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Three ways to diffuse the tension


I’m a libertarian, and I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by people who disagree with me politically. Most of these people (like me, when I was younger) live in something of a bubble, and are convinced that theirs is the only right and moral way to see the world. If you disagree, they think, you might be a bad person.

In spite of that, I’ve managed to keep and even deepen relationships with folks who were at various times tempted to cut me out of their life. I’ve even helped a few of them become less affectively polarized. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

1. When you’re talking politics and things get heated, stay non-reactive. If the other person yells at you and you yell back, then your anger becomes a post-hoc justification in their own minds for their anger. “Of course I’m justified in hating Julian’s side; look what he just said to me!” But when you stay non-reactive, the other person has to turn inward for the source of their anger. And inward is a much more productive place to look.

The civil rights leaders embodied this nonreactivity in a way that leaves me awed. No matter how often they were kicked or beaten, they never fought fire with fire. They recognized that a turned cheek was more powerful than a raised fist. As John Lewis, civil rights leader turned congressman, put it:

“The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest form[s] of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you.”

An old Arab proverb puts it more succinctly: “He who strikes the second blow starts the fight.”

2. Focus on the relationship. The times that I’ve helped someone become less angry or scared of the other side, it wasn’t by calling out their emotions or even their blow-ups. It was by focusing on the good in our relationship. The tacit (never explicit) message is: “I’m a libertarian, and you like me; so maybe we don’t all suck as much as you think we do.” We win over hearts and then minds, not vice versa.

A wise Christian once said, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” What he meant was: when you’re trying to persuade someone, actions are more powerful than words. When you can continue to love and care for people even when they show you their anger and fear (and even when those emotions are directed at you) you can open a lot of hearts.

3) Unplug from cable news and political fundraising emails. Both sell anger and fear, and neither gives you any real information about the world to balance it out. They’re the political equivalent of doughnuts: all calories, no nutrition.

I’ve seen this work almost overnight. When we stop pumping in anger and fear, we become healthier.

Affective polarization can warp our psychology to the point that we struggle to see people who disagree with us as fully human. If you’re trying to maintain (or build) relationships with folks across the aisle, sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is remind the other person that you’re a person too.

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