Interpersonal Communication, Leadership, Our Blog

Connecting Across the Aisle: How to Talk with Family, Friends, and Colleagues about the Issues that Divide Us

By Tasha M. Troy

In early November 2016, I went in to work as usual and encountered a coworker who was quite distressed.  She was very concerned about what it might mean if Donald Trump actually won the US presidency in the quickly approaching election; I had concerns of my own about the election.  As I sat to talk with her, I had a very uneasy feeling about discussing political views so openly when I knew there were differences between us.

Despite our political differences, we are still friends.

Connective Conversations

It used to be that politics was a shunned topic.  People understood it could be divisive and so, unless there were pertinent reasons to bring it up, it was largely avoided.

Then 2016 happened, bringing political divisions to the surface and into our daily conversations.

Today, sometimes it seems that politics is all anyone wants to talk about.  Now, I live in the Washington, DC, area, so politics is always a common topic here.  However, I’m seeing social media posts from friends and family all over the country, and even overseas, making sure the world is aware of their political views and positions.

Surrounded by Diversity of Thought

I am blessed to have friends, family, and colleagues who embrace many political positions.

  • A friend from work still declares that he’s “with her.”
  • A friend from college “still feels the Bern.”
  • A friend from church is working to “make America great again.”

These are people that I am happy to have in my life, regardless of their political position.  They are caring and intelligent people, every one, and it would be a great slander to “demonize” them as “other” just for their political views.  In fact, I find that I agree with each of them on certain points, just as I disagree with each of them on certain points.

One thing I have learned through my years of interacting with people from all different backgrounds and walks of life: People take positions for reasons that make sense to them.  I believe that where the communication breakdown often happens is we discuss conclusions, not reasons.

There is always an internal logic behind beliefs and decisions.

Where Angels Fear to Tread

When I feel it is important to discuss the issues of the day, I have found it is essential to choose my engagements carefully.  The conversation with my colleague worked out because she was open to my perspective.  We had already established a strong rapport and we respected each other.  I haven’t been able to have similar conversations with everyone in my circle.

When I discover someone is entrenched in their views, I don’t engage in conversation or discussion with them on that topic.  The few times I have, I have come away feeling slighted or insulted.  Instead of threatening the relationship by engaging in a “battle” I can’t win, I simply listen and walk away.

Sometimes people just need to feel heard, and I am ok with that.  At the very least, I begin to understand them at a deeper level, and it helps to build trust.

Seeking Common Ground

When engagement does happen, I try to follow John Maxwell’s 101% Principle – I find the common ground and build from there.

Common ground?  With THEM?!


If you think there is no common ground between Republicans and Democrats (or other political positions), you are sorely mistaken.  I often find people from opposing sides have the same goals and aspirations.  While I realize that there are some out there with a distinct agenda, the disagreement among most is usually in the prioritization and implementation of achieving those similar and shared goals.

Tasha’s Tips for Controversial Conversations

Starting the Conversation:

When I want to intentionally connect with someone, especially over controversial topics, I start by asking, not telling.

  • What is their position?
  • What led them to that position?
    • Their experiences?
    • Their background knowledge/ studies?
    • Their values (personal/ religious)?

Then I listen to understand, only asking clarification questions.  This also gives me a chance to determine whether my friend is open to me sharing my perspective.

Remember – these are cross-cultural conversations!  The perspectives and views may be wildly different from your own.  Take time to understand where someone is coming from before you try to explain your own perspective and views.

Maintaining the Conversation:

Establish some ground rules to keep the conversation going in a positive direction.

  1. Both parties must be interested in conversation, not grandstanding or soap boxing.
  2. Emotions must be kept in check. If you or the other person starts feeling like you want to scream, it’s time to step back from the conversation for a little bit.  And don’t be surprised when this happens.
  3. Always communicate with respect and clarity. The authors of Crucial Conversations say that you need to be 100% honest and 100% respectful[1].
  4. You and the person you are talking with came to your conclusions by different logical paths. Share the information you gathered on that journey so that you have a more complete picture of reality.

The Third Side

Most political disputes assume a black and white approach, but so much of life cannot be so sharply divided.  When we embrace binary options, we all lose.  There is always a third option, a collaborative solution that is possible.  Are we willing to do the hard work needed to find it?

Take It Deeper

Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start.  If you would like to go deeper on this topic, I hold free exploratory coaching sessions each week.  You can register online at Troy Communications or email me to schedule an appointment at TMTroy@TroyCommunications.Net

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Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes Are High, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler.

[1] p. 22