It’s undeniable that Joe Biden faces the daunting task of uniting the nation after a bitter election. On a smaller scale, the strong beliefs and emotions incited by political rhetoric this year have caused painful rifts in families and damaged friendships, as well. How do we heal these relationships?
If you want to heal a relationship damaged by this year’s political polarization, here are some steps to consider:
Separate the political belief or attitude from the essence of the person. They are so much more than one belief or opinion.
Reflect on what you appreciate in the person rather than the reasons you disagree. What do you like or love about this unique individual?
Find common ground. As citizens of this country, we are more similar than different. While we may disagree on some subjects, we likely agree on many more. Look for the common threads that link you to friends and family members. What do you share?
When a difficult topic enters the conversation, separate feeling from thinking. We react to hot topics emotionally before our thought process has time to kick in. Take a few slow deep breaths to calm yourself. Center yourself and think before you jump into an argument you’ve had before. Did it go well last time? No? Try reacting thoughtfully this time rather than emotionally.
When you’re ready to talk, start with the positive. “Dad, I appreciate the way you’ve always been there for me. I know that if I have a problem, I can always come to you.” Affirm you value the person with whom you are talking.
Do NOT qualify your sentiment. When we express the equivalent of “I love you, but,” that little “but” obliterates our opening affirmation. Dad just forgot your positive remark because the “but” tells him you’re about to unload what you think he has done, said, or thought that is wrong.
Instead of “but,” try “and.” “And” leads your conversation in a new direction. You appreciate Dad and want to say more. Perhaps you continue with, “And I value our relationship. I hate that this election has divided us. I miss our talks.” You could follow that with, “And I know we haven’t seen eye to eye on” — insert BLM, the election, masks; whatever you’ve argued about — and continue with: “I refuse to let that destroy our relationship and, when you’re ready to talk, I would like you to help me understand your feelings about it.”
If Dad explains his position, listen. Don’t formulate counterarguments or roll your eyes. Simply listen. Try restating what he said to see if you really understand. Hear why does Dad feel so strongly about his position.
If Dad asks to hear your position, don’t speak in absolutes or make accusations. Explain your position in terms of your own feelings. “When I heard about George Floyd’s death, I felt…” (angry, confused, bewildered, frightened, sad).
If you and Dad find a topic you truly can’t discuss respectfully, agree to disagree and avoid the topic. Respect the validity of his feelings. Ask him to respect yours. Affirm that your relationship is more valuable than either of you winning this argument.
Let go of the anger. Focus on moving forward together rather than rehashing old arguments.
We must acknowledge a political divide exists. Discovering our similarities while respectfully learning about our differences will makes us stronger not just as friends and family, but also as a nation.
DeLila Bergan, JD, MA, HEC-C. is a bioethicist, elder mediator, and retired elder law attorney. One of her clients received that 2:00 A.M. phone call and shared its emotional impact; details have been modified to protect the parties’ identities. To contact Ms. Bergan, visit her website