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Can We Disagree Politically and Still Be Friends?
August 10, 2016
No doubt about it-this is an unusual political season and civil political discussions seem more challenging than ever. Living in the same town for thirty-plus years, I mostly spent time with friends who shared my political ideologies. Now settling in to a new home in a new state, I find that I have friends all over the political spectrum. I now have a much greater chance of engaging in political discussions with friends from "the other side." Because I value their friendship and believe I can learn from discussions with people who don't agree with me, I am trying hard to keep these conversations civil and preserve my friendships.

Identifying people who have successfully navigated their political differences and even formed close bonds inspires me. The friendship between the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg powerfully demonstrates the possibility for quality relationships among political opposites. In spite of their opposing ideologies, they remained good friends who socialized and took family vacations together.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of harmony among political opposites is the marriage of well-known political consultants James Carville and Mary Matalin. Married for twenty-two years, liberal Carville and conservative Matalin figured out how to be passionately devoted to opposite political parties and maintain marital harmony.

How do these famous political opposites successfully navigate their differences? "I attack ideas. I don't attack people" Justice Scalia reported in a 2008 60 Minutes interview with Lesley Stahl. "I'd rather stay happily married than pick a fight with my wife over politics" James Carville states in Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home, the book he and Matalin co-wrote about their life together.

Based on inspiration from these famous role models, conversations with friends and my own experience, I suggest the following approaches for fostering civil political discussions.

Be informed. Although it can be difficult to separate fact from hype, speaking truthfully promotes quality conversation and moves us all toward greater respect and better outcomes. Don Shelby, retired investigative journalist and Peabody and Emmy award winner, reported that he was open to those who had an informed opinion but had little patience for those who had an uninformed opinion and just wanted to complain. A little fact checking helps us be better informed. Described as "the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation", is one of many valuable fact-checking web sites.

Beware of Facebook. Opinions about what is appropriate and tasteful to post on Facebook vary. If certain posts raise your hackles, it may be helpful to use Facebook controls to limit updates. You can limit or hide posts you find offensive by clicking on the down arrow in the upper right corner of a post and choosing the option "Hide Post-See fewer posts like this." Conversely, think about what you post and how your Facebook friends might react to it.

Find Common Ground. In the midst of a political disagreement it can feel like there is no common ground. However, finding one area of agreement often leads to realizing there is more agreement than disagreement and opens the door to more respectful conversation.

Separate the idea from the person. Justice Scalia said that some good people have some bad ideas and you must be able to keep the two separate. Remembering that a bad idea doesn't equal a bad person helps to keep the conversation focused on ideas. I know lovely people who hold beliefs that seem unfathomable to me. Interestingly, the more I like and value someone, the easier it is for me to talk about our differences.

Practice good listening skills. It is so tempting to jump in with a rebuttal when we hear a contrary position, but it is important to understand the speaker's position before responding. Let the speaker finish the thought. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand what they are saying.

Speak respectfully. Political discussions can get emotional-fast. Speaking louder, faster or hastier often leads to poor communication, hurt feelings and damaged relationships.

I would love to say I practice all these strategies all the time, but sometimes I get caught up in the passion of my position and communication falters. But I keep trying. When I am disappointed in how I handle a political disagreement, I debrief myself and identify how I could do better next time. With a few months to go before the election, there will be plenty of opportunities to improve.

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