I don’t know your family. Or your many well-thought-out reasons why you don’t want to hang out with them and their crazy opinions, especially after this election. Or maybe you’re super stoked for Thanksgiving with The Fam.

Either way and regardless of your politics, I’m guessing that it’s pretty tempting right now to hole up and talk with people who agree with you. Let’s face it, that’s what most of us did in the lead up to November 8th, and probably long before that too.

This strikes me as a big, fat problem.

Conservatives and liberals are afraid of each other, and talking to each other less and less. So how do we move forward in a political system engineered to help us find common ground when we barely know how to have a conversation with a member of the other party?

Political conversation
Photo by Steve McFarland

I know this divide well, since mine is a family made up of liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, Muslims and Christians.

Before the election, we didn’t talk politics at all. But since November 9th, it’s been our main topic of conversation in texts, over the phone and on Skype. I’m shocked to report that the result of all this talking across political divides has not been debilitating waves of fear, anger and dread. In fact, I feel closer to my family than I have since I was a kid. This is not because everyone suddenly agrees. It’s because somehow, we’ve found a way to talk about our widely ranging opinions that leaves me wanting to call back or follow up with a text question rather than run far far away. We’ve stumbled upon a rare, cultural occurrence in this day and age; ours is the dodo bird of political conversations.

I’m working on an essay about this whole experience that I hope will get published on a larger platform, since I think our conversations can offer some hope and a way forward for families and friends who are feeling more divided than ever.

For now, let me share what has been helpful to all of us so far.

Stop trying to convert each other.

We all know what it’s like to have a crappy political conversation. It gets sweaty and fast, brows are furrowed, voices get tense, and talking points get volleyed back and forth. The whole thing lurches to a close with everyone feeling dissatisfied and trying to patch things up with inane sports or weather talk.

I suspect that these types of discussions suck because we walk into them with the goal of converting each other. Turns out that talking to people who are trying to change us feels patronizing as hell. It feels like they’re assuming we’re idiots or that they know better or both. And if you’re the one on a crusade, well, it gets lonely up there on your know-it-all high horse.

Stop assuming that people are their labels, and that you are yours.

As the dreamy Walt Whitman once said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Damn straight, Walt. Everyone you know is a person first and a liberal or a conservative or [insert political label] second. Since my family stopped assuming what we each think based on who we voted for, we’re discovering that few (if any) of us adhere to a strict party line on everything. So we actually have a few things—gasp!—on which we agree.

Start asking questions and actually listening.

It’s been awkward to try to understand each other without making assumptions, because it means we’ve been asking very basic and sometimes embarrassing questions, like “Has anyone ever been racist to you?” or “What’s actually so bad about the national debt? I remember reading something about why it isn’t so bad.” When you stop assuming, it means you actually have to ask questions to discover things. And the space that all those assumptions took up starts being replaced by good, old-fashioned curiosity.

Start sharing personal experiences.

Pretty much everyone I know would rather listen to a story about someone’s life rather than some list of bullet points about why they support some political ideology. When you dig deep into why you believe the stuff you do, I bet you’ll find some stories. Tell those. Ask others about theirs.

This other type of conversation I’m describing—this non-converting, non-assuming, curious, personal type of conversation—tends to not suck. You walk away thoughtful. Sure, maybe you’re still pissed or freaked out, even betrayed by Aunt Edna’s politics, but you learned a couple things you didn’t know about her, and maybe even started to question what you actually do think about the national debt.

This little list of Dos and Don’ts is essentially a recipe for openness, learning and respect, three things I want as the starting point for any family or nation of mine.

If we all had more practice having conversations across party lines in this way, I think we’d find ourselves in a different America.

That’s the America I want.


I know I’m not the only one having these conversations. If you have tips or tricks or revelations of your own in talking across the political divide, please share them in a comment below.