With an ongoing global pandemic and a deeply polarizing political climate, things can feel a bit overwhelming at times.
The US political climate is particularly toxic right now. I know this first-hand. Over the last two years, I have become increasingly outspoken against President Trump and those who enable him, especially on social media but also in person. This has put me at odds with my own circle of family and friends who voted for him.
While I believe it was important and necessary to do so, I have often taken time out to reconsider how I communicated with others, the particular word choices I’ve used and the tone of my voice. I’ve asked myself if I said or did anything that was unhelpful, wrong or even unethical in the process of my speaking out. Was I too harsh? Too angry? Uninviting? Perhaps hostile?
My honest response. Yes. At least, at times.
Had I the chance to do some things differently if I could go back, would I? I believe so. Hindsight is 20/20 as the saying goes.
This does not mean I am apologizing for speaking out or that I am committing to not speak out ever again. Rather, I am saying that some of the ways I have spoken out and the things I have said have not always proved helpful. At my worst, I have been rude, belittling and unconstructive.
What would I have done differently?
1. Make a concerted effort to humanize those I disagree with.
Everyone arrives to their stated and unstated political views through a process of time. And this process usually started very early in life. For all of us. Political views are like religious views; they are felt deeply, and usually this is because they have been nurtured for years. In fact, they have been likely formed over the span of our lives extending from our childhood upbringings, our education or lack thereof, our work experiences, our churches, our friendships and other environmental factors. It’s important to remember that everyone I disagree with has their own story of how they arrived at the place they are now in. They are human beings just as I am. It’s always better to see people as humans who are struggling to figure out this complex-crazy-beautiful-hopeful world just as I am doing. While it’s natural to have emotions and those emotions express our humanity, if we’re not careful, we can let our more reactive feelings rule us or control us.
2. Ask more questions (especially thoughtful and creative ones).
A question, especially when it’s asked respectfully, creates the space for meaningful discussion to happen whereas simply telling people how you think they should believe usually turns people off. It’s not that I didn’t have anything to say to people. I did. And a lot of important things to say. But most people, including myself, don’t like to be told how to think or what to believe. Especially if our critique is a political one. There’s a reason we shouldn’t bring up religion and politics at work, or for that matter at Thanksgiving dinner at the in-laws.
3. Listen just as much as I speak, perhaps more.
There’s something powerful about listening. It’s not a popular thing in our culture. The partisan environment we are currently in can be quite hostile at times. Unfortunately, I have contributed toward that hostility at times. Again, it’s not that I or we should never speak out about perceived injustices or share my opinion. But if we are willing to speak and request that other people listen to us, it simply makes sense to also give them the opportunity to speak. Although speaking about our views is important and has a place, you and I usually won’t change someone else’s mind on a political view or political candidate simply by talking them into believing how you do. They may, but healthy communication means taking a seat, shutting our mouths and giving space for others to talk.
4. Let go of the need to be right.
I like being right. Don’t you? I like the praise and affirmation that people think I am right. I feed off Facebook “Likes.” It’s tempting, even addicting. But if being right is what is most important to me or any of us, we will often base our relationships purely on the extent to which our friends, family and coworkers agree with us. Healthy relationships have to be about more than agreement in everything. As great as it is to have people agree with us, especially the people we care about the most, needing people to agree with us in order for those relationships to work demonstrates an unhealthy or immature relationship. It’s more like a form of slavery. It’s means we are enslaved to the opinions and views of others. It also means we always have to be in control. Respecting and accepting the individuality and uniqueness of other people means being willing to give up some control. Not all control; some control. It means being in control of ourselves without being controlling of others.
Meaningful relationships simply don’t work when one or more people are controlling. Meaningful relationships can’t actually grow and deepen unless we are willing to be vulnerable. And vulnerability means both being ourselves and giving space for others to be themselves around us. Yes, this involves risk. But healthy relationships allow for risk. And yes, risk means there will be conflicts. But conflicts are an inevitable part of life. They are also part of the beauty of life. Risk and conflict are forces that cause us to grow as human beings. They make relationships better. “Yes man/woman” relationships are shallow. They can’t really grow or expand and deepen.
5. Make political conversations an opportunity to learn.
Political conversations tell us a lot about ourselves. Not just about what we believe or what others believe, but about how we deal with political disagreement. If engaging in political conversations are only about being right and winning arguments, then we will never learn what our friends, family and others believe and why they believe it. We will also never allow room (or give space) for the opportunity to learn from them. If we assume we always have the “right” answer, there is no place or space to learn from others. I have come to see that even with those I disagree with most, I can learn something from them, not least in how to practice responding constructively.
6. Give my energy to productive conversations.
Not every political conversation I have had over this year has been constructive. And sometimes it was because there was a natural stopping point that either myself or the person I was talking with didn’t take (but should have). There were times it became apparent that after sharing my view and listening to another’s view, that it wasn’t helpful to continue the conversation. We learned what we were going to learn. To continue the conversation only meant that our priority was to be right, change the other person’s mind or demonize the other view (which in the end makes them “the enemy” in our mind). When those options become our only options, we know we don’t truly care for that person. At least, not in the way healthy relationships work.
I hope my six rediscoveries help you in the growing partisan divide.
Would love to hear from you. Please share any stories of how you have overcome political clashes with people you know when there was disagreement. Include any mutually beneficial political conversations as well. Click here to share those.
*PS: this post does not mean I have given up on providing thoughtful and challenging critiques about our current political environment. It does, however, mean I will make a concerted effort to engage in those conversations with humility and open handedness (both online and in person), as far as it is up to me.
Photo credit: Josh Ness