Raise your hand if you “unfriended” someone during the last election cycle – or since – because of political posts on Facebook.
One of the most common issues that I see among my clients is a feeling of loneliness. Even for those that are surrounded by other people, there is a pretty consistent feeling that most relationships they have are “surface” level, that they just don’t talk about things that matter with the majority of people that they are surrounded by.
I often wonder if this might be because we as a society have become so polarized, and many of the people that surround us agree with us on most things.
We can no longer appreciate disagreements – especially in politics – or look at them as learning opportunities. Most Americans have circles of friends that look like them, have a similar financial situation as they do, as well as the same political and religious beliefs.
I wonder if our collective loneliness comes from the lack of challenging conversations, and desire for personal growth - the exact kind of growth that comes from engaging in conversations with people that have a different perspective, or just plain don’t agree with you.
It’s probably not news to you, but our political environment is more partisan than it’s ever been before. People are drawing lines in the sand between themselves and their friends and family members without turning back, because disagreements about political beliefs are becoming non-negotiables.
There are many families that haven’t spoken to certain members of their family since the election in 2016.
We have begun speaking in generalizations (“liberals” and “conservatives,” “right” and “left,” etc) in a way that dehumanizes those around us – but for what?
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
“Giving up” on those conversations with people doesn’t win anyone to your side, but also doesn’t expand your thinking or challenge you to empathize with others that have a different experience than you do.
Check out these steps to begin having more meaningful political discussions.
Focus on the why, not the what.
As I mentioned before, there are reasons for this person’s beliefs.
And I know, in your head you are thinking “yeah, because they are ignorant to the facts” or “because they’re an idiot” or “because they are racist/uneducated/lazy/fill in the blank.”
But no, even though that’s the easiest assumption to make, it’s probably not quite accurate.
We all have the news sources that we believe in (and the ones we don’t). We all have strong opinions for why we are right.
But what if we changed the conversation?
I don’t want to know that you are pro-choice, or pro-life, or if black lives or blue lives or all lives matter more. In fact, I don’t even need you to know where I stand on those issues.
But I’d like to know why certain issues are so important to you.
Why are your hot-button issues the ones that stand out for you – the ones that are important enough to place a vote one way or another. What’s your story? What is your experience with this system, or this issue, that makes you feel so strongly?
If we start asking different questions, we may begin to get different answers. And when the conversation is left open, we are able to get a better understanding of each other.
When we understand where someone is coming from, we are much more likely to find a compromise, because it becomes personal. It becomes human again, instead of lines on a page in a bill, or a slanted headline.
Remember, behind every issue is a real-life, human person. One with a story and a life and an opinion that matters.
Listen to understand.
In couples counseling, I often have to tell clients to stop trying to prove their point. In a spousal relationship – just like any relationship – if you want it to grow and thrive, you have to listen to your partner.
And you don’t always have to agree.
If you understand where someone is coming from, and where their beliefs come from, you may be able to agree to disagree easier than two people that just continue to shout their point across the room.
“THEY ARE PROTESTING FEELING UNSAFE IN THEIR SCHOOLS.”
“THEY ARE PROTESTING GUNS.”
“WE SHOULD HAVE GUN REFORM.”
“YOU JUST WANT TO TAKE OUR GUNS AWAY.”
“THERE IS NO REASON FOR AN AR-15 TO BE SOLD TO THE PUBLIC.”
“AR DOESN’T EVEN MEAN AIR RIFLE.”
“BUT THE FIRST AMENDMENT”
“BUT THE SECOND AMENDMENT”
As this conversation continues to happen across our country, there are very few instances in which anyone gets past this point and finds a solution to the issue.
Just like in marital discord, when you stay focused on being heard, you never get a chance to listen and understand the other side.
Believe the best.
Most of us can agree on many of the issues in our country.
Our constitution is our foundation.
People should be treated fairly and respected as human beings.
Children shouldn’t get killed in schools.
Police officers have a difficult job.
People of color shouldn’t have to fear for their lives.
In every conversation, if you can look past the sparkly conflict in your face, you can find a common ground. You just can.
For couples dealing with parenting issues, we start with “we both want what is best for these children” and we can build from there.
For politics? Maybe it’s “we all love having the freedom to live in this country, and want to be safe to live life in the pursuit of happiness.”
If we start from that foundation, then we are believing the best of one another. That eliminates the “idiocy” and horrible moral character that we sometimes default our explanations for other people’s views to.
Pick your battles.
If you take nothing else from this post, please hear this: Social media is not the place where people go to change their minds. Your battle will not be won in the comments section.
Although it may be possible to get through to a stranger about your perspective and have a dialogue that moves a conversation forward via Facebook, it isn’t likely.
If your friend posts something that you disagree with, the challenge here isn’t to tell them all of the reasons that they are wrong. It’s to ask them to coffee to hear more about it. To talk about why they agree, and what in their life experience led them here.
On Facebook, it could look like this:
“Hi ____, I see that we may have a differing perspective on this. I’m challenging myself to learn more about the “opposing” side and why your thoughts are so different than mine. I’d love to chat more in person about this, if you’re open to it. No debates, no agenda – I’d really just like to hear your take and learn.”
In person. That’s the key.
Staying behind the computer screen keeps us wrapped in the loneliness that I mentioned earlier – but just this small statement allows you to be vulnerable, and have a face-to-face about something that challenges you. These two things are the main ingredients to vibrant and healthy relationships – even between those with differing views.
There is, of course, a time and place for this statement as well. Uncle Jimmy that is literally a card-carrying member of the KKK – he may truly have different values than you do. When you are making relationship decisions based on outwardly proclaimed beliefs and values, that is very different than assuming that Aunt Jackie is a racist because she supported X politician, or X policy.
None of the things that I’ve listed here are easy. Not one of them. Vulnerability is hard. Opening yourself up for disappointment is hard. Even trying to understand people that seem very backwards from you is hard.
What do you hear yourself pushing back on while you read this?
What can happen if we begin to open ourselves up to those outside of our circles, and really listening to their experiences, their pain, and their concerns?
We can humanize them. And there can be so much personal growth in that process.
Calling someone an idiot is easy. It’s flippant, dismissive, unkind, and most of the time it is a way to excuse your own ignorance to their perspective.
Exposing yourself to new truths and accepting feedback from those outside of your circle, with a goal of truly understanding other experiences – that is how relationships grow past “surface” level and begin to feel fulfilling.
Need more support than what a blog post will give you? Want to learn more about how you can get rid of those lonely feelings and dig deeper in your relationships? Contact me here to learn more about my services.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a licensed professional counselor serving South Carolina. She provides relationship and identity counseling online for busy moms and professionals. You can read more about her here.