If you’re a regular here on The Connection Crafts, then you’ll know that I consider hiding from conflict to be one of the worst things a person can do.
It causes resentment, and it hollows out relationships until they are useless husks. In short, it’s the number one enemy of long-term relationships of all kinds.
So you may be surprised to read that I believe there’s one exception to this “rule,” and that’s political debates – these should be avoided much of the time. Here’s why:
Why Political Disagreements Are Not Like Other Disagreements
Have you ever had a friend for weeks, months, or even years with whom you’ve been quite close – right up until your first political conversation?
I know I have – and as our presidential election looms I’ve seen dozens of people dissolve their friendships after bitter political disputes.
And if you’ve done this yourself, can you honestly say that the period before you first broached politics was somehow lacking? Was your relationship less than optimally satisfying just because you hadn’t yet discussed climate change, or abortion laws, or immigration policies?
I am willing to bet that the answer is “no.” And I’m even willing to bet that some part of you may even regret the day you ignored the famous no-no of polite conversation and delved into political discussion for the first time, even if you’d never admit it out loud.
The thing is, political disagreements are not like other relationship disagreements because we don’t have to discuss politics in order to have a relationship.
Contrast this with, say, a disagreement about the relationship itself – how your friend disappointed you during a time of need or put too many demands on you – these cannot be avoided. We have to talk about these things as they come up or we can’t keep our relationships healthy.
Political ideology can be an important part of our lives, sure, but so are, say, our bowel movements. We manage to be quite close with our many people in our lives without discussing those, don’t we?
Why It’s Tragic to Lose Friends Over Politics
Not only is it unnecessary to get into a terminal political disagreement with someone we care about, it’s also tragic because our political ideology is so much less a part of us than we realize.
Our political views are often in flux – and unfortunately, when they ARE in flux is when we want to debate them the most!
Oftentimes we get into the nastiest political disputes when we are first really “trying on” a point of view – that is before we really have all of the facts.
Which leads to the 2nd problem with over-identifying with our political ideology – we can never really have all of the facts in the first place; science and social science are constantly evolving.
But What If You Don’t Want to Be Friends With Someone Who Doesn’t Share Your Values?
Ok, but it’s not just about facts. It’s also about values. What if you just don’t want to be friends with someone who doesn’t share your values?
Consider that even values evolve overtime.
Ask any parent of a teenager, and they will confirm that it can be difficult to have affection for someone who values things you think are silly, ridiculous, or even morally appalling.
But we are all just bumbling around here on earth trying to figure it all out. Most of us are fundamentally good, even as we shift around in our views, trying to make sense of and find peace in this crazy ass world.
If you’ve had a friend for any length of time and you’ve never seen them hurt or take advantage of other people, then I’d argue that their political and societal values, even if utterly at odds with your own, do not represent a deal breaking interpersonal value clash.
That said, we all do have our non-negotiables. Which leads me to the 3 questions that I suggest you ask yourself before entering into a political debate with someone you care about and risking your friendship’s demise.
If you answer “no” to any of these questions, you’re putting your relationship in serious danger when you discuss political ideology.
3 Things to Ask Yourself Before Getting into a Political Debate with a Friend
1) If my friend disagrees with me on this topic, will I be able to stay friends with them?
Many of my clients share with me that they have certain non-negotiables.
But occasionally these non-negotiables end up sounding like the 3 mile long list written by the stereotypical overly picky dater – they are essentially an elaborate armor designed to protect the wielder from being too vulnerable and getting hurt.
Be mindful of this as you ask yourself if you’d have to eliminate your friend if you find out they disagree with you about a particular topic.
In my experience it makes sense to have a well-thought out, chiseled list of value-based non-negotiables. (Normally I like to give examples, but I am purposely not listing anything concrete here because I don’t want to get into a political dispute with any of you 😉 )
So figure out your list and keep it as small as possible. If the topic you’re thinking about discussing is on the list, then make peace with the fact that this conversation may be your last.
2) If I disagree with my friend on this topic, will they be able to stay friends with me?
Some people are inherently more tolerant of differing viewpoints than others. This is largely personality-based.
Even if you decide that you’d be perfectly fine discussing gun laws with your friend no matter where they come down on the issue, it’s equally important to know in advance if they have the capacity to tolerate views that greatly differ from their own.
Maybe you’ve gotten along great to date because you’ve bonded over your love of sports, or healthy eating, or marketing or who knows what else.
But has your friendship yet endured differences of opinion – say on parenting or lifestyle etc? If you’re not sure how they’ll react to big differences, you probably do not want to test this out by discussing a potentially hot-button political issue.
If you think they are generally pretty tolerant but you aren’t sure what their non-negotiables are, you also may want to tread lightly if you care about maintaining the relationship.
3) Will I get pleasure out of learning something new about this topic or about my friend as it relates to this topic?
I’ve observed that there are 3 main reasons we like to talk about political ideology (if I’m forgetting any reasons, feel free to let me know in the comments!).
a) We like the thrill of a debate and intellectual competition
b) We want to hone our own knowledge, both by practicing explaining our understanding to someone else and by learning new facts from them
c) We want to share our feelings and impressions of the world, to “be seen” in that sense, and to better understand someone else and how they feel about and make sense of the world
Unless the reason you want to have a political discussion is b or c, you may want to reconsider having this kind of conversation with someone you really care about unless you’re really sure you can both keep it impersonal.
Why? Well because a is essentially sparring. And you can do that with anyone, so why risk it with a friend?
If winning is what you’re after (and there is nothing wrong with that, it has its place), then confine it to a forum designed for that kind of debate – such as a convention or a local seminar or even the trusty internet.
If you want to deepen your relationship with a friend by discussing a political topic about which you can both tolerate differing viewpoints, then you should be approaching it as something expansive, either intellectually or emotionally (or both), not as a competition – or else you’re risking something very precious for no good reason.
It would be like rolling down a hill in your favorite white shirt when you could easily wear a ratty sweatshirt instead.
Protecting Our Friendships from Needless Stress Helps Them Flourish For the Long Haul
If you answer no to any of the above questions and you value your relationship, just avoid having that political conversation. It won’t enhance your life in any way, and you’ll likely be walking into an emotional landmine.
(I just this morning read that people who speak with at least 7 friends once a month or more have a measurably higher tolerance for physical and emotional pain).
If we protect a friendship, it can nourish us for a lifetime, but how many of us can honestly say that about our political views?