The political divide has become a gulf, stretching, and sometimes breaking the bonds, that hold us together as family, friends, romantic partners, co-workers and neighbors. It may feel like a hopeless effort to reach someone lodged in their political corner, but like all rescue missions it can be done with some know-how, tools, patience, and practice. And the rewards of talking about political issues in a productive manner are immeasurable, salvaging our own relationships and the “soul of America” that worries both sides.

unsplash-smaller-768x432.jpgThe shift toward more people holding political views at one extreme or the other started in the late 1990s. This rise is attributed, in part, to cable news, which brought with it the 24-hour news cycle and needed ratings to stay on the air. The easiest way to keep people watching was to sensationalize what was going on, causing media bias to start drifting further one way or the other. Social media exacerbated this by creating an echo chamber where you only see information that confirms what you already believe. With this feedback loop in place, you see mostly things that match what you already think. Then our brain’s confirmation kicks in and actively seeks out more of those ideas, ignoring contrary information; it is no wonder our truth is the only truth.

An inability to see other information can certainly make someone stubborn, but the reason why offering up a differing political view feels like dropping an emotional bomb is because of a change in what it means to be a member of a political party. Instead of seeing political parties as groups with similar stances on issues, they now represent shared values and norms. This means they are part of our social identity. So when you provide alternative views, you are attacking their values and identity not the details of an issue.

This may make talking to someone on the other side of the political gulf even more disheartening, but it is helpful to know what won’t work as well as what will. Don’t expect them to bow to logic. Throwing facts at them or questioning the foundations of their values will only make them lash out in defense of their identity. Instead, recognize that they have values and an understanding of the world that is different from yours. Afterall, many conservatives live in rural communities whereas liberals are more likely to live in urban ones. It might be the same country or state, but those communities don’t operate in the same way. Approach the conversation with an open willingness to learn. Ask open questions. Listen without judgment or interrupting. If you want to change someone’s mind you must talk to them, and to talk to them, you must listen to and understand them.

Once you have heard them, they are likely to listen to you. Share your experiences. Use ‘I’ statements to keep your statement relative, even when sharing research data. Sharing stories is the best way for people to understand other’s experiences. The more stories you can tell of your experience and those of others, the more they are likely to listen to you. Over time their understanding will widen. They will become less absolute in their thinking and more open to change. And guess what, so will you.

About the Author

Heather Miller, (she/her/hers), Sr Supplemental Instruction Coordinator, Academic Support and Mentoring