15 Ways To Promote Civil Dialogue & Avoid Losing Family & Friends Over Politics

losing family over politics

Few scenarios evoke more intense emotions than witnessing how people respond to the evolving political climate. Debates seep into everyday conversations, divergent views risk erupting into arguments, and tensions are running higher and higher. While we are exhausted from disagreements, we find ourselves unsure how to otherwise navigate these discussions especially when we fear losing family over politics. It’s important to know, if you find yourself disagreeing with your partner, family member, or friend about politics, there are ways to disagree politically and still have a healthy relationship, even if you don’t see eye to eye.  

Dr. Gottman’s seminal research on predicting troubled marriages can be helpful in understanding the special challenges of politically-opposed relationships, and protecting their well-being. Rather than fixating on the topics of discord, Dr. Gottman’s research underscores the significance of the ratio between negative and positive conversations. Excessive negative interactions pose a substantial threat to relationships, elevating stress levels and straining relationships. Under stress, individuals tend to interpret their partner’s actions more negatively, perpetuating a cycle of pessimism. Whereas positive conversations help maintain connection and resilience. 

Effectively managing political discussions without allowing disagreements to escalate is pivotal in safeguarding a relationship’s well-being and reducing stress levels. 

Here are a few targeted suggestions to transform discord into discussion, and to make sure these discussions don’t become the main way you interact with a valued person in your life.

Are You Safe?

Psychological safety is one key consideration as you think about who is reasonable to discuss your political beliefs with. This concept is big in teams and organizations where you are affected by the power structure around you. Making sure to protect your safety is paramount to your success. In your personal life, you should feel more comfortable, and less concerned about your safety. But people you love and care about also have the ability to hurt you in ways they may not intend nor even see occurring. In all situations it is therefore important to consider safety, and setting boundaries around political discussions. 

One litmus test is to talk about a smaller issue and see how the person replies. Do they make it personal? Do they ask questions or let you speak your mind freely? Does their response cause you to feel judged as a person, as if something about you is “bad” or “wrong”? If you do not feel safe, setting ground rules may be the first thing you need to do before continuing. 

When Politics Divides Friends

Friendships are a rare commodity in our daily lives especially as we get older. And they are genuinely important to our wellbeing and our happiness. With belonging being one of the core aspects of happiness, according to Harvard’s 85 year long study, feeling accepted is a key longing for all of us. So what happens to acceptance and belonging if we don’t agree with our friends? Can we stay friends, and do we belong together? 

Perhaps when it comes to friendships, there is room to consider talking more about topics where there is a shared, mutual interest. Afterall, that’s often how friendships begin. How do you spend your time together? Going back to the place of what you have in common is a great way to reset your connection when you feel divided by political differences. (cite article from Jan)

Ideological Differences

When you do explore your differences, an open heart can actually become a source of strength and deep understanding. It can be comforting to remember that political views don’t have to define your relationship but can instead enrich your conversations and deepen your connection. Imagine engaging in discussions where different opinions are not just tolerated but celebrated for the unique perspectives they offer. Each conversation becomes a chance to see the world through another’s eyes, and to grow together rather than apart.

By approaching your differences with curiosity and respect, you open doors to a world where relationships thrive amidst diversity, and bonds are strengthened by the very discussions that could have weakened them. 

1) Listen with Empathy

Empathetic listening is an incredibly powerful tool for navigating political disagreements. It’s about actively and genuinely trying to understand your partner’s perspective, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak. Taking time to step into their shoes and consider their experiences and beliefs is the foundation of active listening, and is how we discover common ground or mutual respect. 

This kind of listening means working to put aside conscious biases and emotional reactions so you can hear what is being said with an open mind. This helps you to see another point of view, and convey your understanding of it. Rather than agreeing, demonstrating understanding is critical to respecting your loved one, diffusing conflicts, and setting the stage for common ground. 

2) Listen to Understand, Not Convince

Have you ever been in a discussion with someone who was only listening just so they could get the next word in? Genuine curiosity can be felt; you know when someone is listening with curiosity. In a similar way, you can also feel when someone is not hearing you or really interested in your thoughts, but merely is waiting for their turn to reply.  

When you listen to understand, the conversation is patient, with time for questions, meandering through topics and exploring details. When someone is trying to convince you of their point of view, the time is spent revisiting the points the speaker wants you to walk away with. 

If your goal is understanding, allow the other person to express their thoughts without interruption. Consider how they perceive the situation and why. How does their perspective align with what you already know about them? Listen with the intention to understand and acknowledge it when you do.

Remember, understanding doesn’t always require agreement, and sometimes showing empathy is more impactful than shared opinions.

3) Focus on Shared Values

Even if your political views differ, chances are you still share many values with your partner. By honing in on these common values, you can discover shared ground and bridge the gap between your differing ideologies. 

For instance, both of you may value family, community, or economic stability. By accentuating these shared values, you can shift discussions away from polarizing political topics to what truly resonates with both of you. This not only helps prevent conflicts but also fortifies the bond in your relationship.

4) Recognize the Stress and the Delicacy of the Situation

Understanding an interpersonal dynamic is the first step in doing something to change it.

We can’t change behavior if we don’t know what’s happening. If you and your spouse are feeling the pressure from your political debates (or arguments), recognize the impact your discussions are having on your marriage, your psyche, and your very capacity to have a civilized discussion.

Knowledge is power. And in this case, your power move is to take a deep breath and resolve to try something new.

5) Look for Common Ground

It’s crucial for the health of our relationships to grasp the perspectives of our loved ones. Yet, it’s not always easy when we have differing views, especially on topics we deeply care about.

Whether it’s debating a Supreme Court nominee, gun restrictions for the mentally ill, or media coverage of current events, there are plenty of opportunities for disagreement. Amidst these differences, it’s easy to feel distant from your partner.

If you’re feeling disconnected due to today’s news, instead of emphasizing disparities, try focusing on common ground. Can’t see eye to eye on a Supreme Court nominee? How about agreeing on the importance of the vetting process? Tired of biased news? Can you both agree on the need for careful listening and speaking out?

In times of high tension and exhaustion, disagreements heighten stress and lead to conflicts—conflicts that may not be necessary in your relationship and are often beyond your control to resolve.

Remember your shared duty to make your home a sanctuary of peace. By highlighting common ground, you can navigate conversations with agreement in mind, fostering resilience for the areas where you differ.

6) Work to Stay Calm

Keeping your cool during heated discussions isn’t just wise; it’s absolutely essential. In the whirlwind of political debates, it’s easy to get swept away by strong emotions and lose sight of what’s truly important. But here’s the deal: staying calm is your secret weapon. It allows you to think clearly, respond thoughtfully, and maintain the respect and love that form the foundation of your relationship.

When you feel your heart rate rising, take a deep breath. Remember, the goal isn’t to win an argument, but to understand and be understood. Visualize yourself in a place of peace and hold onto the fact that, at the end of the day, your relationship is far more valuable than any political disagreement.

Staying calm doesn’t mean suppressing your feelings; it means managing them in a way that they don’t take over the conversation. It’s about asserting your views with confidence, yet with a tone of voice that invites dialogue rather than discord. This approach not only diffuses tension but also paves the way for a more meaningful and empathetic exchange of ideas.

When you are able to stay calm, the invitation is clear that you’re open to a conversation. And it isn’t always easy to stay calm, especially when you’re triggered or you’re in a dialogue you feel you have been in many times before. If you find yourself unable to keep your cool, it’s completely fine to take a break. 

Relationships are longer than any political season and you can preserve yours by not saying things you regret. You leverage your emotional intelligence by not doing something that momentarily feels good but causes deeper harm to your relationship.

7) Set Boundaries

Establishing clear boundaries is a game-changer in any relationship, especially when navigating the tricky waters of political discussions. It’s about knowing when to say, “This topic is off-limits,” or “Let’s not go there tonight.” By setting these boundaries, you’re not avoiding important issues; instead, you’re prioritizing the health and happiness of your relationship over potentially destructive debates.

Think of it this way: some conversations can be mines waiting to explode, and knowing where they are lets you safely navigate around them. Agree on signals or phrases that you can use when a discussion starts to feel too heated or too personal. This isn’t about shutting down communication; it’s about creating a space where both of you feel heard, respected, and protected.

Remember, it’s perfectly okay to agree to disagree. Sometimes, the most respectful and loving thing you can do is to recognize that no amount of discussion will change the other person’s mind. Respecting these boundaries shows a deep level of care and understanding towards your partner’s feelings and viewpoints.

By confidently establishing and respecting these boundaries, you ensure that your relationship remains a sanctuary of mutual respect and love, even in the midst of a world that’s often divided.

8) Disagree with Respect

Emphasizing common ground will get you pretty far, but sometimes disagreements are inevitable. This kind of dialogue is lively and beneficial, and it’s okay to have different opinions as long as it’s done respectfully.

It’s not just about disagreeing, it’s how you handle disagreement that counts. Whether you’re presenting a different viewpoint or debating an ideological stance, strive to do so with respect. Listen without interrupting, acknowledge your partner’s perspective, and express your thoughts using ‘I’ statements while refraining from criticizing. Own your viewpoint, explain why you feel that way, and be clear in your communication.

And as you can, avoid judging your partner’s views; judgments often escalate tension. Remember, the aim of these intense conversations is to understand each other, not necessarily agree. It’s perfectly fine to agree to disagree.

9) Embrace Humor Wisely

Wherever and whenever possible, infuse your disagreements with humor! Enjoy a skit from your favorite weekend satire, share a hilarious meme from social media, or just pass on a joke you heard at work. Laughter eases stress, fosters happiness, and offers a fresh way to reconnect when needed most. Sharing humor brings a much-needed smile, lightens the mood, and fosters an easy connection during challenging times. 

We live in a world where humor, while truly one of life’s best medicines, remains tricky for many people. This year Jerry Seinfield gave the commencement address at Duke University and his cautionary statements about “losing our sense of humor” are important. 

Like him or love him, his insight into the value of humor is worth considering.

10) Speak Through the Language of Feelings

When a conversation becomes intense with your partner, aim to communicate in the language of emotions. Instead of discussing an event or situation, focus on expressing your feelings and how they connect to the situation.

For instance, rather than discussing the stranded travelers at the airport and how unjust the situation was, talk about how frightened and upset you would feel if, after enduring a 10-hour flight to attend your cousin’s wedding, you were held up at the airport and sent back home.

Feelings evoke empathy and understanding, while facts and viewpoints provoke arguments. Sharing your emotions helps your partner comprehend and empathize with your standpoint—ultimately, that’s what you seek.

11) Increase your Positive Interactions

Any relationship can handle discord as long as there’s a healthy balance of positive interaction! This is your opportunity to actively seek out positive topics to discuss. When’s your next vacation and where are you heading? What good things have happened today? Share a moment that made you laugh (that’s non-political). Find a positive subject and bring it into the conversation.

Let’s celebrate the positive moments and focus on areas unrelated to our disagreements. Think of it as a remedy for your relationship, not avoidance. This approach can also help reduce your stress levels.

12) Remember that Diversity Strengthens your Relationship

Can’t reach an agreement? Remember, his opinions don’t define him, just as yours don’t define all of you.

Contrary to common belief, expressing differing views doesn’t necessarily strengthen a relationship. Disagreements and diversity are natural components of any healthy relationship, fostering personal growth. Similar to how diversity enriches genes, financial portfolios, and the creative process, it also enriches and widens our relationships. We benefit from our distinctions, and striving for compromise aids our development.

Listening to comprehend, seeking common ground, and reaching compromises form the foundation of loving, healthy relationships, not only within our families but also within our government. This exemplifies care and engagement and serves as our privilege—and responsibility—as we nurture robust relationships and a resilient democracy.

13) Limit Social Media

The people we cherish the most truly deserve our utmost care and attention. At times, amidst stress, they might unintentionally receive less of it. It’s crucial to address any irritation with a partner before it causes harm. Respecting our loved ones and valuing their opinions, even in disagreement, is paramount. Remember, this is the person you hold dear.

Exploring mutual understanding and common ground can alleviate the strain of navigating today’s swiftly changing political landscape. In doing so, you may uncover newfound reasons to adore your partner even more.

14) Take a Break When you Need to

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, political discussions can get too heated and emotionally charged. It’s vital to know when it’s time to take a breather and cool off. This might mean changing the subject or wrapping up the conversation. Prioritizing your mental well-being and relationship health over winning someone over is key. Consider taking a break from news feeds, alerts, and social media if you feel overwhelmed.

Everyone needs rest and rejuvenation to recharge, and stepping away from stressful topics is essential for the long run. If you can’t completely cut out news consumption, try limiting discussions on such topics from time to time. Have a news-free chat or go out with the aim of avoiding the news, dive into a sports event instead.r movie. Find other things to discuss and do together that restore feelings of closeness.

15) Know How to Exit

Sometimes, despite our best efforts to maintain calm and find common ground, political discussions can take a turn for the worse. It’s crucial to recognize when a conversation is no longer productive or is escalating into a conflict. When you find yourselves stuck in a loop of disagreement, it might be time to gracefully exit the conversation. This doesn’t mean giving up on understanding each other or avoiding important topics altogether; rather, it’s about acknowledging that some moments aren’t right for these discussions.

A simple phrase like, “I think we’re starting to go in circles. How about we revisit this topic another time?” can be incredibly effective. Remember, it’s not just about what you discuss, but also when and how you engage in these conversations. Timing and mutual respect play massive roles in keeping your relationship healthy amidst differing political views. Know when to pause, and you’ll find that it’s possible to disagree yet still deeply connect on everything else that makes your relationship special.

If I can give you a take away from this discussion it would be this: don’t avoid the conversations you need to have. You can speak with your partner from a place of love and understanding even when you disagree.

To navigate political differences, find the places where you share common ground. If you can stay connected to those values, traversing the differences between you will be easier. And if I can help you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.


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Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

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