How to talk to friends with different political beliefs

September, 2022
Alexander MargulisThomas Zhang

Most people tend to stick to friend groups where all the participants share similar political beliefs. It’s much easier to be friends with someone if you’re able to bring up politics without immediately wanting to yell at each other, but unfortunately, what’s easy isn’t always what’s best for our high school community. Fostering discourse with people who have different political opinions than you is vital because politics becomes highly sectionalized and extremist when open lines of communication don’t exist where Democrats, Republicans, and third-party supporters can all share their views. The Asper Institute supports this idea, explaining in 2018 that when you talk to people outside of your usual political spectrum, you both begin to care about each other more despite your political differences, a key first step in rebuilding our seemingly derelict American democracy.

Of course, you’re probably heard this spiel before, but if you’re like most Americans, you’re still a little unsure of how to actually discuss political issues with people that you’re sure you could never agree with. Thankfully, the process is pretty simple. All you have to do is find someone with different political beliefs than you, which shouldn’t be too hard, as it’s extremely unlikely that someone agrees with you about everything. Even at PHS, where it can seem like most of the school leans liberal, you can find students who don’t share your policy priorities by joining a new club, or sitting with a new group of kids at lunch. Then, once you’ve found a new friend (or an old one who you want to start discussing politics with), talk to them! Your conversation doesn't have to be about politics at first (and probably shouldn’t be, because you don’t want to appear confrontational), but if you take the brave first steps towards shifting the conversation to that domain, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First of all, frame the talk you two are going to have as a discussion, rather than as an argument,, and don’t go into that discussion hoping to “win”. Every time two people have a conversation, they create a discursive space. Imagine that your space (which you can leave at any time) is valuable, and worth maintaining and protecting, and it’s both of your jobs to make sure that sharing information and listening to each other's opinions is valued over just trampling over each other’s viewpoints. You shouldn’t prepare clever comebacks, or damning one-liners — as long as that discursive space is one where you can listen to your friend, and where both of you can take each others insights and use them for the better, it’s a space worth being in.

It’s also important to remember that your friend isn’t wholly responsible for the political issue you two are discussing. It’s important not to immediately jump to anger, even though almost every issue you two will discuss probably has real world implications that could end up hurting people both of you care about. You two are not the arbiters of which policies are actually passed, but by communicating calmly about the policies that are up for discussion, you can have a productive conversation that makes it more likely a solution you can both agree upon can come into being.

There are times where it’s better for you to unceremoniously exit a conversation, rather than trying to keep it going against your better judgment. If your friend says something blatantly racist, sexist, homophobic, or simmilarly problematic, it’s okay to step out of the discussion. You shouldn’t feel like you have to bear deeply hurtful comments just to have a conversation with a classmate, and it might be smart to get a teacher or administrator involved. Additionally, if either of you get heated enough over a political issue to just start throwing personal attacks at each other, you can and should just leave the conversation.

You should treat the conversation you two will have as an almost academic one. Recognize that your friend, no matter how outlandish their opinion may seem to be, probably has plenty of valid and important pieces of information to share with you. Actively listen to what they say, instead of nodding along while secretly preparing for a witty retort. If you are not familiar with a topic, then say so! If you have nothing to really share about something, it’s probably not a topic worth spending time on. Move on, find where your opinions clash, and discuss that issue together.

It’s likely that neither of you will have changed each other's opinions by the end of your conversation. That’s okay. What you will have done is created a space where you can understand and communicate with each other better, both during the conversation and in the future. That is the single most important first step towards rebuilding connections within our fractured political sector, and it is something that we should all strive towards, if American democracy is really something we value.