How To Keep Your Family And Friends When You’re Political Foes
A primer on how to deal with conflict
Political differences have tested the limits of family and friendship long before the Trump era.
My introduction to familial political differences came from television shows in the ’70s and ’80s — All In The Family and Family Ties. Political battles are as old as politics, but the divergence of our beliefs has intensified the bad blood.
We can all point to an experience where a friend or family member spouts a political view so infuriating that we feel the need to educate and convert them. If they really infuriate us, we’ll trumpet the idiocy of their nonsense for everyone to hear.
These disputes slowly corrode your relationships like rust-prone metal exposed to water.
With the right strategies, you can prevent these disputes from turning into bitter clashes where both sides vow never to speak to one another again.
Ever since my teenage years, my friends have used terms like uncontroversial, non-confrontational, mediator, and peacemaker to describe me. All those descriptions bear some truth. My natural inclination is to ease tension rather than exacerbate it.
I’ve developed a series of strategies and rules over the last few decades consistent with those traits. These six strategies will help you prevent a combative argument from spiraling out of control.
1. The art of de-escalation
What do you when you reach that inflection point of an argument? It’s that point of no return where the next comment could destroy a relationship.
You’ve exchanged a series of insults and hateful remarks. Your blood pressure has kicked into overdrive, and your brain has summoned all available resources to line up the next zinger.
What do you do?
De-escalation is the strategy of choice. Before we get into the tactics, let’s keep one thing in mind. Anger requires fuel. The longer you starve anger, the more it dissipates.
Take a pause. You don’t have to respond to an insult within a specific timeframe. Take a deep breath. Let the other person see you take a deep breath. They might unconsciously mirror your behavior. The act of mirroring encourages bonding. This mirroring technique was a common strategy from days in sales. It works, and your opponent doesn’t even notice.
Control tone and body language
It’s not just your words. It’s your tonality and body language. Consider the phrase “I’m sorry.” Compare these two examples.
“Sorry for my comment,” he said sharply followed by an exaggerated eye-roll.
He sighed and lowered his head. “Sorry for my comment.”
Put yourself in the position of the listener. How would you interpret each example?
Admit your share of the responsibility
It takes two people (at least) for an argument to spin out of control. Recognize your part in that escalation, and it will de-escalate quickly. Sounds easy, right? It’s easy on paper, but in the heat of the moment, it takes enormous control and will to follow through. Best to take a pause first and starve yourself of that anger fuel.
“I can’t believe I said something so mean. Very unlike me.”
2. You can’t control others
But you can control how you act towards others, and that’s not all. This next statement might surprise you.
Everything you say or do influences others.
If you yell at someone, it will influence their response.
If you speak softly, it will influence their response.
If you mock someone, it will influence their response.
When you’re in that heated discussion, and you’re not sure what to do next, ask yourself this question.
My next statement or question will influence his response. What outcome do I want? And what response will likely trigger that outcome?
You can’t control others, but you can control how you act towards others
3. Disdain when antagonized
Few people ever deploy the most potent weapon in their arsenal. A sharp rebuke or counter-attack to an antagonistic comment sends us spiraling down a whirlpool of tit-for-tat barbs, each one escalating in intensity.
Complete disdain shuts down antagonistic talk.
When you acknowledge an insult or malicious comment you give it fuel. Ignoring your adversary requires emotional restraint, but you can do it. Take a pause and then another one.
Ignoring a comment may trigger resentment, but it will prevent the situation from escalating.
Nobody likes to be ignored. It stings. Once they recognize you as someone who uses this tool, they’ll think twice before making further attempts.
4. Don’t persuade
Everyone underestimates the difficulty of persuasion. It is harder than you think and impossible in the throes of elevated emotions.
Ask questions that will encourage the other person to persuade herself, but avoid setting traps. Get the idea of persuasion out of your head, at least during a heated argument.
If you eliminate persuasion as a goal of your discussion, you remove a chief source of contention.
5. Share a common memory
No matter your differences, you share one common love with your adversary — cherished shared memories. A walk down nostalgia lane can sanitize the bitterest of sentiments.
Pause your argument and use your current disagreement as a segue into a shared nostalgic memory.
Here’s an example.
Let’s suppose you’re arguing about immigration policy. Your uncle’s insistence on building a wall infuriates you.
“Hey,” you say. “This discussion reminds me of that time we went to Aruba and got stuck in immigration. Remember how you talked the officials out of a detaining us?”
6. Avoid bait and don’t set traps
Sketchy salespeople exploit this surprisingly effective tool to catch their prey in a contradiction. I used to know a few of them.
Here’s how it works.
“Are you 100% committed to your success?” they ask.
“Really? 100%. You’ll do whatever it takes?”
“Great. Now, all I’ll need from you is 10K to get started.”
That’s out of my price range.
“Wait. You just said you were 100% committed? Were you lying to me?”
That’s the basic outline. They get you to say yes a few times, but only to set you up for the big ask. Political junkies will use the same techniques. They’ll ask questions like this.
“Do you respect all life?”
“Do you abhor murder?”
“Do you think we should punish those who assist with murder?”
“Then how do you support abortion?”
They’ll get you to answer a series of yes questions, and then they’ll spring the real question to catch you in a contradiction.
Fighting this trick is super easy
Be on the lookout for questions with obvious yes answers. Do not answer them. Instead, ask for context or more in-depth explanation.
“Can you provide some context around your question?”
“Can you frame that question in a specific example?
If you’re too late to catch on, reframe their earlier questions.
“Oh, I misunderstood your earlier question. I thought you were talking about killing with guns. Can we start this conversation from the beginning?”
When you respond in a way your adversary least expects, it forces him to pause, regroup and exert cognitive effort. Only the most talented mouthpiece can recover without a loss of momentum.
Now that you know how to fight this trap, it should go without saying. Don’t set traps yourself.