Presidential elections are always heated, but this year’s feels even more intense — especially in a swing state like North Carolina in the midst of a pandemic. So how do you talk to loved ones across the aisle? These Charlotte therapists are here to help.
Whether it’s in-person, via social media, or over Zoom calls, managing relationships with loved ones who see the world differently can be a challenge.
On the one hand, you don’t want to stick yourself in an echo chamber, only hearing views that align with yours. But understanding how people you connect with well in other areas can have such a different perspective on the world feels confusing and frustrating. This is especially true if they’re presenting their opinion using hurtful words or false information — or, in the words of NBC News anchor Savannah Guthrie, like “someone’s crazy uncle.”
I talked to four mental health professionals in Charlotte about how we can preserve both our sanity and our relationships in the lead-up to the election.
Before offering some advice, each unanimously agreed that the 2020 election is having a negative impact on many clients’ mental health, so if you’re struggling right now, know that you’re not alone.
Natalie Huston, a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC) at Restoring Journeys says, “There’s definitely more polarization this year. There are lots of heated conversations going on on social media. People are expressing grief about, ‘I lost a friend because we disagreed and that’s disappointing.’ We all need relationships, especially right now with the isolation we have. Since we’re not face to face as much, it’s heightening things. If I don’t see you face to face, I can say whatever I want.”
If you’re wondering what to do when politics come up in person or on social media, here are some tips:
(1) Use the “greater than seven” rule.
If you see a political debate happening and you’re itching to chime in, Amy Jane Williams, LPC at Amy Williams Wellness, advises using her “greater than seven” rating system.
If you disagree with someone but can still listen to each other’s views respectfully, the situation earns a ten. On the other side of the spectrum, you’ve got a zero rating, where you disagree and there isn’t much in the way of mutual respect either.
“My recommendation is unless someone is over a seven, don’t talk to them about the topic. If you feel the need to speak up, just know it probably won’t go anywhere constructive. Maybe you need to say something and not be silent. Just know if they are less than a seven it will likely be more drama.”
Keep in mind, she says, that the ranking system has nothing to do with how much you like the person. It’s simply about gauging your ability to communicate with each other in a calm, respectful manner.
(2) Know your “why.”
Before engaging in a political debate, Kristy Yetman, an LCMHC at Yetman Counseling Services, says you need to be honest with yourself about your motivation for the discussion.
“Ask yourself, ‘Am I even curious about what this person is saying, or is my intention to win the argument and prove they’re wrong?’ So often I hear people talk about wanting to sit down and connect with someone, but the way they’re going about it is not in a connected way. It’s all about winning or losing the argument,” she says.
(3) Keep curiosity at the forefront.
Should you decide to engage, Huston stresses the importance of leading with genuine curiosity, rather than hammering home differences of opinion. She suggests using open-ended statements like, “Help me understand where you’re coming from” or “Help me understand your perspective” to keep things calm and productive.
(4) Prioritize the person over the opinion.
Williams says that some of the heaviness you’re feeling lately might come as you try to reconcile your opinion of someone you love with their opposing political views or hurtful social media posts.
She advises remembering that “people are complex and they have their own personalities and life experience. They can still be a loving, caring person to you, but have different values and belief systems.”
(5) Be intentional with your social media presence.
“We need to be thoughtful about our social media consumption,” says Juliet Kuehnle, an LCMHCS at Sun Counseling & Wellness. “We know that endless scrolling drives anxiety and depression. If you have a visceral reaction every time you see someone post, be aware of that. Take a social media hiatus if you need to.”
Keep in mind that the mute and unfollow buttons exist for a reason.
(6) Select the most effective communication strategy.
If you feel compelled to engage in a conversation with someone who has different views, Kuehnle advises knowing your audience before you proceed. “Some people may not care so much about the facts from some reporter they’ve never heard of, but they may resonate with hearing a personal story about someone that they know. You have to know who you’re dealing with.”
And lastly, don’t forget to acknowledge your privilege. Not everyone has the ability to opt-out of a politically-charged conversation, especially if their well-being is directly impacted by the issues at stake. “It’s a privilege to be able to decide to compartmentalize and let go versus engage in the fight. And I think that has to just be a very intentional choice that we make,” says Kuehnle.