How to Argue Politics Without Losing Friends

(Image credit: Mircea Maties/

The 2016 election has been an intensely personal race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Experts say the mudslinging between candidates is trickling down to the general public. What's an avowed Hillary-hater to do when she finds out her best friend has an "I'm With Her" sticker on her car? How does a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat handle the news that her father donated to Trump?

Politics can involve deeply held values and personal beliefs; it's too glib to simply tell people to "play nice," said Joshua Klapow, a clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Klapow hosts a radio show on relationships and has seen an outpouring of angst over political differences between families and friends this election season.

"We have bled over in many cases from beliefs and passion to criticism and contempt with our peers," Klapow told Live Science. [Election Day 2016: A Guide to the When, Why, What and How]

"People are blowing it," he added. "They're ruining friendships."

What's more, he said, the skills needed to argue politics productively are the same needed to manage disagreements about money, religion — even household chores. That's why Klapow wants to see more people pull it together and find a way to have difficult conversations without destroying relationships. Here are some tips from Klapow:

1. Be prepared

If you're ready for the possibility of uncomfortable conversations, you're less likely to be caught off guard, Klapow said. In an election season like this one, you're likely to hear statements you vehemently disagree with from friends, family and acquaintances.

2. Think before you respond

Don't respond reflexively to an offhand comment or social media post. A knee-jerk response gives you no chance to ask, "Can I be friends or acquaintances with this person even though they see the world differently than I do?" Klapow said. Hold off until you decide whether it's worth jumping in.

"Think before you act," he said. "Allow for differences in your social and love circle. And if you can't, be absolutely sure that you can't."

You may feel you don’t want that person's friendship if you can't agree on particular issues, Klapow said, but think carefully as you make that call.

"Is this worth my time and energy, and what will I gain and what will I lose by going down this route with this person?" Klapow said. "You'd better be honest with those answers."

2. Remember that campaigns have a job

The Clinton and Trump campaigns are doing their jobs when they fuel the fires of hatred toward the other candidate. Remember that the person you're talking with is influenced by the public discourse (as are you), Klapow warned.

"Weigh the impact of the campaign's message and this person's political views on who they actually are as a person," he said. Don't assume the worst possible motivations on the part of the other person. Republicans and Democrats encompass large groups of people who don't think in lockstep on every issue. [Life's Extremes: Democrat vs. Republican]

"We have to absolutely stop ourselves and ask ourselves if they are voting for a different party, do we know what that actually means about their individual beliefs about social, political and fiscal issues," Klapow said. "The answer is most of the time, 'No, we have no freaking clue.'"

4. Engage with respect, if you're going to engage

If you decide you're willing to accept the risks of a political discussion, do it with good grace.

"What you owe the other person is respect of their humanity. You may not owe them anything else, but you owe them that," Klapow said. "If you're going to have a debate, engage with them such that their political views don't instantaneously become your criticism of them personally, which is exactly a problem people have in arguing in general."

Klapow suggested fighting that urge with tips taken from the work of John Gottman, a psychologist who studies successful marriage and parenting strategies.

Keep cool. Take a few minutes to let your emotions simmer down so you can think clearly.

Soften your approach. Bring up topics of disagreement without blame, anger or criticism.

Talk about your feelings and use statements starting with "I" to communicate what you're experiencing and why. Don't argue with what you think (maybe mistakenly) that the other person is feeling.

Think before you speak. Rash words can do more harm than good, Klapow said.

End on a good note. Try to alleviate the tension with humor or at least a change of subject so you clear the negativity from the air before the conversation ends. 

"There is no reason for us not to have heated arguments and still retain our relationships with people," Klapow said. "That's the part, to me, that has gone awry."

Original article on Live Science.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.