If you’ve lost friends or developed contentious relationships over the course of this presidential election, you’re not alone. Steering clear of political conversations with loved ones—and unfollowing or hiding those on social media with opposing views—has become a common coping mechanism for getting through these long months leading up to November 8.
And while that may be the path of least resistance, experts at Virginia Tech University are urging Americans to reconsider this behavior.
“We need to find ways to empathize and understand each other, despite our differences, if we are going to solve the myriad of challenges we face,” said Todd Schenk, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public and international affairs, in a press release. “Instead of avoiding, we should think about how we can coexist.”
Schenk has research to support his view: To see if face-to-face interaction between people with opposing beliefs could increase feelings of empathy between them, he recently performed an experiment he calls The Frenemies Project. The project brought together individuals who had strong beliefs on either side about a hot-button political issue—in this case, immigration—who otherwise would have little contact with each other.
The volunteers took part in several scenarios designed to facilitate dialog between the two sides, including role-playing in which they were asked to briefly argue the view they opposed, and one-on-one discussions where they compared their differences and similarities.
The activities didn’t change anyone’s minds about which side of the issue they were on (you knew it wasn’t going to be that easy). “Everyone left just as passionate as they were when they arrived,” Schenk tells RealSimple.com.
But they did leave feeling more understanding of other people’s views, and in some cases, more willing to find compromise. “The experience gave them a chance to appreciate other viewpoints and see each other as actual people, so they felt less anger,” he says.
That feeling—empathy—is sorely needed in such a polarized political climate, agrees psychologist Scott Geller, Ph.D., director of Virginia Tech's Center for Applied Behavior Systems. Not only can it help us treat each other better, but it can protect against a phenomenon known as confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias occurs when we read and follow news (and opinion) sources that support what we already believe, and we filter out those that go against our views. It happens naturally based on the people we choose to spend time with, and where we choose to work or spend time. But it’s made worse by the self-selecting nature of social media, Geller tells RealSimple.com—even more so when we curate our news feeds down to only the voices we want to hear.
That may not sound so bad—after all, your side is the right side, you think; why should you waste time and get stressed out by exposing yourself to the wrong one?
Because you might learn something valuable about the other side, says Geller, or even about yourself and your own views.
“If we keep our views private or we only interact with people who support those views, we never really get to test them out loud,” he says. “If I test my perceptions of a candidate by voicing my opinion to somebody who feels differently, I might realize that I’m a little off; maybe I don’t feel as strongly as I thought. Maybe the other person is making good points, as well.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when passions run high and misinformation is everywhere. So while Geller does recommend being open about politics, he also has some suggestions for doing it in a healthy, productive way.
- Ask questions. If a friend or acquaintance is vocal about a view you don’t agree with, approach the conversation in a non-aggressive, non-directive way, says Geller: “Start out by asking for the other person’s opinion—‘Can you explain why you feel that way?’—and then give your own opinion in response.”
- Acknowledge their view. “Respond back to them by saying, ‘I understand you’re coming from a different place and why you feel that way. Here’s my background and why I feel differently,’” says Geller. Admitting that everyone has their own biases may help the other person see your side, as well.
- Take it offline. It can be extremely difficult to express compassion over social media, says Geller, especially in a semi-public forum like Facebook. (While he is a strong proponent of talking socially about politics, he’s not a fan of posting political views on social media.) If you really feel that someone’s online behavior is jeopardizing your relationship, he says, it’s best to put election talk on hold—and, yes, maybe even hide their posts temporarily—until you can sit down face-to-face.
- Give advice, if you must. Have a friend who’s constantly sharing incendiary memes or blatantly false articles? You might send them a friendly note, says Geller: “I'd say something like, ‘I’ve been reading your posts and they’re coming across pretty strong, and you might be influencing some attitudes about you that are unwarranted.’” Hopefully, he or she will take your advice and tone it down.
- Be reflective, not reactive. Finally, make sure you’re following the same ground rules you’d expect of others, he says. And think twice before posting something that may generate harsh feedback or land you in an exhausting back-and-forth argument. Most of the time, you'll be glad you held back.
- If all else fails, downgrade your relationship. If this election is bringing out personality traits in people you simply can’t accept—if an acquaintance or relative is posting racist or sexist rants, for example, and isn’t able to realize why they’re offensive—it may be time to reevaluate their status in your life, and in your social feed. "There are certainly times when more interaction just won't help and can, in fact, hurt," says Schenk, who adds that being a good "frenemy" requires a commitment on both sides. "No one should tolerate speech or behavior that is discriminatory, abusive or otherwise morally reprehensible to them." (Check out advice for breaking up with a friend here.)
Schenk, whose research focuses on collaborative planning and decision making, also recommends mending damaged relationships, if possible, after the election is over and tensions aren’t quite so high.
In fact, he's named November 9 National Frenemies Day. "It should be like a detox day, when we sit down and have coffee with people we’ve avoided or have been arguing with, and really start to engage in conversations,” he says.
Schenk’s best advice, though, can be put to use now: Keep it civil, and don’t get sucked into the mudslinging that’s consumed so much of this campaign.
"The vitriol and animosity this election season really have reached new heights,” he says. “We need to find ways to appreciate each other's humanity, even when we disagree."