Over the last nine months, political anxiety has become a familiar theme in the working lives of American psychologists. According to the APA, the overall national anxiety level gone up substantially since last November, to the point where just about two-thirds of all survey respondents said they were stressed out about our country’s future (1). But even so, across this divided nation, supporters of Hillary Clinton and those who voted for Donald Trump come together regularly. It happens at the office, in your neighborhoods, or even in your family. No matter where you live, and how tightly you pack yourself into a “bubble” of like-minded political thought, you’ll eventually realize that someone you know well didn’t vote the way you did. It can be disorienting, or even distancing — realizing that a person you hold dear would disagree with your politics so passionately. You might feel like it’s impossible to speak to them about it at all.
But what if the people whose views differ from yours so strongly are the ones you love the most? How can we stay close to our families and friends in an age of such disunity and disharmony? How can we, collectively, avoid getting into political shouting matches with those we love?
The most important value one needs to uphold, when entering into a conversation with someone who doesn’t share your politics, is a lot like the one your therapist uses when you sit down in his or her office: empathy. Broadly defined, empathy is the ability to feel what someone else feels — to see the world through their eyes. As the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza put it, “I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.” That’s empathy in a nutshell: putting aside any feelings induced by the contrast between your loved one’s values and your own, and taking on the responsibility of seeing things their way.
When you have these conversations with your friends or loved ones, you’ll also need to maintain an open mind. Be curious! Ask open-ended questions, and listen to the answers without defending your own point of view. Armed with empathy, and with the willingness to put aside your biases in favor of simple understanding, you’ll find it easier to ask the hard questions and to accept the answers as valid for the person you’re speaking to, even if they wouldn’t hold water for you. You’ll most likely need to avoid engaging the other person on differences of opinion, as well. If your goal really is understanding, not debate, then you’ll have to put aside the need to persuade the other person to see things your way. You may hear about beliefs or values that aren’t relevant to you — or even “facts” you don't accept as fact — but if you’re holding on to your empathy, you will be able to accept that these notions are strongly held by your loved one.
You’ll also probably be able to identify some common values that you and your loved one share. Quite often, the two major parties disagree on the means to an end, but not on the ends in themselves. It’s common to be surprised by this when you realize that the neighbor who has always treated you so kindly, and whose generosity you’ve come to depend on, suddenly puts up a sign in his yard for a candidate you detest. Try to realize that your neighbor, like you, wants health, safety and success for his family, his neighborhood and his country, even if he has different beliefs about how to accomplish those goals. It’s the means we disagree on the most, not the ends. And it’s these common means-based assumptions that have enabled our relationships to thrive, throughout the years — to proceed without being made salient by a troublesome national election.
Lastly, it’s extremely important to be patient. We need to realize that it takes time to move from superficial understanding to long-term acceptance of interpersonal differences. This is true between lifelong friends, or spouses, or parents and children: each of us must recognize that there are significant differences between us and the people we love, but also that these differences do not eliminate the love we have for them. This also exemplifies a common aspect of growing up: individuation from one’s parents, which means generating and sustaining one’s own independence of mind. Perspectives will always diverge, but respect and love need not dissipate. Relationships damaged by political disagreements can be mended if both parties share a strong, genuine desire to de-escalate the conflict and to come together again.