.
As you listen, set aside, as much as you can, whatever the specific policy or vote or technical issue is about. And instead listen to why this opinion matters to the other person so much.
Why are they so passionate? What is under the surface? Ask questions. Listen much more than you talk. Understanding their perspective may not bring agreement, but it can bring empathy, even as you disagree. And that ability to understand what is in the other’s heart is crucial for the long-term relationship.
Then use that understanding to find common ground.
If you’re really listening to why something is important, it is almost always possible to find common ground. And that can change the entire dynamic of a political clash.
In a recent conversation with several colleagues, two were clashing sharply over who they were voting for. Each of them were essentially saying (without using these words) “How could you!?”
And yet as I listened, I realized that they weren’t actually that far apart in many areas. And that became evident when one person was vulnerable about what it was like to grow up on welfare; how embarrassing that was, and how much they had wanted a better life. So supporting those who needed a safety net was a huge factor behind some of this person’s voting intentions. The other colleague disagreed with the outcome (which candidate to support) but was able to share how much they, too, wanted to support those who needed it. Pretty soon, the two adversaries were having a meaningful conversation about the need for welfare reform: which both thought was important. Common ground. The snarls (and the “how could you?!” feeling) completely went away.
Your loved one might want to share their thoughts with a trusted friend—you.
And finally—realize that your friend or loved one may simply be trying to build the relationship by sharing in this vulnerable area.
You may have someone in your life who constantly wants to talk politics but you just think it is easier to not go there. But if you’re in a genuinely intimate relationship, why wouldn’t that person want to discuss their views with you? Perhaps they want to see that you’ll listen and talk without judging or labeling them. Or maybe they are frustrated and need an outlet. Whatever it is, realize that in many cases, it is not that they believe you’re deluded and want to “convert” you . . . but that they just want to talk. To share life.
And even if that “talking” isn’t always handled well, have grace with them. In my research with the most happily married couples, one thing they clearly do differently is believe the best of the other person’s intentions—even when there are real irritations. So keep recognizing that your spouse (or sister, or childhood friend, or Uncle Frank) truly cares about you.
Keep the conversation going.
If we don’t talk and listen, we might inadvertently push our loved ones away. They might feel that if they can’t be honest and vulnerable about their political beliefs, they can’t be honest and vulnerable about other things that are even more important. And eventually, they may stop talking to you about them. But if we’re willing to listen and swap ideas—calmly and openly—political peace is possible. As we pursue the Biblical principle from Romans 12:18—“If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”—we’ll enjoy close, loving relationships long after this difficult political season is over.
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And check out her latest book (co-authored with her husband, Jeff), Thriving in Love and Money. Because you need a better relationship, not just a better budget.
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This article was first published at Patheos.