As the November election approaches, people may be experiencing stress in relationships related to the political season. One in five participants of a recent study noted that differences in political views have damaged friendships and created conflict with family members.
Richelle Moen, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry in the University of Minnesota Medical School and a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist with M Health Fairview, explains how families and other social groups can navigate political conversations post-election.
Q: Why have personal relationships with family or friends suffered during this election season?
Dr. Moen: Our nation has become intensely polarized around many politically-discussed issues that people tend to identify with at a personal level. But, polarization is not the same as merely disagreeing about how to solve public policy. Polarization occurs when, for example, people refuse to live next door to someone who doesn’t share their politics or when they won’t send their children to a racially integrated school. And, there appears to be a norm developing for some Americans that the Freedom of Speech means you do not have to show respect with your speech in any form, including tweets, texts, emails and/or political discussions over dinner.
During the 2016 election, an ABC News poll found that 37% of Americans had experienced increased tension with relatives and friends because of this political divide. Something was different regarding these elections, including the level of disrespect shown and the increasing polarization in Americans. Since then, research from 2019 suggests that this polarization over the last few decades has really come at a cost — it has damaged friendships, ruined family reunions and disrupted work places.
Q: If you want to repair these relationships, how do you begin to do that post-election?
Dr. Moen: An apology or a relationship repair is strongly recommended in order to help start the healing process in relationships. The first step is to set up a specific time to meet or talk. Preferably, this apology is made in person, but it would work, too, if you can only do a COVID-friendly Zoom or FaceTime, where you can hopefully see the person.
The purpose of an apology is to acknowledge that you were wrong, to express your regret and remorse and to show you learned from your mistake. This four-part formula for an apology, includes:
- I am sorry for ____. (Be specific — “yelling, calling names, making fun or insulting, while arguing politics disrespectfully with you.”)
- I feel guilty for hurting you and for being disrespectful. Your friendship is important to me.
- I will be more respectful of you, your beliefs and opinions in the future. You have a right to your beliefs and opinions and to vote for whomever you want.
- I hope you will forgive me.
Q: For parents, how can they prepare their children for school post-election?
Dr. Moen: Children learn about “good sportsmanship” early on in grade school. I believe every parent who has kids in sports has had to sign a paper stating that they, themselves, as a parent and spectator at the game, promise to demonstrate “good sportsmanship” as well. Players, parents, coaches and officials all agree to treat each other with respect during games.
We should carry that learned idea of good sportsmanship into these political conversations with children, who may need to navigate these conversations at school. Talk to your children about the elections and how everyone has the right to vote for any candidate. Much like two sports teams competing for a win, there is only one president and their political party, so someone is going to win and someone will lose. But, it is still important, with good sportsmanship, to be kind to our opponents and show respect for their team — no name-calling, yelling, making fun, no matter the outcome of the election.
Q: As the holidays approach, how should people prepare themselves for conversations with family members of the opposite political view?
Dr. Moen: In some families, there is a spoken or unspoken “No Politics” rule. However, some relatives may not follow this rule. In other families, without such a rule, it is our responsibility to choose who would be the family member(s) to have healthy discussions regarding political views. Here are five ways to have a respectful dialogue:
- If you’re initiating the conversation, ask the other person if they are interested in hearing your opinion first.
- Talk about the reason behind your opinion and beliefs by sharing meaningful stories and using “I” statements.
- Remember, the other person has the right to their own opinions and beliefs. Make sure you validate those of the other person, too, even if you don’t agree. For example, you could say, “The right to vote is very important to you. I can tell that you are really committed to your political party. I see some political issues and candidates differently.”
- Accept that you are not likely to change their point-of-view or beliefs.
- Know how to respectfully end the conversation. You could say, “Thank you for talking to me about this. I need to take a break from politics right now.” Or, you could even excuse yourself to the bathroom.
Q: How can people use these strategies to manage relationships outside of political differences?
Dr. Moen: Validation is an invaluable skill to learn and practice, which can help us all to get through difficult conversations or disagreements in our everyday relationships. The goal of validation, as a communication skill, is to keep the other person listening and the conversation going. Validation helps maintain a relationship, where there are differences, and lets the other person know we are listening. When we notice our friend, spouse, child or co-worker becoming defensive, it is a cue that we need to validate something — feelings are often the most effective thing to validate. An example at work could be, “I can see that you are frustrated with my questions and the fact that I don’t want to be part of this project. You believe that I am being selfish and that this is unfair of me to choose something else to work on. I hope you understand why I am choosing to work on an independent project this time.”
Richelle Moen, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Medical School and a licensed psychologist and marriage and family therapist with M Health Fairview. Her expertise area is in individual, family and group therapy. Dr. Moen’s research interests are in teaching and supervising psychiatry residents, researching borderline personality disorder, and emotional dysregulation and self-harm.
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