Last summer, one of my best friends, Art, moved away to L.A. For years on most Saturday mornings we would go to the gym to work out and play basketball with the local pick-up games. Art was pretty good at shooting the rock so during the week I practiced my three-pointer at the neighborhood basketball goal to keep up. When we got together we would talk about our kids, our families and all the different aspects of our lives. We would share our challenges and our successes as well the deep inner fears that we all carry with us for ourselves our kids and our families, our lives and our world. I would share about my personal character defects that create problems in my life and Art would share his same insecurities and we would support each other in trying to grow and become better husbands and fathers through our life challenges. I would trust Art with just about anything and I miss him in my life since he moved to L.A.
However, Art is a republican and I am a democrat. Imagine that. We would sometimes talk about politics, but we both would be somewhat careful in discussing the different topics of the day because we didn’t want to ruin our friendship with arguments over issues where we were not going to agree. Art is actually my only close friend who is a republican and yesterday we were writing back and forth about the recent political turmoil and Art emailed me the following quote:
“Most people (me included) live in an echo chamber that reinforces our existing thoughts and beliefs. We surround ourselves with people who believe very similar things to what we believe, and we tune in to media and "friend/follow" people on social media that further reinforce our existing perspectives. And if we do run into people of the opposite political persuasion, we mostly try to convince them why our beliefs are right and their beliefs are wrong, rather than seeking first to understand the other person.”
Even though he is a republican, I have to admit that Art is absolutely right. Most of my friends on social media and most of the people I choose to have in my life share my political beliefs and values. I listen more to the liberal view points and I turn the station when I happen to hear conservative ideologies. I can easily demonize conservative factions because I am not in a respectful dialogue with others of that persuasion, and I imagine they can look down on me. I have republican acquaintances, but we don’t talk politics. If political subjects come up, we either get really defensive or change the subject quickly.
This “echo chamber” and this lack of a healthy political dialogue in the citizens of our country is indicative of the deep divide in our nation and goes to the root of our political problems. Our language is harsh and accusatory and our posts on Facebook and social media paint the other side with very harsh and dehumanizing rhetoric.
When people don’t feel heard and understood, then their positions and their rhetoric get more extreme and they resort to bigotry and hatred. This is when people start demonizing the other side and are willing to lie, cheat and steal to get what they want, because they believe the other side is evil. This right/wrong, black/white thinking is the problem and it happens in marriages, in friendships and between the different groups in our society. The political divide in our country has been created and supported by our compulsion to be right instead of collaborating, and by our unwillingness to listen to each other. This has created the conditions where unhealthy leaders who pander to the fears of their constituents are elected.
I do understand that when someone is bullying, lying, and being aggressive, then listening and empathy is not always appropriate. However, in most cases with friends, relatives, associates and most reasonable people, listening, respect and understanding is a good rule to follow. Respect is what we were taught in kindergarten and it’s what friends do. These principles of healthy relationships and good communication are too simple for complicated minds; it’s not rocket science or hard to understand.
It is important that each of us starts to have respectful conversations with each other across the political divide. I mean conversations to understand rather than trying to shout each other down and force our opinions down each other’s throat. As a therapist, one of the first things I do when working with a couple whose marriage is in trouble, is to get them to really listen to each other. In marital conflict, the first thing that stops happening is listening.
Seek first to understand before being understood
If you want to help create a more healthy political dialogue in our country, start on a personal level in your own sphere of influence. Offer to listen to someone you know who has the opposite political perspective. I strongly encourage you to begin a healthy dialogue with anyone you know from the other side of the political spectrum, and instead of telling them your opinion, offer to listen to theirs. See if you can give them the experience of feeling heard and understood by you. Agreement is not necessary, but understanding and respect is vital. If you listen to them first, then they might be willing to listen to you when they feel respected and understood by you.
Practice the following steps of active listening to begin to create a healthy political dialogue with the people in your life.
1. Listen for understanding rather than forcing your opinion on others. Agreeing with them is not necessary, only understanding. This models for them the behavior you would like to see from them.
2. Paraphrase back to them what they are saying and continue to ask them to share more until they say everything they have to say and get it all off their chest.
3. Do not share your own opinion when you are the listener, especially when you are emotionally activated by what the other person is saying. This is called interrupting and creates arguments when you are discussing difficult topics.
4. Give others in your life the experience of being heard and understood.
5. Once they feel heard, they might be willing to listen to you.
Active Listening is an important skill in listening to others. Practice it daily, especially when you are in conflict or disagree with another person. If you are interested in learning more about the active listening process, below is a link to the active listening process on my website: