12/12/2011 10:56 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2012

When Friends Are on the Opposite Side of the Aisle

Marilyn groaned when she saw Al Springer (names have been changed) elbowing his way towards her husband John. The two men have diametrically opposing political views and have had heated arguments in the past. Marilyn had warned John to keep his distance should Al come up to him. She cringed at the thought of any scenes. Sure enough, Al made a cutting remark that would be sure to get John's blood boiling. And, despite John's promises to the contrary, he took the bait and hotly contested Al's position.

Lately, it seems that wherever we go people are talking politics. And, no, it's not just humdrum discourse. People have become very emotional, with a lot to say about what's happening around them -- whether it's the economy, Obamacare, domestic politics or the state of the world at large. And, very often, they're not in agreement.

Unfortunately, there have been many instances where seemingly friendly debates have escalated into ugly screaming matches and personal attacks -- with the incensed parties swearing they will never speak to each other again. Election day is not around the corner so we'd better come up with some survival strategies if we're to get through the next year!

Let's assume that most of us are well-intended folks who are passionately committed to our causes. We may deeply fear that implementing the policies of the other side would be the demise of our country. However, even if we believe in our hearts that our way is the best (or only) direction for our country, we are not entitled to shove our positions down everyone's throat.

There are times we may get so fired up about issues that we lose the perspective that we are talking to friends. Deciding ahead of time whether to engage in political sparring (and how involved we will ultimately become) can head off vicious confrontations. If someone decides to egg us on, we are not committed to entering the fray. We have every right to say: "I'm off duty tonight" or "Let's table this."
If we do decide to take this on, some basic etiquette would be appreciated. We can't force others to behave appropriately, but we can set up guidelines that might maintain a modicum of decorum.

First off, we must size up the audience. People have become so consumed by politics they seem to forget that there is a whole world out there. It's refreshing to have other interests. Be aware that the other people might be turned off, bored or feel totally ignored.

Also, one never knows who might be in the room and how things will be perceived. It might be OK to rib uncle Max, who has enjoyed the political wrangling without causing family upsets. However, it's wise to err on the side of caution with our boss or biggest client.

It's always important to clarify what we are trying to gain from the conversation. If we're with people who enjoy a spirited discussion of differing viewpoints, with an openness to learn more about issues, it's one thing. If we're looking for a soapbox to show off our superior grasp of the issues, dominating conversations by preaching and lecturing, we could become quickly unpopular!

I may be stating the obvious, but, of course, we have to be tactful and dignified!! Even if we KNOW we are right (and the other person is a misinformed *@##&&**) better to keep these thoughts quiet. There is nothing served by telling a friend he's out of his mind. It's arrogant and rude to smirk knowingly with disdain while he's speaking.

We can learn a lot by watching the talking heads on news channels. The pundits are often so busy trying to prove what they know that they lose all credibility by not allowing anyone else to speak. There are very bright people on both sides of the political aisle. Implying our adversaries have no brains is not only offensive, but also unfair. It's only right to let the other person speak up, even if it means biting our fingers to the quick while we listen.

If we're going to open our mouths in an authoritative way, we'd better make sure we have the facts straight. There's nothing worse than a know-it-all who doesn't know what he/she is talking about. With today's advanced technology, the other side may be busy fact checking while we're spouting off our misinformed drivel.

We should also give up the idea that we're going to change the other person's mind. We may have a shot of getting through if we speak reflectively and openly, asking the other person respectful questions. However, they will shut their ears and minds if they believe we are trying to push our belief systems on them.

If a political discussion begins to spiral out of control, it helps to take charge and be the "bigger person." We can remind each other that we're still good friends and certainly don't want to compromise the friendship. If we know the person well enough, we might even choose to hug them and say: "Even if I think you're off base, I still love you!!!!" A big smile may clear the air and help us look past the disagreement.

Most important of all, we live in a country that preserves our rights to speak freely. Friendships have unraveled because of extreme political views. Sadly, it's not uncommon to hear someone say: "I can no longer be in the same room with so and so. I can't stand to hear him talk about Obama/Bush/Perry or whoever." Deciding ahead of time that sometimes talking politics should be off-limits might just preserve friendships.

Linda Lipshutz, M.S., LCSW is a psychotherapist serving individuals, couples and families. A Palm Beach Gardens resident, she holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia and trained at the Ackerman Institute for Family Therapy in Manhattan. She can be reached in her Gardens office at 561 630 2827, or online at