Building trust, listening to understand, and setting boundaries can help you communicate effectively with a friend who has different political views.
If you feel it’s difficult to discuss politics with friends and family members these days, you’re not alone.
The political divide in the United States has been growing steadily for years. According to a 2020 Pew Research survey, the majority of Donald Trump and Joe Biden voters report having “just a few or no friends who support the other candidate.”
Debilyn Molineaux, president and CEO of the Bridge Alliance — a coalition of organizations across the political spectrum working together to promote healthy self-governance — and co-publisher of “The Fulcrum,” says that historically, cycles of intense disagreement within our society typically happen during times of large wealth gaps between the working class and wealthy elite.
“The social contract has broken down,” she says. “We need a new one, and we’re arguing about it.”
Although we’re more polarized than we’ve been in modern history, it’s still possible to have productive conversations about political beliefs.
“Difference and disagreement are healthy and necessary for a thriving democracy,” says Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer on education and faculty director of the Human Development and Psychology master’s program at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“We need to disagree on issues so that we can learn and gain from different perspectives,” he says.
When a friendship is built on a solid foundation of mutual trust and respect, it can likely endure political differences.
Good quality friendships can be important to mental health. A 2019 study suggests that strong friendships might contribute to having a positive attitude about life overall.
Findings in a 2010 study suggested that strong friendships might even be linked to a longer life expectancy.
“[Friendships] can give us a greater sense of meaning and purpose, help relieve stress, help us through hard times, and make life more enjoyable in general,” says Vinita Mehta, PhD, a clinical psychologist and media expert in Washington, D.C.
“And for those who have difficult or toxic family relations, friends can be chosen family.”
A good friendship can add value to your life. According to a 2021 study, good friends can provide:
- a sense of social support and companionship
- encouragement and help developing and sticking to healthy habits
- positive impacts on self-esteem and life satisfaction
But not all friendships meet these criteria, and you may choose to end the relationship if it’s no longer serving you.
“If you’re walking away from interactions with a friend consistently filled with negative feelings, then it sounds like a time to reflect on what is happening,” says Mehta.
People often seek to connect with others who share their values and belief systems. If you feel as if a friend doesn’t share your values, it could cause a divide. Political beliefs are no exception.
“Politics [have become] a really big part of people’s identity, so [some might] feel a threat to their identity when engaging with someone who has a different view or a view they feel is harmful or misguided,” says Ciaran O’Connor, chief marketing officer of Braver Angels, an organization seeking to depolarize American politics.
O’Connor also attributes some polarization to the fragmentation of today’s media.
Social media algorithms and partisan media outlets, such as conservative Fox News and its liberal counterpart MSNBC, contribute to polarization by putting people in echo chambers. Two people can get very different information, depending on the outlets they watch or follow.
If you feel a friendship is otherwise solid, and you want to avoid breaking it up over political differences, here are some communication techniques you can try.
Build a strong foundation
It can be tempting to launch into a political debate. Still, if your goal is to maintain a friendship and have a constructive conversation, O’Connor recommends first building trust with the other person.
You might do that by talking about the things you have in common, discussing issues you know you agree on, or really getting to know the person and trying to understand their values and lived experiences.
“For people with very different political views to remain friends and understand each other, there needs to be a strong foundation of respect and openness to listening to the other side, even if there is disagreement,” says William Chum, LMHC, a psychotherapist based in New York.
Listen to understand
Instead of going into a conversation with the goal of making your point or changing the other person’s mind, try active listening — listening with the goal of understanding the other person’s views and perspective.
To do that, you can:
- use “I” statements
- paraphrase what the other person says and repeat it back to them
- ask questions to learn more about their values
Jessica Hare, DSW, MSW, vice president-outreach at American Promise, advises practicing effective and efficient communication and setting boundaries to keep things respectful.
It’s a good idea to decide on boundaries before starting a conversation where you and your friend have vastly different political views. Here are some boundaries you might try:
- agree to hear each other and still accept that disagreeing on the issue is OK
- decide not to cut each other off while speaking
- allow for either party to ask for a break if they’re having strong feelings
What this might sound like
If Hare wants to communicate a boundary, she’ll say something like this:
“I respect your angle in our discussion, but I feel myself getting frustrated or overwhelmed. Is it OK if we pick this up at a later date when I’m in a better mental space?”
Check in with your feelings
Try to check in with yourself and observe how things make you feel during a discussion. Is the tone of your voice changing? Can you feel your mood shift?
If things are feeling too intense, it might be time to set a boundary.
Molineaux says she monitors her own triggers internally and will take a step back if she feels herself escalating and wanting to be right or prove a point.
Although things seem divided, there are still some subjects most of us agree on — such as caring about our country and corruption caused by money in politics. These can be good topics to discuss when you’re looking to find common ground.
Weissbourd says a key finding from his research is that people aren’t as divided as we might assume. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to a 2021 survey by the Making Caring Common Project agreed with the statement, “In the end, we’re all Americans. I genuinely care about all Americans no matter their political views.”
“So much of the fundamental problem in the country is that people feel like nobody is listening to me,” says Jeff Clements, president and board member of American Promise, a nonpartisan organization working to organize Americans to amend the Constitution and address unchecked political spending by corporations, unions, special interest groups, and wealthy individuals.
By “nobody,” Clements means the government and elected officials. He believes every American should be represented in our political system, but not everyone is being heard right now.
“Very large donors to campaigns are heard a lot by elected officials and the media,” he says. “They have a big voice and a big wallet.”
Voters polled across the political spectrum seem to agree. A 2018 poll conducted by the University of Maryland found an overwhelming bipartisan majority sees the importance of reducing the influence of big campaign donors.
A 2018 Pew Research report found that almost two-thirds of the public support limits on political campaign spending and see news laws as an effective way to reduce the role of money in politics.
Deciding to end a friendship over politics is a personal call. Every relationship is different, so you’ll ultimately want to take stock of how you feel when interacting with the person.
There are times when it might make sense to close a chapter on a friendship. Still, it’s also possible to maintain close relationships with people with very different political beliefs. It just might take a little patience and practice.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of political conflict,” says O’Connor. “So many people aren’t achieving anything outside of making themselves angry and anxious. Having the conversation is a way to get to the heart of the issue.”