You don’t have to end a difficult relationship

I read a lot of posts on Facebook about people ending relationships because of political differences. The other common option I’ve seen is to avoid certain topics. Perhaps the latter choice is why politically diverse Thanksgiving dinners are shorter than ones that aren’t — people find it so stressful to avoid talking about the things that matter to them. It seems like the only actions we know how to do are the most extreme ones, terminating the relationship or pretending the discord isn’t a problem.

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I think we go for those more dramatic solutions because we don’t know another way. That happened to me. A few years ago, I was visiting with my Aunt Dot, my last living relative of that generation, when she said something about immigration with her immigrant caregiver sitting in the same room. I told her she was being rude and walked out. I didn’t call her, and she didn’t call me. I was still mad about how insensitive she was, but more than that, I felt stuck. I didn’t know what else to do. I never saw her again. She died about eighteen months later.  That’s a tear in the fabric of my life.

In the intervening years, I’ve discovered that there are other options. You don’t have to cut off the relationship or just not talk about the issues you care about.

One of my favorite readings on this topic says a relationship is like an equation, A + B = C, where the people involved are A & B and the relationship is C. If either of the people changes, then the relationships changes.

So, you — by yourself — can change the relationship. It doesn’t totally depend on the other person; you can do it alone. It may not change the other person, but it changes the relationship.

If you stop participating in an argument, the argument stops — that’s the avoid option that many choose.  Alternatively, if you start asking questions, the person has a choice of how to respond.

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But what questions can you ask that won’t add fuel to the fire? When I give presentations about my book, I suggest asking questions about the values the other person holds. Even though our values are so important to us humans that we fight wars over them, we never talk about them. They’re invisible to us. If we make these values visible, that changes the conversation and gives us something important to talk about.

If you’ve read my latest book, “Persuade Don’t Preach: Restoring Civility Across the Political Divide,” or know moral foundation theory from Jonathan Haidt’s work, you should be able to make a guess about what moral foundation is behind what the other person says. Then you can state what you think you’ve figured out about their values and ask if you’re right.  Next, listen to see if you are.

And then affirm, agree with what you can. If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll know that I believe all moral foundations are important and play an important role in society. The difficulties between us arise out of our diverse interpretations and differing degrees of importance. If you’ve read and thought about it beforehand, you’ll have a head start in knowing what you can agree with and how you can state your agreement. 

But it can be hard to get outside yourself. I’ll give you an example: One of the audience members in a question-and-answer session after a presentation said she wouldn’t know what to say to someone who was higher in respect for authority than she was. I suggested she might feel comfortable saying, “It’s important to have a trustworthy authority figure.” She seemed OK with that. That’s why you need to prepare. She couldn’t have come up with that herself, even after an introduction to my work.

If you want help developing your own statements, I’ve prepared a discussion guide for my book that takes you through some options. Or schedule a question-and-answer session for your group by clicking here, and I can help.

Once you do affirm the value, you’ll have talked about the elephant in the room in way that’s respectful and gets at the real issues underneath our disagreements.  

Plus, once you’ve done this, you may find an opening to state what you feel. And if you can put it in terms of the moral foundations that they find important, they’re more likely to be receptive. That’s called reframing. If you want to learn more about reframing, my book Persuade, Don’t Preach can help. 

I wish I had had those skills in that last conversation with my Aunt Dot. I’ve worked out how I might have been able to reframe that conversation. If I could have had that ability, maybe I would have been part of the last eighteen months of her life.

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Relationships are all about choices. If you want to mend a relationship, if it’s a relationship that means something to you and you choose to use your energy that way, this newsletter has tips to help you in your journey.

Don’t let what the other person does define the relationship. You can choose how to respond if you have new tools.