3 Tips for Building Bridges Across Political Divides

Our political divisiveness has gotten so bad that it often feels like we’re in a state of war. Battle lines have been drawn, and we now see our main mission as taking out the other side before they destroy the country.

When we feel like we’re in a state of emergency, it can sometimes feel like we need to take immediate action and change other people’s minds right now. The problem is, that’s generally not how it works. We don’t change minds, we change hearts. And it takes time.

So how do we do that?

In Part 1 of this series, I gave 3 strategies for getting political conversations off on the right foot and avoiding disaster. But, of course, we want to aim higher than just not burning bridges; we also want to build new ones.

So, this week, here are:

3 strategies for building relationships across the political divide:

1. Take a long-view

If we want to fix our toxic political culture, we need to get out of the trap of only thinking short-term. Yes, there are immediate problems that need to be addressed right now. But we cannot fix all of our long-term problems with short-term solutions. If we want to solve our social and political problems, we need to be able to work together. And it can take time before our relationships are able to support the weight of politics. We need to build the bridges before we can cross them.

If you’re anything like me, you might find it hard to be patient. We have an aversion to idleness and a bias toward action. We want to do something. And we want that something to give us immediate results. Establishing relationships doesn’t always feel productive because we don’t always see the results right away.

In order to see the benefit of establishing relationships, we need to widen our perspective and consider what relationship building is: an investment in the future. Having positive contact with people who are different from us can increase empathy and reduce stereotyping, even when it comes to politics. Researchers have found that people who have at least some close friends in the opposing political party feel less coldly about those in the other party and they hold fewer negative stereotypes about them than those who don’t.

So, let’s get out of our political silos and remind ourselves of the benefits of investing in relationships with people who are different from us.

Let’s get out of our political silos and remind ourselves of the benefits of investing in relationships with people who are different from us.

2. Focus on what you have in common

How do we build these bridges? How do we build relationships with people who have different beliefs and values than we do?

We start by focusing on our similarities, not our differences.

Talking to people who have different political beliefs than we do can be hard. We worry that we won’t know what to say. Or that we’ll feel judged. When we think about what we have in common with the other person, it makes us less anxious about interacting with them. When we feel less anxious, we expect our interactions to go better. And, when we expect our interactions to go better, they actually do tend to go better.

So, when you have opportunities to talk with someone who holds different political beliefs than you, don’t start by focusing on your differences. Start by thinking about your similarities. There is a lot more to our identity than just our political party. What do you have in common? Do you both have kids? Similar careers? Do you share a joy or running? Reading? Soccer? City life? Synchronized swimming?

3. Don’t make it an “us” versus “them” fight

When you’ve established your foundation and are ready to talk politics, continue focusing on your similarities. Don’t make it an “us” versus “them” fight. Don’t send the message that only people in your party care about a particular issue. People resist influence when they see it as coming from an out-group. If the reason we give them for caring about an issue is that a group they distrust and dislike cares about it, not only does that fail to give them a reason they should care about it, it actually gives them a reason not to care about it.

And if you send the message that caring about the issue would mean going against their own party, that gives them a further reason not to care about it. If we want people to support an issue, we shouldn’t make it unnecessarily personally costly for them to do so. Before holding out hope of getting those on the other side to abandon their political party, we need to remember that one of the most powerful human motivators is the desire to belong. If we force people to choose between policy and their party, studies show they’re likely to choose their party.

It’s far easier to get Republicans and Democrats to work together on an issue than to get everyone to join the same party. And it might be just as effective. Finding a goal that you share with the other side puts you on the same team and can actually help “undo” our ingroup favoritism.

Having a shared goal doesn’t mean we need to address the problem in the same way. Instead of appealing to your own party’s authorities on an issue, find someone they trust. Find ways that their party can support the issue. Even when we’re trying to reach the same end, there are often many different ways to get there.

Note: This is Part 2 in a series on how (and when) to talk politics in today’s tense political climate. Click here to read Part 1: How to Talk Politics Without Destroying Your Relationships or Getting Yourself Fired: 3 Tips for Avoiding Disaster.

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*Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash


Originally published at Jen Zamzow.